Everyone has their favorites - favorite car, actor, football team, restaurant, and, of course, wine. I hear a lot of swearing of allegiances to cabernet this and chardonnay that. Pinot rules. No, the Rhone Rangers say it has to be syrah. Well, I say, put a cork in it.
We all have our preferences, and opinions about wine are highly subjective. A wine that I swoon for may be someone else's poison, and vice versa.
I do, though, have what I call a group of "red wine all stars," the top grape varieties from some of the world's top wine-producing regions.
They are varieties that set the standard for all others, and at the risk of offending those rabid pinot noir fans, that grape doesn't make the cut. My red wine all stars include cabernet sauvignon, syrah-shiraz, sangiovese and tempranillo. My apologies to all those nebbiolo and Piedmont lovers out there; love the wines, but they're too expensive.
Cabernet sauvignon is probably the one we're most familiar with since it's the bedrock of Napa and Sonoma valleys, and the most widely consumed wine in America. But it is also the mainstay of the famed wines for Bordeaux. Below is a brief description of each all star and a few recommended producers. Each, in my opinion, are guaranteed winners.
Not only is King Cab the most widely planted red variety in the United States, it is found nearly everywhere in the world. Cabernet sauvignon's heartiness allows it to grow and thrive in many different countries, though it's best known for its superstar Bordeaux and California versions. In fact, a famous taste-off in 1976 pitted California cabs versus Bordeaux in a blind tasting, with Napa's Stag's Leap, Ridge, Heitz and others coming out on top. The rest, as they say, is history.
When young, cabernet sauvignon can show some herbal-earth impressions with strong tannins, but with some age, shows more dark berry-cherry aromas and flavor. Those young tannins allow cab to age gracefully, and when properly stored, may cellar for decades. Prices vary from $10 to the $100s, but a recent tasting in the $20 to $40 reaffirms my passion for King Cab. Recommended California bottles within that price range: Dutcher Crossing 2005 Taylor Reserve, Joseph Carr 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Jordan 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley and St. Clement 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Syrah or Shiraz
Same grape, two different spellings. Plus, two different styles. Syrah is the esteemed grape of France's Rhone Valley, but it's also popular in California. The spelling also refers to the Rhone style, which is earthy, fruit-forward and food-friendly. Australian shiraz is made to be more ripe and muscular, perhaps due to the warmer conditions. Grange is the most famous Australian shiraz, and it's big, spicy and delicious. Shiraz is also grown in California and other places and is made into the riper, bigger style. One recent treat I came across was TAZ Vineyard's 2006 Goat Rock Syrah from Santa Barbara County. Cool ocean influences yielded a nicely balanced, juicy wine, clearly made in the syrah style.
Just reading the word makes me smile; I'm instantly transported to Tuscany and all those lovely chianti wines. The region has been producing wines since the Renaissance, and sangiovese has been at the center of it all. The best wines come from Chianti Classico, an appellation within the larger Chianti region. The wines are all about food. Sure you'll find some red cherry fruit, but the wines are more about balanced acidity and drinkability. Some of the most recognizable names that you can't go wrong with include Antinori, Ruffino, Frescobaldi and Banfi.
All the best wines in Spain are steeped in tempranillo, though it is typically blended with other varieties. Among the grapes listed here, tempranillo is probably the one that evokes more pinot noir impressions than the others. It can be soft and velvety with lots of strawberry-berry aromas and flavor. I've been a huge fan of Marques de Caceras since college and the passion still runs strong. The wine from the Rioja region is made from 85 percent tempranillo. Other solid, value-centric names to look for include Campo Viejo, Faustino, Riojanas and Marques de Riscal.