Cabernet Sauvignon is the tough kid on the wine playground. It has thick skin, which gives its razorblade-like tannins. When it gets around to ripening on the vine—after all, it’s too cool rush into harvest—cabernet sauvignon can have eye-popping alcohol levels, making it hot on the palate. Its brooding, dark, smoky flavors only burnishes its James Dean image.
And, hey, there’s nothing wrong with loving this rouge grape with a heart of gold. Tens of millions of wine lovers seek out cabernets and not much else. Go to any wine shop and you’ll see a worldwide wine industry catering to cabernet lovers. To be honest, whether it is in a blend or straight-up, I probably drink more cabernet sauvignon than anything else. Too much of a good thing, however, can be boring.
Recently, within the course of about a couple hours, two dyed-in-the-wool cab lovers came into the wine shop and asked: “You got anything else?”
Lots of pseudo-cabs exist in the vast world of wine. Some—like the nebbiolos of Piemonte, Italy, the syrahs of France’s northern Rhône Valley and many interpretations of merlot—provide the hard-edged structure, dark fruit flavors and full-bodied nature that cab lovers crave.
Other pseudo-cabs, like some of the tannic, alcoholic pinot noirs I’ve seen pop up in recent years, come at the hands of crafty winemakers, who could pump up the alcohol and tannins of a glass of water.
The wine I ended up recommending to these gentlemen (with great success, by the way) was the Volver Tempranillo from La Mancha, Spain.
Tempranillo, Spain’s iconic grape, can reach impactful heights, but more often is better known for making medium-bodied crianzas, especially from Rioja. Take tempranillo out northern Spain and plant it in the forbidding, rocky soils of central La Mancha, where 100-degree summer days are not uncommon and you get a tempranillo with a different temperament.
As a defense mechanism, grapes will thicken their skins when facing challenging growing situations, such as those found on the Gran Llanura de la Mancha. Thicker skins equal higher tannins. Hot weather increases sugar levels, which in turn amplifies a wine’s alcohol level. The result? In the case of the Volver Tempranillo, you have a wine that moved famed wine critic Robert Parker (aka, king of the big, over-the-top cabernet sauvignon lovers) to say that he would “unquestionably” drink it as his house wine.
Castilla-La Mancha, like many long-established European wine regions, is rediscovering what made its wines a hit with Ancient Romans and Christian kings. With a little help from modern technology (drip irrigation, mechanical harvesting and temperature-controlled fermentation tanks), Manchegan winemakers can make modern, bold wines with a fair measure of finesse.
The bonus, in addition to being a refreshing alternative for tired cabernet sauvignon lovers, is that these wines come at a bargain price. So cab drinkers can scratch that itch without breaking the bank.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog