Can we afford Cabernet Sauvignon?

It has been such a long time since I last reviewed a 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon that even Google can’t find it.

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Sadly, there is a reason for that: As the world’s economic divide has widened in the 21st century, wine has gone along with it. The best wines in particular – top grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, and sought-after places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley – have reached the pitiful point at which the really good wines aren’t cheap, and the really cheap wines are rarely good.

Page down to the list of wines and click the “Most Expensive” tab to check out the 25 most expensive Cabernet Sauvignons listed on You’ll find a range in bottle prices – almost all of them from Napa – that tops out at a breathtaking $4,201 for Ghost Horse Vineyard “Spectre” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which has knocked Napa’s $3,888 Screaming Eagle Cabernet to second place.

At prices like that, Cabernet No. 25, Abreu Vineyard Howell Mountain Las Posadas, seems like a bargain at a mere $572 for the bottle.

What happens if we flip Wine-Searcher’s Cabernet tabs to show the cheapest Cabernets? Well. The top (or bottom) 25 do range in price from $3 all the way down to a single dollar. But you probably don’t want to buy those at any price.

The iron-rich red soil ("Terra Rossa") of Australia's Coonawarra region forms a nurturing environment for Cabernet Sauvignon vines.

The iron-rich red soil (“Terra Rossa” of Australia’s Coonawarra region forms a nurturing environment for Cabernet Sauvignon vines.

Is there any hope for wine bargain-seekers? Perhaps that depends on how you define “cheap.” Looking back at Wine-Searcher one more time, reset the database to “Best Value Cabernet Sauvignon,” and you’ll find bottles ranging from $14 (for Perez Cruz Maipo Valley Chile Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon) to $107, which certainly strains my definition of cheap, for Familia Zuccardi 2013 La Consulta, Argentina “Finca Los Membrillos.”

If you’d like to take a much deeper dive into the economics of Napa Cabernet, this thorough and enjoyable 2013 article by wine writer Steve Heimoff lays it out clearly: Why does top Cabernet cost so much more than top Pinot Noir? In brief, Heimoff points to high regional production costs such as buying grapes from sought-after growers, buying quality new oak barrels, hiring pricey consultants, investing in typically heavy Napa Cabernet bottles, paying for quality natural corks, and perhaps most significantly, charging as much as your neighbor wineries do so your product isn’t seen as cut-rate. Go, read the article, though. It’s a good one. Then come on back.

So let’s cut to the chase: If we want a decent Cabernet in my preferred $10 to $20 range – defining “decent” as “showing at least a little varietal character, elegance, and balance” – what are we going to do? Let’s assume that “give up hope” is not an option. The first clue is to avoid Napa and other highly sought-after regions. At the other end of the budget, avoid mass-production regions like California’s Central Valley. South America offers possibilities, particularly Chile, and Southern France is also worth a look. Ditto Australia, particularly the Coonawarra region, which nature has gifted with Cabernet-friendly red soil.

Once you’ve focused on your region, then do a little research, looking for online reviews, blogs, popular critics. If you have favored producers (and, for imported wines, import houses), check their portfolios first. The goal is to identify specific wines in your price range that also fit your preferred flavor profile. For me, that’s not too much oak, no residual sweetness, not too much alcohol, all of which go toward making a wine that will go with food beyond massive roasts, steaks, and game. To my taste, Cabernet Sauvignon should be a wine of more elegance than brute strength, although again, elegance is a feature that we may have to pay for.

All these criteria limit our options quite a bit, but on the other hand, there’s a lot of Cabernet out there. For this week’s review, featured below, I ended up with a Coonawarra Cabernet produced for Criterion, a U.S. firm that bottles wines primarily for sale at Whole Foods Wine Shop. It’s no Ghost Horse Vineyard “Spectre” Napa Cab, but then, Spectre probably doesn’t fit my preferred flavor profile anyway. [wink]

While you’re shopping for Cabernet, consider dropping by our WineLovers Discussion Group, where we’re just getting ready to wrap up Wine 101, Cabernet Sauvignon, the first of our yearlong 2021 Wine Focus review of the world’s great wine varieties.

We plan to divide the year into four 3-month semesters, each featuring a leading grape variety per month. We hope you’ll join us with a Cabernet Sauvignon that you can afford before January ends, then hang out with us through the year.

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Explore Wine-Searcher is the place to go online if you want to find where to buy a particular wine that interests you. What’s more, offers so much more. It’s well worth a visit just to discover its many features, including its popular list of the world’s Top 10 Best Value Wines.


Today’s Tasting Report

Criterion 2019 Coonawarra South Australia Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($16.99)

Criterion Coonawarra Cabernet

Criterion Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon shows dark blackish-purple all the way to a thin garnet edge. Initially aromas of mint and black licorice rise from the glass, opening up to add black cherry and plum with time in the glass. Black fruit and subtle anise come together on the palate with tart acidity and modest but perceptible tannins that become more astringent in the long finish. Its 13.5% alcohol is moderate for an Australian red and doesn’t intrude. No one would describe it as elegant or refined, but it shows good basic Cabernet Sauvignon character and shows well with food. U.S. importer: WX Imports, Novato, Calif. (Jan. 28, 2021)

FOOD MATCH: The back label suggests hearty red meats: T-bone steak, short ribs, lamb chops. We made an amiable match by adding ground beef to leftover lentil, rice, and onion mujadara from a local Palestinian eatery.

WHEN TO DRINK: It’s certainly approachable now, but its good present balance of fruit, acidity, and tannins in a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon suggests at least a few years’ aging potential of five years or so under good cellar conditions.

It was a good bargain at $17 from Whole Foods Wine Shop.’s brief list of retail offerings varied widely.

The producer’s web page provides a handy fact sheet.

Check prices and find vendors for Criterion Coonawarra Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon on

Follow this Wine-Searcher link to read more about Coonawarra and find listings for dozens of other wines from the region.

Read more about Cabernet Sauvignon and browse many good single-varietal bottles at this Wine-Searcher link.

Join this month’s Wine Focus conversation, Wine 101, Cabernet Sauvignon, in our WineLovers Discussion Group.


More affordable wines

Want tips to still more good, inexpensive wines? Here are Wine-Searcher links to vendors and prices for a bunch more wines for $10 or less that I’ve told you about during the past year or two. Please tell us about your favorites!

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