In blind taste tests of 21 cabernet sauvignons and 19 sauvignon blancs, our experts found a total of 19 wines that are very good or better. (The others tested have off-notes or are a little less balanced, complex, or intense.) More good news: About half cost $15 or less. Prices are per 750-milliliter bottle. The Ratings describe each of the best, and "Talk the Talk" deciphers common winespeak.
This "king of red wines," the offspring of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc vines, should be medium- to full-bodied, with a high tannin content that supports rich fruit—plum, cherry, raspberry, blackberry, and black currant—as well as vanilla, and sometimes tobacco, leather, vegetables, herbs, or oak. (Cabernets often require longer wood aging than do other reds.) Bear in mind that those are quick hits of aroma, not how the wine tastes overall. As you sip, cabernet may have a full yet soft mouth feel. Classic cabernets are often called the "iron fist in the velvet glove."
The finish should be medium to long, with no significant bitterness.
Most of the recommended cabernets are medium-bodied with black-fruit notes and hints of wood. They're dry, with a medium-length finish. These wines can be drunk now and may improve in the next two to three years.
Cabernet sauvignon goes well with red meats, including game, stews or casseroles, hearty pastas, and strong-flavored cheese—in other words, nothing delicate. Protein can help soften astringent tannins; fat protects your palate against a too-assertive wine. Note to holiday chefs: Stuffing and gravy are chock-full of ingredients such as currants, mushrooms, and herbs including rosemary and sage, all of which can help link the food to the wine.
Louis M. Martini Napa and Raymond Reserve are excellent, with black and red fruit and hints of herbs, spice, and vanilla. Louis M. Martini has a bit of black currant and leather that Raymond doesn't have; Raymond has cherry and plum that Louis M. Martini doesn't have. Louis M. Martini would taste especially good with honey-baked ham; Raymond, with duck and plum sauce, braised short ribs, or roasted potatoes.
Crios and 14 Hands taste very good and are CR Best Buys. Both have hints of cherry and black currant. Crios would pair well with barbecued ribs; 14 Hands, with roast chicken.
Usually, this varietal has flavors that are herbaceous or grassy (weeds, wild grasses) and/or vegetal (salad greens, bell peppers, asparagus). It may also have hints of tropical fruit. Some seemingly odd aromas are acceptable, to a certain degree: cat pee (boxwood) or a scent reminiscent of sweat. Sauvignon blanc should be dry, with a crisp acidity balanced by the other components. It should have a medium-length finish.
The sauvignon blancs we tasted were from California, New Zealand, South Africa, or Washington. Only those from New Zealand, which has a cool climate conducive to this varietal, made our cut. The recommended wines are balanced and medium-bodied. All are dry except Nobilo, which is a touch sweeter, and all are somewhat to very tart, with a medium-length finish. Drink them now or within two years.
Sauvignon blancs such as those we recommend—with crisp acidity and tropical fruit—work well with sushi, goat cheese, spicy Asian food, grilled shrimp, or a fruit salad. A fuller-bodied, more "stylized" sauvignon blanc pairs well with richer foods, including chowders and fried calamari.
Spy Valley and Villa Maria Private Bin are excellent. We've judged them CR Best Buys. They are intense, acidic, fruity, and fragrant. Spy Valley has hints of grapefruit and pineapple that Villa Maria lacks. Both are tasty even without food. Spy Valley would pair well with, say, an avocado or Waldorf salad; Villa Maria, with grilled shrimp.
Structure. A combination of alcohol, sweetness, acid, and tannins—the wine's basic taste components—that creates an almost three-dimensional sensation in your mouth.
Tannin. A compound from the skin, seeds, and stems of grapes, and from oak barrels, lending a drying astringency.
Lean. Describes a wine in which structure is more prominent than flavor, and fruit plays second fiddle. In white wine, there may be a slight mineral taste.
Nose. What you smell.
Palate. What you taste. The palate should confirm the nose.
Dry. The opposite of sweet. Little or no sugar is left over after winemaking.
Stylized. Having characteristics derived from winemaking techniques themselves (resulting in light woody or buttery tastes in a chardonnay, for instance).
Finish. How long taste stays after you swallow.
This article appeard in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.