Australian Cabernet takes on the world

This was not intended to be a ‘showdown’, but an interesting and educational comparative tasting. Wines of Australia recently sent me samples of seven top Australian Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, alongside some serious Cabernets from across the globe, which were presented blind. The format was to taste the global wines first, I guess to get some sort of global benchmark, followed by the Australian contenders.

The Australian wines represented key Cabernet Sauvignon regions including Coonawarra in South Australia, the Yarra Valley in Victoria and Margaret River in Western Australia, as well as a wine from Henschke representing the Eden Valley, also in South Australia. The Cabernet stats for each of these regions show the relative importance of the variety, as well as some of the key factors in their growing conditions:

COONAWARRA
Rainfall: 605mm; Mean January Temprature: 19.8ºC; Cabernet is 55% of all plantings

YARRA VALLEY
Rainfall: 1,094mm; Mean January Temprature: 18.9ºC; Cabernet is 6% of all plantings

MARGARET RIVER
Rainfall: 947mm; Mean January Temprature: 20.7ºC; Cabernet is 21% of all plantings

EDEN VALLEY
Rainfall: 541mm; Mean January Temprature: 21.4ºC; Cabernet is 7% of all plantings

Each of the Australian regions has a maritime climate, only Eden Valley in the Barrossa having noteable altitude with vineyards running from 310 – 540 metres. So it was pleasing to see the regional differences that may partly be down to these small variations, but also the soils and detailed climatic and geographical specifics of each region. I tasted the international wines blind, but once their identities were revealed they also seemed to be very well chosen examples of their respective locations, showing the characters that I would expect, but relatively restrained and elegant examples one and all.

The Global Wines

Tasted blind.

(2021) This is a Cabernet in a depp-set, ripe and opulent black fruit style. There's a fruit-skin savouriness and depth as well as espresso grounds and cocoa. Super sweet, mouth-coating blackcurrant fruit, plenty of tang of black plum and cherry skins and fresh, biting tannins. Acidity is good, adding extra freshness and there is something just a touch herby in the background which adds some light to the shade of the sonorous black fruit. Big, powerful stuff.
(2021) Quite reserved, quite classical, with some gravel and blackcurrant on the nose, a delicate graphite note and subtle oak. Very European in style. The palate bursts with real sweet fruit intensity, ripe cassis flavours, lots of juiciness and tang, but an infill of coffee-smooth tannins and fairly brisk acidity lengthens the finish. Possibly not Bordeaux, but with a Bordeaux sensibility?
(2021) A certain dustiness and sweet plummy fruit depth here, a touch of tapenade and also some sweet floral aspects as cassis asserts. Smooth and silky on the palate, more toast and nutty oak components showing through, but everything polished and creamy, tannins and acids integrated with the substantial fruit. Stylish. Price and stockist quoted is for a more recent vintage at time of review.
(2021) A little bit nutty, fragrant, a slightly lighter, tobacco-infused lift to this. Very much more medium-bodied that the fuller wines before it in this line-up, a certain dustiness and Old World character, savoury, a touch of leather and tobacco and the fruit is good but noticeably less sweet, edged with cedar and more prominent acidity.
(2021) Lovely nose, suffused with cassis and ripe black cherry, there's a mocha depth to this too, a little hint of cedary pencil-shaving, a hint of earthiness, but really quite bold fruit. In the mouth classy and classic Bordeaux character, the black fruit very nicely ripe and creamy, but there is structure, a certain firmness to the tannins and suppleness to the acidity, grippy but the sweet fruit dominating the mid-palate. Very complete, very harmonious.

The Australian Wines

Not tasted blind.

