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Cabernet, oh Cabernet - Where Have You Gone?

By Annette Lacey MW | Group Beverage Manager, Solotel

A question I have pondered over the last 5 years is, what’s going on with cabernet sauvignon? Why doesn’t anybody want to drink it anymore in Australia? Working in restaurants I have noticed a slow and steady decline in demand and I just cannot figure out why. This is one of the great noble grape varieties, known fondly as Claret in the UK, that has a long, proud history of producing outstanding wines of longevity with unparalleled quality in the eyes of some collectors.

Cabernet sauvignon is the child of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc - that herbaceous edge and high acidity confirms the parentage. Small, thick-skinned berries give a deep colour and its trademark assertive tannins, which can lead it to being a misunderstood style. Whilst often chewy and drying in its youth, it can evolve into cedar box, dried mushroom and tobacco complexity. Its affinity to oak ageing and longevity has cemented its place as one of the wine styles with the ability to age up to 50 years plus, dependent on vintage and cellaring conditions. It is a predominantly blended wine with typically merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec (though not exclusively) to often fill the mid-palate or remain true to style.

Conversely, a lot of the cabernet sauvignon in Australia tends to be a single varietal. Is that the problem? Is that why the general public does not automatically select cabernet sauvignon on a menu but instead gravitates towards pinot noir or shiraz? Typically, though not always, it is blended with merlot or the great Aussie blend with shiraz, although that is also another style with only a small and loyal following.

I am partial to a good Bordeaux or Italian Cabernet; both styles are typically blends, so possibly the sum of the parts makes the wine more complete? I was lucky enough to recently taste some of the best 2015 cabernet sauvignons and blends our country has to offer and they were really lovely wines, reminding me of the magic of cabernet. These were wines that should be running off the shelves or out of a restaurant cellar, yet I know that is not the case.

The best value for money in cabernet land is without a doubt the Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, especially with age. This can be purchased at numerous bottle shops for around $30 and what a beauty. Ripe fruit density, a supple chalky tannin profile with that herbal edge, some say eucalypt, to keep the freshness, held together with juicy acid and quality oak treatment. It’s 100% cabernet sauvignon that doesn’t need a blending partner. A notch up the price ladder was the Balnaves ‘The Tally’, classic Coonawarra with eucalypt intensity and sweet ripe fruit wrapped in juicy acid, chalky tannins with fine oak support.

Another delicious cool climate Cabernet was the Yarra Yering No. 1 from the Yarra Valley; this blend with merlot, malbec and petit verdot ticked all the cabernet markers I love seeing in a wine; blackcurrant, fine acidity, chalky ripe tannins with savoury cedar box and tobacco leaf. Sticking with the Yarra Valley theme I was also lucky enough to try the Mount Mary Quintet. This is also a Bordeaux-inspired blend showing ripe cassis and green herbal notes, fine acid with earthy tertiary development adding complexity.

Warm climate Cabernet, in its preferred home, was sampled from the Margaret River, the iconic ‘Diana Madeline’ from Cullen. Old vines, low yields and biodynamic viticulture produce a wine of elegance and finesse. It is a restrained style with blackcurrant purity and pretty with fine-boned tannins and vibrant acidity, more feminine in style. In comparison was the more masculine Vasse Felix ‘Tom Cullity’ which is a cabernet sauvignon malbec blend; bigger boned with a dense nose of blackcurrant, leafy edge and savoury complexity that is made to last with plenty of tannic structure and fine oak to support through the coming years.

What a joy each of those wines were to try, cabernet sauvignon in all its glory, as a straight varietal or blended with the classic merlot, malbec, cabernet franc or petit verdot, just to give a little flesh or boost. Whilst it doesn’t have the lightness and delicacy of pinot noir or the pepper and body of shiraz, I do think it is a misunderstood variety. Well made cabernet sauvignon shows structure, freshness and tannins that aid with eating and of course enjoyment. You really must fall in love with cabernet sauvignon again - it will be worth it.