North vs. South: A Blind Tasting of Napa Cab vs. Chilean Cab

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

10-Second Summary

This month's Wine Blogging Wednesday theme is North vs. South. To go along with this, I chose to compare a Napa Cab to a Chilean Cab. North American vs. South America: The premier source of Cabernet in the United States vs. an up and coming challenger. While both wines were tasty, we preferred the Napa Cab in a blind tasting for its vanilla/blackberry aromas and round finish. We felt the Chilean Cab displayed some green pepper aromas that were interesting but ultimately not as enjoyable as the Napa Cab.

The Wines

According to Wine Spectator, the average price of an outstanding (ie, rated 90-94) 2005 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is over $100 per bottle. For the 2005 vintage, the most affordable of these is the $27 2005 Buehler Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It was rated 90 points by Wine Spectator.

With Napa Cab prices so high, it's only natural to seek alternative sources of value. Two areas that immediately come to mind are Argentina and Chile.

Wines of Chile sent me some highly rated wines for review, so I thought it would be interesting to compare a similar stature Chilean Cab to the Buehler. I chose the $19 2005 Vina Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvign Maipo Valley Medalla Real Special Reserve. It was rated 91 points by Wine Spectator.

The question at hand was simple: Was the Chilean wine similarly enjoyable at a lower price point?

How We Tasted

When I'm choosing which wines I like, I think from the perspective of a guest in my home. I want to be known as the guy who always serves up delicious and enjoyable wines. I don't want to be someone who shares wines that take a while to get used to, take a special person to appreciate, or are primarly targeted at the hardcore wine geek.

For this tasting, myself, my wife and my mother-in-law took part, which I think accurately represents a likely scenario where I'd be serving wine. As an aside, my mother-in-law is quite an amazing wine taster. A couple years back we did a blind tasting between a Charles Shaw Cab, a Mondavi Cab, and a Turnbull Cab. Her ratings aligned *exactly* with Wine Spectator's for two of these wines and for the third she was only three points off. That's pretty impressive! Read more here.

I think blind tasting is extremely important as a mechanism for removing bias, and I didn't want our preconceived notions about California wines (or the fact that one of the wines was received as a sample) to play into our opinions. We took turns pouring the wines while each of us was in the other room and we marked each glass "A" and "B" and didn't reveal which was which until after the we'd drawn our conclusions:

Tasting Notes

All three of us preferred the Napa Cab, and 2 out of 3 correctly identified it as being the wine from California. The Buehler had wonderful aromas of vanilla and caramel combined with big ol' ripe blackberries. The Chilean had faint aromas of green pepper, accompanied by an interesting smokiness that overwhelmed secondary aromas I more typically associate with Cabernet like dark berries.

On the palate, the Napa seemed rounder. 2 tasters used the word "sharp" to describe the mouthfeel of the Chilean. Both wines were very dense- and density is (for me) an attribute I associate with higher quality wines. The Chilean had a longer finish. The flavors mentioned above carried on for a good 30 seconds.


So many directions to go here, it's hard to say where to start. First and foremost, as I circle back on my original intent in crafting this head-to-head tasting: Is Chile is a good place to seek comparable Cabernet at a lower price than Napa? I think the answer to this question, based on this tiny sample, is: No. Each region has a unique wine style and Chilean Cabernet is not to a substitute for Napa Cabernet.

I wanted to explore a little further to see whether the characteristics we noticed in the Santa Rita Chilean were representative of Chilean red wines in general. A couple nights after this tasting, I opened a bottle of 2003 Haras Elegance Cabernet (90 WS/$40). Once again, I noticed similar attributes.

The Chilean Cabs had a distinct style that differentiated it from the Napa Cab. I'm left to think- isn't that what we want in wine? A unique expression of place? I think it is. I'm reminded of a couple of recent conversations I've had about wine with folks on Twitter...

The first was discussing whether Wine Spectator should mix appellations when performing their tastings. When they taste wines, they currently taste single blind. That is, they taste Napa Cabs against Napa Cabs- they don't taste Napa Cabs alongside Cabs from other parts of the world. One could argue that this serves to place artificial brackets on appellations of lesser prestige. Indeed, you'll see that wines from places like New York State tend not to break 90 points frequently, and you'd have to think if they were tasting these wines intermingled with wines from more prestigious places that there would be more surprises.

However, in the context of Napa vs. Chile I can see (evidently) that these wines tend to have a different style. And the characteristics that make a Napa Cab excellent may be different than those that make a Chilean excellent. That being the case it seems valid to taste wines by appellation rather than intermingling them.

It's one of the reasons why I rely on professional ratings from Wine Spectator. I trust that they have experience comparing wines against the typical characteristics expected of that wine. Whereas when I taste a wine, especially a type that I've not tasted before, I'm looking to answer a simple question- "Is it good? Is it delicious? Would I buy it again?"

A second conversation I'm reminded of is the general question of whether scores are a valid way to assess wines. Some feel that scores are a ridiculous way to compare wines. For me, scores are a useful and concise summary of a person's opinion of a wine. Especially when reading on the web, I find scores to be a handy way of quickly getting to the question of whether the writer liked the wine or not. That being the case, my ratings are as follows...


  • 2005 Buehler Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley (3/9/2009)
    Just what I'm looking for in a Napa Cab. Blackberries, caramel and vanilla on the nose. Very round on the palate and a delight to drink. (90 pts.)
  • 2005 Viña Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Medalla Real Reserva Especial Single Estate - Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley (3/9/2009)
    Faint aromas of green peppers and smoke on top of more typical Cabernet characteristics like blackberries. A little sharp on the palate, but dense. Long finish. Not bad! Interesting. (87 pts.)
  • 2003 Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon Elegance - Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley (3/14/2009)
    Nice wine! Dense. More green peppers (slight). Also red pepper flakes (like the kind you put on pizza). A serious wine. Smoke. Espresso grounds. Chalky tannins. Non-luscious although there *is* fruit. Significant sediment. (88 pts.)
Posted from CellarTracker

  • I'd like to thank Wines of Chile for giving me the opportunity to explore these highly rated wines.
  • I wrote a book report about Chile in the 5th grade. :)
If you work in the wine trade and would like me to review or discuss your wines, I'd be happy to! If there's an interesting story, I'll write about it. I can't guarantee a positive review, but I *can* promise you that I'll discuss your product in a thorough, thoughtful and authentic way. My contact information is available here.

Question of the Day: What do you think of these results? Have you had many Chilean wines? Are you a fan?


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