(2021) From the Coonawarra's famous terra rossa soils and vines with an average age of 44 years, this was farmed organically and was matured for 18 months in French oak. That mint and chocolate nuance to the ripe and creamy black fruit signals this terroir for me. There's a precision too. In the mouth this is as ripe and sweet-fruited as any of the blind examples, substantial but not heavy, and certainly the tight tannins and juiciness give it really good energy. Perhaps not the layering of some, a little more straightforward, but very good. Price and stockist quoted are for a more recent vintage at time of review.
(2021) From ungrafted vines planted in 1990 on terra rossa over limestone, this matured for 18 months in Sylvain and Taransaud oak, "very fine tight grain Château Barriques," 66% of which were new. Wonderfully opulent mint chocolate nose, a humbug ripeness and creaminess, relatively straightforward but such a deep and lush aroma. Creamy, mouth-filling, supple black fruit and the mocha-chocolate density of the wine floods the palate, full-bodied and ripe. Quintessential Coonawarra Cab, the strong but creamy tannins and ripe acidity barely interrupting the flow. Price and stockist quoted are for a different vintage at time of review.
(2021) From very old vines planted in 1969 and silty loam soils, this wine from Yarra Yering spent 15 months in French oak barriques, 40% new. Such a different character from the Balvanes - indeed from both Coonawarra wines - with a cooler, slightly more red-fruited note to the nose, more lifted fragrance too with garrigue-like notes utterly compelling. In the mouth it is voluptuous and svelte, yet continues that medium-bodied, finessed style, all about ripe but charming, savoury edged fruit with a little citrussy spark to it, sweet and fine tannins and beautifully integrated oak and acidity. Gorgeous. Price and stockist quoted are for a more recent vintage at time of review.
(2021) From sandy clay-loam soils and again very old vines planted in 1971, these are farmed organically and the wine spent 20 months in 225L barriques, 35% new oak. There's a creamier, mintier profile than the Yarra Yering, slightly more lush and juicy, some very nice graphite notes and a little hint of that violetty, floral lift again. Certainly more sweet, dense and direct than the Yarra Yering, but not without light and shade, a lovely softness and poise to the tannin structure that it gentle but supportive. The acids also soft giving this a sweet but balanced finish.
(2021) In Margaret River, Cullen is one of the leading exponents of biodynamic winemaking. This is their premium red wine, from ungrafted vines on granite and gravel that are now 50 years old, the wine matured for 17 months in French oak, 66% new barrels. Very svelte, an unruffled picture of ripe blackcurrant and lightly gravelly, earthy terroir character, a little floral/herbal edge too. In the mouth it is medium-bodied and quite spicy at first, then the soft creaminess of the black fruit builds on the mid-palate, always that gravelly bit of iron-filings grip and tension being very Bordeaux-like for me. The balance in the finish is very fine, staying savoury and juicy, in a composed and lovely wine.
(2021) A year of mild conditions and a slow and steady vintage, though spring storms did reduce yields. 78% Cab with 20% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot, it spent 16 months in French oak, only 51% new. Quite reserved at first, or rather, quite densely, tightly wound with tobacco, cedar and black fruit on the nose. The palate burst with a juiciness of ripe blackcurrant, but that initial tension of the nose does not dissipate: this stays taut, muscular, deep and still relatively impenetrable at this stage, but such a concetration of sweet fruit, firm and elegant acidity and chocolaty smooth tannins that it is both gorgeous now, and promises considerable longevity.
(2021) From the Eden Valley in Barossa, made following biodynamic principles, the vineyard here was planted in 1989 on sandy loam over sandstone bedrock, and the wine spent 18 month in French oak barriques, 20% of which were new. A touch of tapendade on the nose, plenty of black fruit, a gentle earthiness. It really does blossom - positively bursts through - on the palate, with such a welterweight of creamy and supple minty black fruits, very sweet and ripe. Not heavy, but quite large-scaled, against the fat of the fruit is cedar and spices, chocolaty smooth tannins and pert cherry pit acidity to balance. Lovely, and a slightly different expression again from the other regional examples here.

2 comments

  1. Quite shocked at the price of CyT Don Melchor today. I occasionally bought it as a treat step up or two from their Casillero del Diablo back in the 90s and I’m sure it was only £10-£12.

    1. Yes Paul, like a lot of the top Australian wines from Penfolds and others, these are wines I bought in the 90s too, all under £20. I think there has been a change in the ambition of some producers, who are comparing themselves with classic wines of France (Bordeaux especially) and the huge prices those now command, and just saying “well my top wine must be worth XXX”. I don’t know what the market is like for £90 bottles of Chilean cabernet, no matter how good or how long a track record they have, but suspect the UK is probably not the main market?

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