While I will gladly drink cheap Cabernet or Merlot, I will never drink cheap-tasting ones. Nor should you. The key measure of an inexpensive wine is whether it successfully impersonates the pricier wines of its type. If a $10 Cabernet or Merlot can't pull off this trick with reasonable savoir-faire, it has no right to pass over your lips.
Fortunately, my recent tastings uncovered several price-busting Cabernets and Merlots. To find the best bargains, I used a time-tested method: throw a few $20-plus ringers into a blind tasting of $10 wines. (In a blind tasting, one may know the wines in the tasting, but not which wines are in which glasses.) Was I fooled? Well, not exactly. In each of the six flights of 12 wines, all of the $20-plus wines finished either first or second. That said, the good news is that identifying the two glasses holding the $20-plus models took more sniffing, sipping and swirling than I would have imagined. The blind tastings showed there's still plenty of surprise and delight to be found in the bargain bin.
In retrospect, the benchmark may have been too high. All of my ringers were wines that I knew to be excellent, the kind that might show well in the company of $40 wines. Had I chosen randomly among the $20-plus crowd, the contest might have been a lot closer. For the record, the ringers were Joseph Phelps Merlot Napa Valley ($27); Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon ($25); Chappellet "Signature" Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($26); Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley ($19); Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District ($30); Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon "Knights Valley" ($22); Markham Merlot "Napa Valley" ($20), and Steele Merlot "Clear Lake" ($25), all from either the 1995 or 1996 vintages.
The following wines offer truly excellent value. While they may not have won the competition, they will surely win many friends among wine consumers. Prices are approximate. If a wine is not stocked at your favorite store, ask your retailer to order it through the wholesaler listed in parentheses.
Turning Leaf (Gallo) 1997 Merlot "Sonoma Reserve" ($10-$12; California): Turning Leaf is best known as Gallo's entry into the highly contested mid-price territory dominated by Kendall Jackson. But don't confuse this stylish Sonoma Reserve with the mediocre regular Turning Leaf Merlot. Unlike its $8 kin, this slightly more expensive variant is a giant killer. The subtlely oaked fruit is pure, supple and soft, and utterly without the green, vegetal character that mars many similarly priced Merlots. Best of all, with Gallo's mass distribution, it should be relatively easy to find. Yet another example of how successfully Gallo has reinvented itself through its huge commitment to Sonoma County. (Forman Brothers)
Trapiche 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon "Oak Cask" ($9.50; Argentina): Intense and dark in color for a $10 wine, this lovely 100 percent Cabernet is marked by flavors and aromas of cherry, black currant and plush vanilla oak. Ironically, I preferred this to Trapiche's more powerful, but less polished "Medalia" Cabernet ($22). (Imported by Frederick Wildman/Forman Brothers)
Angove's 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Classic Reserve ($10, Australia): This wine came closest of all to the style of the ringers. For better, and I'm afraid, sometimes for worse, that style includes a brooding dark color, potent fruit, generous new oak and a big, tannic finish. Fortunately, this wine combines those components with aplomb. Interestingly, the importer of this wine is Neil Empson, a top Italian wine importer whose portfolio includes the legendary Tuscan estates of Fonterutoli, Poggio Antico, Villa la Selva and other Italian rarities. A native New Zealander, Empson is apparently rediscovering his New World roots. (Empson USA; 703-684-0900)
Errazuriz 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon "El Ceibo Estate" ($10; Chile): Firm, intense and concentrated, this red delights with layers of currant, plum and black cherry flavors. Finishes with a well-focused, fruity aftertaste punctuated with hints of cedar. (Forman)
Los Vascos 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon ($8; Chile): With a cherried plumpness missing from recent vintages of Los Vascos, owned by Bordeaux's Chateau Lafite, this Chilean Cabernet has a stylishness that mimics a fine Bordeaux cru bourgeois. Ironically, at a tenth the price, it captures the elegant, traditional "R" (for Rothschild) style better than some recent Lafites (though, to be fair, hardly Lafite's extraordinary quality). (Pasternak Imports/Forman)
Terrases de Landoc 1998 Merlot ($9; France): This fresh cherry- and herb-scented Merlot is a great match with summer dishes and light pastas. While there are many Merlots emerging from southern France, this remains among my perennial favorites. (Eric's Wines; 703 425-9463)
Tessera 1997 Merlot ($10; California): Supple Merlot fruit is skillfully blended with hints of oak and spice in this well-crafted wine. Great for sipping by itself or paired with a main course of fowl or light meat. (Seagram/Washington Wholesale)