CLEVELAND, Ohio – Throughout the year we run monthly wine reviews that have one common trait: All cost less than $25. But for the holiday-splurgers out there, we’ll round up some of the higher-end offerings that have crossed our palates.
We sipped six vintages from multiple varietals. Our goal here is not to tell you to buy the wine; it’s to reveal what flavors our tasting panel detected. Occasionally, we liked a wine but thought it a bit too high in price, and we said so.
All these wines should be available in Northeast Ohio retail distribution, though vintages can change out. Our review is structured by price. With each wine and brief, one-sentence flavor descriptions we list the price and place of origin with abbreviations. At the end, we will list our favorite white and red wine we tried:
• Arg: Argentina
• Cal: California
• Fra: France
• Ita: Italy
• Ore: Oregon
• Saf: South Africa
• Was: Washington state
Here’s what we tasted. Pour a glass, pick a price point and peruse:
$100 and over
Soft cocoa notes precede an amazing, savory finish that lingers for a long time on the super-smooth 2017 Larkmead Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $135), which we sipped while noshing on cheese and crackers before a meal, prompting one tasting pal to say: “Forget the meal; I can eat this for dinner.”) … The delicious and not overly tannic 2018 Cliff Lede Magic Nights Rock Block Series Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $110) has soft oak notes, dried cherries and a little tar – and drew a unanimous thumb’s up from our tasting panel. … The 2017 Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $100) – actually 88% Cabernet Sauvignon with 6% each of Malbec and Merlot – has some bramble / baking spices and soft chocolate notes with moderate tannins; decant or let this one sit a couple of years.
$80 to $99
The 2018 Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $80) from Napa Valley has some baking spices and dark-berry / licorice notes, is not overly tannic, and a very long finish for a wine that went wonderfully with beef stew (we recommend decanting and hanging on to this for a bit).
$70 to $79
The drinkable-now 2016 Quinta do Crasto Douro Touriga Nacional (Por, $79) has chocolate and tar on the nose with blackberry, eucalyptus, refined oak and a creaminess on the finish. … The 2018 Far Niente Chardonnay (Cal, $70) has popcorn, butter and a creamy mouthfeel with a beautiful balance between acid and just enough oak; this is “what a Chardonnay should be,” a tasting pal said. … The 2018 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $78) is an intense, beautiful wine not overly tannic and with notes of milk chocolate.
$60 to $69
The 2018 En Route Les Pommiers Pinot Noir (Cal, $60) from the Russian River Valley smells like ginger snap and has notes of blueberry, baking spices, cola and lavender; our tasting panel loved this smooth wine, produced by partners of Far Niente, with one pal saying, “This wine has character.” … The 2017 Lion Tamer Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $65) is a creamy montage of blackberry and plum with a hint of tar, incredibly smooth oak and a long finish (a touch of Malbec is added). … The 2013 Vigorello (Ita, $60) – a blend of 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 30% Pugnitello and 5% Petit Verdot – is a light-bodied Super Tuscan with tar, tobacco / cigar and violet on the nose – a great sipper but needs decanting an hour beforehand. … The 2018 Justin Vineyards Justification (Cal, $60) – a blend of 66% Cabernet Franc and 34% Merlot – is creamy with notes of vanilla, blackberry-blueberry-dark fruits and baking spice, a wine definitely worth the price.
Side-by-side-by-side: We tried a trio of FEL Pinot Noir from California’s Anderson Valley: The 2016 Donnelly Creek ($65) had a pleasing herbal-tomato-basil-like flavor with black cherry and more tannins. The 2016 Ferrington Vineyard ($65) had similar notes but with more strawberry. And the 2017 Pinot Noir ($38) had almost stewed tomato and cranberry that changed quite a bit with air (we found this the best value of all three, though all were quite good and fooled us in a blind tasting).
Side-by-side: A pair of 2018 Eden Rift Pinot Noirs from California’s Cienega Valley – Reserve ($72) and Terraces ($64) yield an umami, mushroom, minty / eucalyptus black-cherry taste, with neither being a typical cherry bomb.
$50 to $59
The 2018 Cherry Pie Napa San Pablo Bay Block Pinot Noir (Cal, $50) is a little hot at 14.5% alcohol with notes of baking spice, black cherry, blackberry and dry, nominal tannins, and it’s not sweet despite its name (price seems a bit steep, though the winery’s three-county Pinot from the same vintage was worth its $23 tag.) … The 2018 Aperture red blend (Cal, $55) yields a creamy texture with notes of dark chocolate, Concord grape flavors, concentrated fruit on the nose, black pepper, licorice and has a very long finish from this complex Bordeaux-like blend (Cab Sauv, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot). … The 2017 Jax Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $49.99) has notes of licorice, chocolate, blackberry and bramble – and improved with breathing time – but we’d like to see this one come down in price. … The 2017 Prisoner Wine Co. Eternally Silenced Pinot Noir (Cal, $54.99) is hearty version of the varietal with fresh berries, some milk chocolate and red raspberry – and it comes in impressive wax-wrapped neck. … The 2019 Prisoner Wine Co. Pinot Noir (Cal $54.99) is fruit forward with notes of vanilla, baking and mulling spices and cranberry that went well with Thanksgiving dinner; our tasting panel enjoyed it, though I wasn’t overly impressed with the Sonoma Coast offering.
