Apr 192010

Napa Neighbors Collide

I’ve stated often in this blog that you shouldn’t have to spend big money for a satisfying wine experience. There is more wine production going on worldwide than at any time in history, and on average much better production than in the past. There is a wine glut, and you the consumer are in the driver’s seat. But what about when you WANT to pay a little more for a really nice wine?

How about when you’re spending around $40 for a big, bold California Cabernet, the varietal that really put California on the map (along with Chardonnay)? That’s the focus of today’s SmackDown, as two Napa County Cabernets square off. Turnbull is located in the middle of Napa County, right off Rt. 29 in Oakville. It came highly recommended by the staff at Total Wine.

Chateau Montelena is at the northern end of the County, and is one of the most prestigious names in Napa. Its fame was sealed early, when its Chardonnay and Cabernet were judged winners in the famous Paris blind tasting of 1976 — an event chronicled (with plenty of poetic license no doubt) in the funny movie Bottle Shock. Gabriele and I really enjoyed a tour of the winery back in 2008.

I worked hard to minimize the variables. Both wines are 2006, and both are from the same region as noted above. We decanted both wines two hours before drinking, at the same room temperature. Both were tried on their own, and then with food.

First up was the Turnbull Cabernet. It had a big aroma, and almost exploded on my palate. Big blackberry and dark cherry fruit contained by nice tannins, with a taste of leather and a long, lingering finish. It was a dense wine, truly delicious with a taste of alcohol but in a good way, not overly. The wine did get a bit creamier and smoother when combined with food. This was everything a big, bold California Cab should be, with lots of aging potential.

A couple of nights later we had the Montelena Cabernet. It had an excellent bouquet that led to a much smoother, more restrained wine than the Turnbull. The Montelena was a medium-bodied wine, softer on the palate but then with a more tart tannin bite on the finish. The finish didn’t linger as long, and I tasted a bit more oak and spice. This wine didn’t change much when paired with food, and would probably pair with slightly lighter fare than the Turnbull.

So which won the SmackDown? For taste and for value, we went for the Turnbull. If you want a wine to make you or your guests say Wow, then it’s the wine for you. The Montelena would probably pair better with a broader swath of dishes, though for really big flavors I’d go for the Turnbull. It was also $7 cheaper, though prices may vary.

If you’re into wine you’ve probably noticed one difference between the wines. Turnbull is an estate wine, meaning it was made from grapes from a single vineyard and produced at that one location only. The Montelena was not — it was their “entry level” Cabernet so to speak, produced from grapes grown on different Montelena properties.

Why not compare estate vs. estate? Because Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet retails for $135. It’s no doubt a fantastic experience — Gabriele and I thought the 2004 Estate Cabernet was the best wine we tasted in Napa back in 2008. But that’s not how the SmackDown works; the prices have to be comparable. For me the huge price gulf indicates the great value the Turnbull Cabernet delivers.

What’s the most special Cabernet you’ve had lately? Drop a comment and let me know.

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