Big Red Rivalry 

Sampling bargain Cabs from Zin country.

Oenophiles are used to thinking of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as friendly rivals, given the similarities in their French origins and flavor profiles, and the fact that they're usually neck-and-neck in the race to be the most-planted red grape in the world. What's far less common is thinking of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon as competitors. While Cab ages beautifully, inspires cult winemakers, and can fetch astronomical prices, Zinfandel is a drink-now, more populist sort of a wine that's often a bargain and is finally winning its hard-fought battle for credibility.

So it was something of a surprise this week to taste two Cabs hailing from regions we typically think of as Zin country: California's North Coast and Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. Not that these regions don't reliably produce decent Cabs, but they're far better known for their Zins — which are, in the case of Dry Creek, known to be voluptuous and full of berries and spice, while North Coast Zins can be jammy and even a bit floral.

Pushing the geographical confusion even further, the first wine we tasted is produced by a winery in another renowned Zinfandel region: the Sierra Foothills. The winery, deceptively named Sonoma Creek, is actually based in the Calaveras County town of Murphys, and as the "cellared and bottled" notation on its back label indicates, its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($13) is most likely made from bulk wine hailing from the Dry Creek Valley. That's a lot of obfuscation for what's basically a very nice wine — this week's favorite for Token Winemaker — with classic Cab characteristics. Its subtly oaky and slightly herbaceous aroma gave way to cherries on the palate and a lovely finish.

Less pleasing was the 2006 Monogamy Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) from California's North Coast, a regional designation that can mean it's made from a blend of coastal grapes from Napa, Sonoma, and/or Mendocino counties. In Monogamy's case, Napa and Sonoma aren't actually in the mix at all; this is a blend of 88 percent Mendocino grapes with 12 percent California Merlot. The resulting wine had a grassy, vegetal aroma and rich off-dry flavors on the palate, with its primary detractions being prune-y fruit and a cloying finish.

Leaving California, we headed to Zin-less Chile, sampling the 2007 Nuevomundo Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva ($15.99) from Chile's most distinguished source for Cab, the Maipo Valley. I thoroughly enjoyed an aroma I found fruit-filled and intoxicating, while Token Winemaker noted a green pepper bouquet. A nice medium-bodied wine that doesn't scream Cabernet, the Nuevomundo would be far more food-friendly than "bigger" examples of the varietal. And if you're looking for a great Chilean Cab at a slightly lower price point, the 2006 Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.99) gets raves from Chile's acclaimed annual Guia de Vinos du Chile.

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