Meet the winemaker

Cabernet six ways

By Halliday Promotion

There is so much to love about contemporary cabernet sauvignon. Six winemakers explain what they enjoy most about the variety, and some characters that typify their regions and expressions.  

Think of cabernet sauvignon and rich, tannic, powerful red wines might spring to mind. While great cabernet will always showcase those key qualities, there's a whole lot more to love about contemporary styles of this variety. Lifted and aromatic, cabernet expressions from regions right around the country are increasingly fresh and approachable on release, while still offering development potential in spades over the years – if not decades – to follow.         

zonte_wm Brad Rey – Zonte’s Footstep, McLaren Vale, SA    

H. What do you love about cabernet sauvignon?
B. Cabernet sauvignon takes you on an adventure in chapters and layers. First, it beckons with inviting blackcurrant aromas that lure you in. On entry, your palate is filled with ripe berries and cedar, but soon your attention is grabbed by its serious face: its acid line and linear tannin. Then, just as you perceive them, they dissipate into delicious lingering fruit for a happy ending.

H. Your straight cabernet, the Blackberry Patch, comes from Langhorne Creek. How do you describe that style?
B. Our vision of cabernet from Langhorne Creek harkens to the perfect blackberry pie, with wafts of fresh-baked pastry, macerated blackberry flavours and the texture of clotted cream. Our Blackberry Patch is 95 per cent cabernet sauvignon and five per cent tempranillo. Rather than filling the mid-palate ‘hole’ with shiraz or merlot, here, the addition of tempranillo stretches the astringent tannin ‘peaks and troughs’ of cabernet to make a more linear and elegant expression on the palate. 

Vasse Felix's Virginia Willcock
Virginia Willcock – Vasse Felix, Margaret River, WA  

H. What do you believe makes Margaret River such a special place for growing cabernet?
V. Margaret River cabernet is a unique style and not necessarily reflective of the style globally. Cabernet sauvignon grown in this region sits very much in the savoury fragrance spectrum, reflecting the beautiful ocean, forest and gravel influences. The palate is medium weight, succulent and juicy to start, then builds to reveal fine bone-dry tannins on the finish. In Margaret River, big is not better – power and finesse are the priority. 

H. How do you approach the winemaking process?
V. My approach is driven by respect for the land, fruit and structure of cabernet sauvignon to best reflect the natural environment it grows in. This is achieved through gentle handling of fruit, whole berry fermentation, wild yeast, and lots of oxygen in the fermentation phase. This is followed by gentle pressing and 18 months in premium French oak. Our organic viticulture program also allows us to grow the best quality fruit possible, with an abundance of natural yeast for wild fermentation.

Sarah Crowe at Yarra Yering
Sarah Crowe – Yarra Yering, Yarra Valley, VIC

H. What makes your cabernet sauvignon and blends so special?
S. They are from our piece of dirt and nowhere else. In our 50-plus year history, we have always made wines with enviable complexity and supreme longevity. This is due in part from our site and in part from the Yarra Valley climate, which grows grapes with bright acids and many fine tannins that hold these wines though the ages. We also go to great lengths to ensure only the best fruit makes it into the fermenter. We do this via a two-step sorting process: hand-harvesting in the vineyard, and then berry-sorting in the winery to discard unwanted material. We get the best out of the vineyard and then do little more in the winery..

H. How should cabernet be best enjoyed?
S. The old cliché of wintertime and a fireplace fits our cabernet and our Dry Red No.1 like a glove. Rich red meats and slow braises can also be on the table, but the synergy between red wine and cheese never tires. If you are a sweet tooth, try our Dry Red No.1 with an indulgent chocolate tart or a simple piece of high-quality chocolate.

Nic Bowen at Howard Park
Nic Bowen – Howard Park, Margaret River, WA

H. What do you believe sets your cabernet sauvignon apart?
N. Fruit for our Leston Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from the property in front of the winery, named after owner Jeff Burch’s father. This wine and our cabernet from our Great Southern vineyards aim to encapsulate the essence of their regions. Our vineyard in the Willyabrup subregion produces fruit that optimises classic cabernet sauvignon – rich in concentrated black fruits, structural yet fine tannins, and almost medium-bodied in its approach. The winemaking is a light touch, with handpicked fruit, natural fermentations and long, cool ferments to allow the fruit to shine.

H. How do you recommend serving your cabernet?
N. An interesting exercise would be to serve our Leston Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River alongside its counterpart, the Scotsdale Cabernet Sauvignon from the Great Southern. This will allow you to understand the depth and nuances across the vintages in both regions. But these wines are also good shared with mates, accompanied by lamb and a rugby game. You choose!

In the vines at Hither & Yon
Malcolm Leask – Hither & Yon, McLaren Vale, SA 

H. How do you best describe your cabernet style?
M. Cabernet has long been our 'Sunday roast' wine, but as our cooking-at-home ethos has changed, so has the style of cabernet we drink. It can be elegant, and we make ours in a way that it is bright and medium bodied, with vineyard fresh fruits and crunch for fun drinking and matching. For us, it’s all about the vineyard, where the most important decision in making our cabernet is the final fruit-tasting day in the vineyard. We like choosing to pick early for some nice eucalyptus and tomato-leaf freshness, and ours is a single-vineyard wine so it expresses our soil very well, mocha and spiced oak.

H. Cabernet is one of McLaren Vale’s hidden gems. What do you believe sets it apart?
M. McLaren Vale is a beautiful environment for cabernet and often overlooked as a classic, high-quality variety from our region because it is so diverse with new-wave varieties. It is possible to have the maritime coolness come through in cabernet, and we have actually chosen an Italian clone for our vineyard to make a fresher style that surprises.

Brad Rey at Zonte's Footstep
Ben Cane – Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, WA 

H. What are the characters you love to see in cabernet sauvignon?
B. It’s like blackberries wrapped in dark chocolate with a sprinkle of cedar and cinnamon, served on fine granulated cocoa powder with a dash of cherry liqueur and sea salt. It is framed by fine-grained tannins, encompassed by dark forest berry fruit and baking spices with great length and persistence. I like complexity and balance in cabernet, from cassis and bramble through to juicy, plump, dark berry fruit, sprinkled with bay leaf and spices, and framed by powdery tannins giving great length and structure. Tannin ripeness and careful selection is key.

H. How has your approach to making cabernet evolved in recent times?
B. Our wines are more expressive of site and vintage, and less shaped by winemaking, with a focus on vibrant fruit and balance in all elements. Picking has begun earlier, capturing more natural acid and a fresher fruit spectrum, and selection has increased, sorting in the vineyard and berry sorting at the winery. Handling has become gentler, winemaking has become less oxidative, with shorter time on skins and lower percentages of less impactful oak to create finer balance. Seamless integration of land and climate with respectful winemaking to elevate fruit and speak of place.

This article was produced in partnership with the featured wineries.

Top image credit: Wine Australia / Ian Routledge