If you read most wine reviews these days, you'd think that everyone now spends their time alternating between Champagne and riesling, with the odd light red (served chilled) thrown in. And while I actually love all those styles, once in a while I want to dive into an absolute sledgehammer of the red which comes on hard with fruit, structure, tannins—the type of wine you need two hands to hold.
There are a few ways to approach it servicing this need: you could go for Zinfandel, but the fruit can often overwhelm everything else and it's tricky finding freshness. Ditto Aussie Shiraz. For me the happy big place is California Cabernet—which, when made right achieves bigness and balance at the same time. The only trick has been the ever-increasing $$$ of said wines. Caymus Special Selection, perhaps the very paradigm of the type of wine I'm talking about, now pushes $200.
So when a new wine enters into this pricey fray at a significantly lower tariff, my ears (and wallet) perk up. The secret to getting all those elements above while stills till staying in a two-digit price zone? Look south, young man—as in Paso Robles, the central California that's been steadily on the rise for the past two decades. Paso is hot and its stock and trade has always been on big, ripe reds. For the first act, they focussed on the Rhone Varietals (Syrah primarily, but also Grenache, Mouvedre), but a few years back the winemakers, no doubt looking at some of the prices their Napa brethren were fetching for Cabernet, and figured "How hard can it be?"
Well, quite hard, it turns out. Give Cabernet nothing but heat, and you get the proverbial fruit bomb that lacks freshness and finesse. All of which makes this wine from Austin Hope something of a unicorn: $80, loaded with black fruit, vanilla but with a line of freshness throughout that keeps it balanced. Full disclosure: this wine was just named #10 in the Wine Enthusiasts Top 100 (and that's how it came to my attention) but, weirdly, it's still pretty widely available.
So, if you know the recipient of your vino largesse likes 'em big and bold...I feel like I've just saved you $40+ dollars. So Merry Christmas!