Thirty-five years ago, in the spring of 1976, a seminal event happened in Paris that changed the map of wine just as much as the American Revolution, 200 years before, had changed the map of the British Empire.
Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, then living in Paris, decided to use the American Bicentennial to generate some publicity for himself. So he invited some of France’s most distinguished wine experts to a blind tasting of the best French and American wines. The outcome was a foregone conclusion: France, of course, would win.
Yet, when the ballots were tallied, the results shocked everyone — a Cabernet Sauvignon from California had beaten the best red wines of Bordeaux, and a California Chardonnay had beaten the best white Burgundies. Californian wine had come into its own.
From that day on, California has been producing some of the world’s best wines, and within a few years of that Paris tasting, California started producing some the world’s best kosher wines as well. Pioneers like Ernie Weir of Hagafen Cellars and Craig Winchell of the late Gan Eden Winery (now the head winemaker for Agua Dolce Vineyards) have been making great kosher wines in California for three decades or more.
Today, California continues to produce many excellent kosher wines and most of these wines — because of lower transport costs and no tariffs or rates of exchange — are far less expensive than similar quality kosher wines from Israel or Europe.
So for this month’s Fruit of the Vine, I tasted more than a dozen wines to find the best kosher Cabernets and Chardonnays from California under $40.
Almost all of the wines in the tasting were very good or excellent, and any of them would make for a delightful addition to your holiday table.
The Cabernet Sauvignons:
Herzog, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Reserve, Napa Valley, 2008: This garnet-colored, full-bodied Cabernet, has a complex nose with elements of black cherries, cassis, blackberries, eucalyptus and spicy oak, with an intriguing I-know-not-what earthy element. Look for flavors of cherries, currents — both red and black — blackberries and oak. Ready to drink now, this wine should cellar well until 2015.
Score: A/A- ($29.95. Available at Skyview Wines & Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale,  759-8466.)
Hagafen, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2008: Rich and full-bodied, this dark garnet-colored wine has an earthy nose of toasted oak, cedar, cranberries, cherries and red currents. Look for flavors of cherries, cassis, cranberries and oak, with hints of pencil lead and pipe tobacco. Endowed with an abundance of powdery tannins, this wine is ready to drink now, and should cellar well for at least another six years.
Score: A/A- ($38.95. Available at Skyview Wines & Spirits.)
Four Gates, Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2009: This full-bodied, dark garnet-colored wine has a vibrant bouquet redolent of cherries, cassis, black liquorish, oak and cedar, with whiffs of pipe tobacco, lavender and wild flowers. Look for flavors of cherries, blackberries, plums, cassis, and smoky oak. Although drinking reasonably well now, this wine is still tight, and will only start showing its best in 2013, and should then cellar well until 2017.
Score: A/A- (This wine release date has not yet been set. When released, the wine will be available directly from the winery: www.fourgateswine.com,  457-2673.)
Herzog, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Reserve, Alexander Valley, 2007: With a bright garnet color, this medium-to-full-bodied Cabernet has flavors and aromas of cranberries, cassis, blackberries, cherries, oak and sweet cedar, with hints of anise and red currents. Drinking well now, this wine should be able to cellar well until 2014.
Score: A- ($34.99. Available at K & D Wine and Spirits, 1366 Madison Ave [Manhattan]  289-1818.)
Baron, Herzog, Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast, 2009: This surprisingly good, budget priced, garnet colored Cabernet has a medium body and gentle tannins. Look for flavors and aromas of cherries, cassis, and boysenberries, with notes of oak and tobacco. Drink now until 2013 or 2014.
Score: B/B+ (12.95. Available at Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits, 505 Park Ave., Manhattan,  838-7500.)
Hagafen, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2010: This full-bodied, bright straw-colored Chardonnay has a lively nose of apples, honey and fresh-cut straw, with a tropical hint of bananas and kumquats, and a nice note of oak in the background. Look for flavors of apples, straw, bananas and honey, with a hint of cream. Ready to drink from release, this well-made Chardonnay will only be at its best starting in the latter part of 2012, and should then cellar well until at least 2016.
Score: A/A-. ($24. This wine will be released on Oct. 1.)
Covenant, Chardonnay, Lavan, Napa Valley, 2009: Dark straw in color, this full-bodied Napa Valley Chardonnay has a rich fruity bouquet of apples, quince, pears, and lemon zest, which is set off against elements of earth and toasty oak. The wine has a rich satiny mouth-feel, with flavors of apples, quince, pears and oak and hints of citrus and spice. Drink now until 2016.
Score: A/A-. ($41.89. Available at Ninth Avenue Vintner, 669 Ninth Ave., Manhattan],  664-9463.)
Herzog, Chardonnay, Special Reserve, Russian River Valley, 2009: Aged for 15 months in a mixture of American and French oak, this medium-to-full-bodied, bright straw-colored wine has flavors and aromas of apples, lemons, hay, cream and toasty oak, with a slight but very pleasant floral note. Drink now until at least 2014.
Score: A/A-. ($27.95. Available at Morrell & Company, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Manhattan,  688-9370.)
Prix, Chardonnay, Reserve, Napa Valley, 2007: This rich, full-bodied, straw-colored wine has a charming bouquet of apples, heather, and toasty oak, with just a whiff of citrus. Look for flavors of apples, honey, oak, and freshly churned cream, with hints of lemon and grapefruit. With a satiny-rich mouth feel, this Chardonnay is drinking very well now and should continue to do so for at least another three years.
Score: A/A- ($36. Available directly from the winery: www.hagafen.com,  424-2336.)
Four Gates, Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2008: This medium-bodied, bright straw-colored wine has an earthy bouquet with notes of apples — both raw and stewed — lemons, straw, and oak. Look for flavors of apples, quince and lemons, with a lively mineral element, and a nice note of oak. Ready to drink now, this wine should be able to cellar for at least another five years.
Score” A-. ($26. Available directly from the winery: www.fourgateswine.com,  457-2673.)