Although cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other so-called Bordeaux varietals are usually thought of as winter wines, they are also excellent choices for late summer and early fall when made in a lighter, fruitier style. Such "tropical weight" renditions retain the refreshing cedar and violet notes of the respective grape varieties, but ease up on the bitter tannins that give the more robust examples their aging ability.
This less-brawny structure makes them go well with grilled burgers, steaks and other outdoor fare. Should the weather turn torrid, summer cabernets can be served lightly chilled in the refrigerator or picnic cooler. Since they are not intended for the cellar, their prices tend to be modest compared with the heartier styles vinified for aging.
The following stood out in my recent tastings of these wines. Since these are new releases, some stores might still have the previous vintage, which isn't a problem with wines of this type. Prices are approximate.
Columbia Crest 2002 Merlot Columbia Valley Grand Estates ($11; Washington): With more than 300,000 cases produced,this is hardly a boutique offering, yet it conveys many of the silky nuances of an artisanal bottling. The bouquet offers Bordeaux-like notes of fresh cedar, spice and vanilla, followed on the palate by a fine balance between the ripe merlot fruit and toasty oak. Vinified to be enjoyed without further aging, this wine is best paired with beef or lamb; but because the tannins are light, it can also be enjoyed with light meats and poultry. Note: Don't confuse the Grand Estates merlot with the Columbia Crest "Two-Vines" merlot, which is somewhat cheaper but not nearly as good.
Big Yellow 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon "North Coast" ($11; California; Mendocino Wine Co.; call 707-463-5350): Although great packaging featuring the yellow and black motif of a Checker taxicab initially attracted me to this bottle, what won me over was the tasty wine inside. It's a bright, quaffable cabernet sauvignon with pure red fruit and cassis flavors, and a light note of clove on the finish. Though best suited as an aperitif, there's enough complexity and body to match with poultry, grilled salmon or light meats.
Dona Paula "Estate" 2003 Merlot ($15; Argentina) Dona Paula "Estate" 2004 Malbec ($15; Argentina): Both of these savory wines are great for the grill. The malbec is delicious, with abundant, upfront fruit and a fresh, grapy bouquet. The merlot is even more impressive, offering a ripe, spicy bouquet, and intense blackberry fruit nuanced by notes of cedar and earth. Both wines have impressive structure and concentration for the price range. Drink them now and over the next two years.
Dona Paula "Los Cardos" 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($10 Argentina); Dona Paula "Los Cardos" 2004 Malbec ($10; Argentina): Although Australia and Chile make good red wines in the $10 category, the prime place to look for such wines lately is Argentina. Its reds are more sophisticated than Australia's and have a cleaner, purer expression of fruit than Chile's. With the present weakness of Argentina's currency, they also cost less. These wines are prime examples of the value offered by Argentina. The cabernet sauvignon is stylish, with cassis and herbal fruit similar to that of a Bordeaux petit chateau. Its mid-weight body makes it a great house red. The malbec is bigger, fruitier and more robust, making it a good choice for serving with grilled meats. Both are ready now.
Gascon 2004 Malbec ($12: Argentina): Accented by notes of spice, mocha and vanilla, this well-made malbec offers loads of fleshy, mouth-filling fruit. Its smooth, tannic finish makes for a fine match with steak or grilled lamb chops.
For the Cellar
Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve 2002 ($30; Washington): Before spending $50 or more on a premium cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux or Napa, be sure to try this knockout value. It combines the seamless, balanced mouth feel of a classified growth Bordeaux with the ripe intensity for which Napa is justly famous. An intense bouquet of cherry, violets and fresh cedar leads to a palate layered with black cherry, cassis and mocha. The finish is particularly fine, with tightly wound tannins that smooth out on the back of the palate. This is a first-rate wine that can be drunk with pleasure now but that will also benefit from five to 10 years in a cool cellar.
Hess Estate 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20; Napa; winery, 877-707-4377): Sandwiched between the Hess Collection cabernet sauvignon ($40) and the humdrum Hess Select cabernet ($15), the Hess Estate cabernet is often overlooked yet consistently offers exceptional quality. Layers of plummy, cherry and cassis fruit are seasoned with vanilla and toast from ageing in French oak barrels and follow through to a long finish of ripe, soft tannins. Pair this full-bodied wine with grilled steak or lamb. Although it will benefit from short-term aging of six to 18 months, this is delectable now.
QUESTION Of THE WEEK
After an aunt passed away many years ago, my parents removed a few bottles of liquor and wine from her basement. The bottles remained in their basement for about 20 years until my parents offered them to me. Can you tell me if any of these items has significant value? Crown Royal Whiskey with 1967 IRS stamp on top; Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth Finest Sloe Gin (English); Lauders Royal Canadian Whisky Otard Dupuy & Co. (three-star); Cognac (cork intact, but stored upright).
I'm afraid not. These are spirits, which do not increase in value and are of little or no interest to collectors. Unlike collectible wines such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, spirits don't improve with age; nor are there rare vintages, which might be sought by collectors even if the wines happen to be past their peaks.
The good news is that unopened spirits don't deteriorate much with age. While I would dispose of the vermouth, the others should be okay, at least for mixing. This includes the cognac; unlike wine, spirits should be stored upright, off the cork.