$40 to $49
We did a side-by-side of the delicious 2017 and 2018 The Prisoner red blends (Cal, $49), detecting coffee and blackberry in both (the ‘18 had a smidgen more tannins) though our blind-tasting panel had a tough time distinguishing these Zinfandel-heavy blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Charbono. … It’s tough to find a quality inexpensive Barolo, but we did with the balanced 2015 Damilano Lecinquevigne (Ita, $40), with tart cherry notes and nominal tannins. … The 2019 Jada Vineyard Viognier (Cal, $40) is a refined version of the style, definitely not fruit punch, with pleasant notes of pineapple, peach and apricot to go with decent acid, making this a fine aperitif. … The 2016 Quinta Do Crasto Reserva Old Vines (Por, $45) has notes of licorice, dried apple, currant, blackberry and dates, and is pretty tannic with a dry but long finish in this varietal amalgamation (mixed plantings, old vines with 25 to 30 different grape varieties). … The 2019 Simi Winery Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (Cal, $45) is a beautiful wine, smooth with soft, dark berries – a great value and wonderful sipper that held up well with turkey and vegetables.
Here’s a selection to consider:
brightcellars.com: Monthly club matches you with wines after you take a “palate quiz.”
cellarswineclub.com: Club allows you to choose the number of bottles you want.
splashwines.com: Choose a curated case or build your own.
winc.com: Four wines tailored to your tastes are shipped monthly. Has review component.
wine.com: Large online seller often offers new-customer discounts.
wineawesomeness.com: Three- and six-bottle curated shipments.
wineenthusiast.com: All-encompassing site for wine accoutrements – racks, glasses, openers, storage, gifts, more.
wineonsale.com: Allows you to select by varietal or region.
zachys.com: Includes a variety of ways to search/shop, plus has info on auctions.
$36 to $39
The fairly priced 2018 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $36) has coffee with raspberry in the background and a pleasing herbal finish. … The 2018 Dry Creek Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel (Cal, $38) has 19% Petite Sirah and 1% Carignane and is pretty tannic, with notes of raspberry, lavender, blueberry and red licorice (went well with smoked barbecued ribs). … You don’t see a whole lot of Chardonnays from South Africa, but the 2016 Stellenbosch Glenelly (Saf, $36) is a smooth, buttery, creamy one, with notes of lemon custard, orange and brioche that paired perfectly with sautéed scallops in lemon-butter herb sauce.
The very balanced 2018 Gary Farrell Chardonnay (Cal, $35) offers buttered popcorn on the nose and candied apple, fresh lemon and citrus on the palate – and a long finish. … The 2017 Umberto Cesari Liano (Ita, $35) is an extremely fruity blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon with nominal tannins and mint on the finish. … The fairly priced 2018 Rombauer Vineyards Zinfandel (Cal, $35) was amazing, with licorice and mint in a beautiful aroma and hint of cherry cola on the palate; it improved quickly with air on an appropriate night: We sipped it hours after Rombauer won the Preakness Stakes. … The smooth Bouchaine Estate Pinot Noir (Cal, $35) has notes of black cherry, is somewhat herbal and spicy, and has some chocolate and licorice. … The 2018 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $35) has pleasing toffee notes with blackberry and black-licorice flavors and is not very tannic. … The 2018 Dry Creek Meritage (Cal, $35) – 63% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot – has notes of baking spices, blackberry, blueberry and vanilla; we found it fairly priced. … The 2017 Angela Estate Chardonnay (Cal, $38) from Willamette Valley, Oregon, is well balanced and has some nice complexity to it: It starts buttery and creamy and finishes acidic, making it a good food wine that went well with salmon.
$31 to $34
We tried a side-by-side of Saldo Zinfandel from The Prisoner Wine Co., (Cal, $32) with the 2016 and 2018 both very drinkable and almost indistinguishable; both had cinnamon, raspberry, clove / spice and a faint, Bourbon-soaked cherry flavor. … The 2018 Dry Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $32) has notes of licorice, blackberry and tobacco with smooth, moderate tannins in this great-value wine. … The rich-tasting 2018 Dry Creek Chardonnay DCV Block 10 (Cal, $34) is extremely creamy with tangerine notes and went perfectly with shrimp and potato salad.
