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BANNER BARGAIN : A California Cabernet Tops Some Venerable French Clarets--and Its Price Is Right


How do you choose a wine? If you go by the book and you're having roast beef, you're going to serve a red--but which red? There are intriguing differences; wine, obviously, is a realm with often undefined perimeters. But here's a simple tip: a red wine that's a fine choice at a great price.

There aren't many absolutes in the world of wine, but few devotees would dispute that the world's finest red-wine grape is Cabernet Sauvignon. The dominant Vitis vinifera grape variety for the production of fine clarets in Bordeaux, it ranks equally high in the making of red wines in California. And although this grape has many cousin-clones, the jewel brilliance of Cabernet Sauvignon is without peer. With almost fevered anticipation, American devotees of French claret follow the progress of the vines in Bordeaux, from bud-break to harvest, and, as one year follows another, the arguments of relative merits never subside. To these Francophiles, California Cabernet is a pretender.

In good years, chauvinism aside, one must recognize that Bordeaux is the homeland of Cabernet. But every now and then, in several landmark tastings, California Cabernet has topped even the venerable first growths of France. It happened again at the recent Vinexpo in Bordeaux. In an international judging to award "Oscars" to 12 wines out of 700 candidates, three awards went to French wines, two to Spanish wines, and one each to Italian, German, Austrian, Australian, Greek, Hungarian and American wines. The selection from the United States was the Charles Lefranc Cellars 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon of Monterey County. Surprised?

I've tasted this wine, and it has charming drinkability along with the grace of an intriguing bouquet. Even though it is a relative newcomer to such prestige ranking, it has advocates galore. Robert M. Parker Jr., of a popular guide, The Wine Advocate, dubbed this wine an "eye opener," which it is. The Wine Spectator's Terry Robards wrote of a blind tasting in which this Lefranc Cabernet was favored over seven Bordeaux clarets costing 10 times its price. Norm Roby, also writing in The Spectator, noted the wine's "majestic nose," adding that it was a clue to the "awesome new look of wines under the Lefranc name."

The suggested price tag of $8.45 truly makes this wine a double discovery. Try to track it down now, because such winners can soon become difficult to find. Insiders know that the Charles Lefranc Cellars label is really the top-of-the-line prestige division of Almaden. Here are some current releases, including that banner Cabernet Sauvignon.

1981 Cabernet Sauvignon of Monterey County ($8.45): A 100% varietal of grapes from San Lucas Vineyards in Monterey County, it has a rich fragrance of black currants. The ingratiating flavors are delicate rather than overbearing. This is a wonderful wine, of fine drinkability now, but with promise of greater finesse with added cellar aging.

1983 Fume Blanc of California ($8.10): Crisp and dry, this is an easy-drinking wine, wholly pleasant, without the grassy qualities often found in 100% Sauvignon blanc wines. It's a fine aperitif wine as well as a good choice to serve with fish and poultry.

1984 Dry Chenin Blanc of Monterey County ($5.85): This has an opulent bouquet, almost exotic in the richness of the grape. Silvery pale and thirst-quenching, it is thoroughly unique, thoroughly Californian, thoroughly delightful. Don't miss it.

1983 Chardonnay of San Benito County ($8.45): Nominated for "Best of Show" at the Atlanta Festival, this partially barrel-fermented wine, with discreet aging in Limousin oak, will ruffle no palates with excess wood or fruit. It's gentle, golden and silky smooth.

1982 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc of Monterey County ($11.35): Made from hand-picked "botrytised" berries, this luscious wine, with delicate hints of apricot in its aftertaste, has 11.3% residual sugar, making it suitable for serving with fruit and cheese for dessert.

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