Has the Jury Spoken out on Cabernet?

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I recently wrote of my tastings across several grape varieties and the thoughts they’d triggered.

Today it’s Cabernet Sauvignon’s turn.

A couple of years ago I got into trouble with some Coonawarra winemakers following an opinion piece in this column. I’d expressed hesitation over whether the region was still my first preference when drinking Cabernet Sauvignon because of several reservations and the increasing, wide-ranging quality coming out of Margaret River. (I should add I had a “congratulations” email from one South Australian winemaker.)

A recent tasting of Limestone Coast Cabernets for Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine reminded me of this. The quality on this occasion was largely excellent, I’m pleased to say, in spite of the odd wine which should have been better. In the case of many producers I’ve never seen their wines as good, but for the detail you’ll need to wait for the next issue of the magazine to be published.

Those wines ranged mostly from about $25 to $100 a bottle off-premise. Casting a wider regional net and to prices below $25 or so the story’s rather different. The wines I taste at home and the various benchmark and client tastings I do show that at lower price-points there are many Cabernets that lack good berry fruit, while showing overtly herbal flavours and uneven, green tannins. Regions have included McLaren Vale, the Barossa, Clare, Yarra Valley, Great Southern, Goulburn Valley and Margaret River, among others. All of those, of course, do make high quality Cabernet in differing styles at higher price-points.

By way of contrast, the sub-$25 Shiraz wines I’ve tasted recently, and from a similar range of regions, show riper flavours and tannins, some generosity and an even overall balance. Some may have lacked depth of fruit, as you’d expect, but most did offer balance and genuine drinkability.

Cabernet Sauvignon is, as we all know, a late-ripening grape. It needs a large heat summation over the growing season, and more than Shiraz, for instance, which may be one reason Cab prefers maritime over continental climates. Maritime climates have a wide shoulder in their bell-shaped curve of seasonal temperature once you are in autumn, which gives some security for cool regions. In contrast, in continental climates the temperature plunges more rapidly once you’re in April, or in October in the northern hemisphere. The degree-days Cabernet receives nevertheless need to be scored in cool conditions after veraison if varietal expression is to be maximised, which is why I suspect that the warming climate won’t be helping Cabernet’s varietal expression in warm and hot regions. On the other hand, warmer growing seasons seem to have helped the wines from recent Coonawarra vintages, which showed good consistency in the WINE magazine tasting with the exception of 2011.

Moving to a Cabernet relative, Merlot, the position is bleaker. While there are a few good specialists with Merlot at the top end of the market and Grant Burge Hillcott and Pfeiffer are attractive examples, my recent tastings and show classes, including wines from Wrattonbully and Clare, for instance, which should suit the variety, have been disappointing. I don’t think it’s just me.

A look at the Nielsen data for the Top 50 SKUs over $20 reveals 22 Shiraz wines, eight Cabernet Sauvignons, seven Pinot Noirs and five Cabernet blends, but not one Merlot. At $15-20 there are 14 Shiraz, 11 Cabernet Sauvignons and three Merlots, one of them French. At $10-15 the story is similar, but then at $7-10 Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon both number 12, while Merlot has nine.

This is either the public saying “we won’t pay much for this variety” or winemakers saying “we can’t sell this wine for more”. These are effectively the same.

The jury spoke before I’d presented my case.

Lest this read like a bunch of sour gripes as well as grapes, I’ll remind the regular reader that my comments last month were entirely positive. And looking briefly though other varieties the story’s good with many of them. Rieslings remain wonderful and seem to be largely avoiding the problems of warmer growing seasons. There’s clearly good work taking place in the vineyard. Barring some excessive jam and alcohol, Shiraz wines have never been better and, what’s more, there’s now fantastic diversity as cool regions, whole-bunch aromatics and wider oak sourcing play their varying roles. Pinot Noir has already reached a high standard and gets better still each year.

Pinot is an interesting case in point. When curiosity in the variety began to grow in the 1970s, producers started planting it anywhere, but it didn’t take long before they realised that the wines coming out of the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Margaret River, Coonawarra, Mudgee and the inland regions were simply non-varietal dry reds. Most of that Pinot has now gone or has been diverted to sparkling wine. I remember Peter Lehmann telling me during a tasting for the lamented Wine and Spirit magazine in the 1980s, “there’s some good Pinot coming out of the Light Pass area”. I wonder if the vines are still there. Even in the Hunter Valley, where Tyrrell’s had given Pinot such a good start, most Pinot has been removed. It’s now planted in regions that we know are entirely suited to it.

Given this example from Pinot, isn’t it time for a slow reappraisal of where Cabernet Sauvignon is planted?

Admittedly the country did not have the same commitment to Pinot Noir vineyards then as it does to Cabernet Sauvignon now. Also, there is an existing franchise for Cabernet blends through all price-points, which there never was with Pinot.

Nevertheless, as vineyards gradually age and come up for replacement there’s an opportunity to decide what variety is most suited to that site and whether Cabernet Sauvignon is still the one.

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