Tenuta Luce Lucente (Ita, $30) – a Merlot-Sangiovese blend – is meaty/savory with some cherry, blackberry, and is pretty subtle with a long finish and tannin on the back end. … The spicy 2017 Dry Creek Vineyards Dry Creek Valley, Hillside and Benchland Cabernet Sauvignon (Cal, $30) has a dark-fruits montage – blackberry, blueberry and plum – with eucalyptus and cranberry coming out as we sipped with pot roast. … The 2016 Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella (Ita, $30) has an aroma of fragrant roses and taste of black cherry with slight chocolate notes on the finish (went wonderfully with vodka-sauce penne). … The 2018 Kellerai Bozen Mock (Ita, $29.50) is a Sauvignon Blanc with some petrol on the nose with tangerine and fresh lemon notes with lime and saline on the palate preceding a dry finish. … 2018 Chateau de Rouanne Vinsobres (Fra, $30) is an undervalued delicious, versatile GSM that yields red currant and licorice on the back end. … The 2019 Windsor Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley offers up alcohol on the nose (surprising at 14.1%), with notes of cherrywood and luxardo cherries and a hint of almond. … The silvery pink 2020 Minuty Rose (Fra, $30) is a high-end version of the style from Provence, with strawberry and a smidgen of bubblegum on the nose, slight acid and a lingering dry, strawberry finish (it’s the second vintage in the United States for this wine and is made from Grenache, Cinsault, Tibouren and Syrah). … The 2018 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley (Carneros) Pinot Noir (Cal, $29.99) is a spicy wine that has some guts for the varietal, offering floral and cherry-cobbler notes. … Unshackled (Cal, $30), a red blend from the folks at Prisoner Wine Co., has a floral (roses) nose, chocolate and raspberry on the palate, and is not jammy. … We had a fun side-by-side tasting of Hahn SLH Pinot Noir (Cal, $30), with both getting a thumb’s up from our tasting panel; we found the 2016 slightly more acidic and the 2017 having cherry-cobbler and spice notes while both had long finishes and are fairly priced.
The fairly priced 2017 Torii Mor Pinot Noir (Ore, $28) has toffee notes and opened with air. … The good-value 2017 Markham Merlot (Cal, $29) offers floral / rose-petal notes in this medium-bodied wine with coffee and herbal flavors. … A pair of Balletto Pinot Noir (Cal, $29) held up well in a side-by-side tasting, with smooth notes of cherry cola and coffee in the background coming out in both; the ‘17 had a minty flavor and smidgen raspberry on the finish while the ‘18 yields Red Vines / licorice and is a bit more acidic (both went wonderfully with spinach and mushroom manicotti. … The rich-tasting 2017 Scott Chardonnay (Cal, $28) has a pleasant nuttiness to it, barely macerated with ripe Golden Delicious apple and apricot notes. … The 2016 Crasto Superior Douro red blend (Por, $29) has notes of baking chocolate and dark fruit with menthol – and went well with Bolognese sauce; its blend is 50% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 20% Tinta Roriz and 5% Sousao. … The 2019 Sextant Verdejo (Cal, $28) was surprising – the style of wine usually is associated with Europe and not California – but this one, from Paso Robles, shows the same characteristics of the style: Strong lime, floral notes, some acid and went better with salad than as a stand-alone (might be a tad overpriced but a decent food wine). … The bone-dry 2019 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc (Cal, $28) has pleasing lime notes and is a fantastic food wine, especially with a green salad.
The well-priced St. Urbans Hof Nik Weis Ockfener Bockstein Riesling (Ger, $26) has petrol notes, lingering apple, and is dry but not super acidic. … The organic 2016 Castello Colle Massari (Ita, $26.99) wine held up very well with spice and fresh blackberry notes, dry, refined and versatile for all sorts of dishes – and fairly priced. … The 2019 Alma de Cattleya (Cal, $27) is a refined kitchen-sink blend – 64% Syrah, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot – with plum, black cherry and chocolate. … The Owen Roe Sinister Hand (Was, $27) has hard-candy notes in the nose preceding a slightly smoky flavor with fresh black cherry (but not a cherry bomb) with decent finish – and it improved with air. … The 2018 Parrish Sauvignon Blanc (Cal, $27) from Paso Robles is a well-done representation of the style, with grapefruit there not but overwhelming, key lime but not too acidic. … The 2018 Ancient Peaks Renegade (Cal, $26) red blend – 38% Syrah, 36% Petit Verdot, 26% Malbec – has a strong minty flavor with cough-syrup-raspberry notes and a long finish; our tasting panel all guessed it would be a few dollars more. … We did a side-by-side of Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir (Cal, $27), finding the 2018 to have slightly more in the nose, with spice and ripened fruit, while the 2019 was softer with unripened fruit, and worth cellaring for a bit before opening. … The versatile 2018 Trapiche Medalla Malbec (Arg, $26.99) has lavender on the nose with pleasing sour cherry notes, a little plum, is not vegetal at all and has enough tannings to stand up to food.
My favorite white this year: 2018 Dry Creek Chardonnay DCV Block 10.
My favorite red this year: 2018 Rombauer Zin.
Our past high-end reviews
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. On the air: Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. And tune in at 8:05 a.m. Fridays for “Beer with Bona and Much, Much More” with Munch Bishop on 1350-AM The Gambler.
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