Cabernet sauvignon doesn’t always get the limelight, but it more than deserves to steal the show. Here, producers from around the country discuss cabernet’s past, present and future.
Think Coonawarra and Margaret River, and one wine springs to mind: cabernet sauvignon. Coonawarra cabernet has a virtual trademark on blackcurrant, dark chocolate and mint flavours, while Margaret River’s intensity is unmistakable.
Around Australia’s other wine regions, cabernet plays second fiddle to other grape varieties, but this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, in many of Australia’s established and upcoming wine regions, cabernet sauvignon was often one of the first grapes planted for table wines.
Cabernet’s star was shining bright until the export boom of the late 1980s. From the cool Yarra Valley to warm McLaren Vale, it was considered the grape to drink and cellar. But when the world discovered Australian shiraz, they decided they didn’t want our cabernet. Drinkers and many winemakers went along for the ride.
With the boom gone bust, those blockbuster wines so loved by international critics have been toned down, with drinkers seeking elegance. With an elegant flavour profile, many hoped that cabernet’s time may have arrived.
But not quite. During the boom, Australia’s wineries started looking for the next big thing. Italian varieties flourished, Spanish grapes arrived and, thanks to a strong Aussie dollar, imports flooded the market. While the quality of cabernet sauvignon has arguably risen with experience and vine age, red wine is no longer a two-horse town.
Cabernet sauvignon has been growing in Australia for more than 150 years, but for a long time, it was a minor player. Not considered a good grape for port, much of what was made was exported to that traditional claret market, the UK.
“It was introduced in the early 1890s in an effort to bring in a medium-bodiedness,” says Saltram winemaker Shavaughn Wells. “The Saltram family was from Exeter and to make a claret style for export, they introduced cabernet to their portfolio. Cabernet has been an integral part of Saltram’s story and around 75 per cent of our estate vineyard is cabernet, which is a bit different from most Barossa make-ups.”
Fast-forward 75 years and Yalumba planted what was the largest cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the southern hemisphere in South Australia’s Riverland. “The Oxford vineyard was planted in 1958 for fortified production, but cabernet was also planted – it was an out-there, alternative variety for the region at the time,” says winemaker Andrew La Nauze. “Plantings of cabernet really took off in the ’90s and we grow twice as much cabernet than shiraz.”
Having produced some of the Pyrenees’ early wines, Neill Robb is as much an important part of the region as the vines that span the Sunraysia highway from Victoria’s Avoca to Redbank. “Until Max Lake started the boutique wine boom in the late ’60s, early ’70s, there wasn’t a lot of cabernet around the Pyrenees. It was all shiraz,” says Neill, whose Sally’s Paddock cabernet blend is listed as Excellent under the Langton’s wine classification. “People looking to go into the boutique thing followed Max and planted cabernet. We were all Bordeauxfiles back then too.”
Around the same time, Reg Egan and his wife Bertina were planting cabernet on the outskirts of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs at Wantirna Estate. “Cabernet was very much in fashion and seemed to get all the accolades with Bordeaux,” Reg says.
“The Yarra Valley developed – there was also Guill [de Pury, of Yeringberg] and John Middleton [Mount Mary] – and although we had the classic Burgundy varieties, all everyone talked about was cabernet, cabernet, cabernet. Some of our early cabernets – I think more by good luck than good management – got a very good name.”
Shiraz boom spells cabernet doom
By the 1980s, Australian cabernet sauvignon was making a name for itself. “In 1990, there was the same amount of cabernet as shiraz in McLaren Vale,” says d’Arenberg’s Chester Osborn. “It was only the export boom that changed that because the world wanted shiraz rather than cabernet. All throughout the ’70s and ’80s, cabernet was the most expensive wine, above shiraz, and was considered the top priority of McLaren Vale.”
The cabernet conundrum
Tannic in its youth, cabernet really hits its straps at three or four years of age. The best examples age for decades and this strength, according to many producers, is also its downfall. With a tax system that encourages producers to release their wines young, many wineries are under pressure to release their cabernets before they reckon they are ready.
Mitchell Taylor, managing director and winemaker of Taylors Wines believes economic factors are holding cabernet back. “We’re encouraged by the tax system we have to release our wines on the early side. You need patience with cabernet, you need to give it extra time in the cellars,” he says.
“What basically is required is all our costs associated with vintage have to be put into the cost of making the wine. With cabernet, we can’t write that off against our income until we actually sell the wine. That makes it very prohibitive.
“As you push these cabernets out earlier to keep up, I think the problem is that cabernet can be more tannic as a variety and people don’t like the chalky tannins when it’s a one-year-old. With shiraz you can sort of get away with it – it’s got that richness and when you release them after 12 months, they’re showing all their structure and potential.”
Dan Murphy’s national product director Peter Nixon and Wantirna Estate’s Reg believe cabernet’s absence from restaurant wine lists isn’t helping either. “Cabernet’s one of those classic grapes – it will never, ever go out of fashion,” says Reg. “Over the past 20 years, if you don’t release more or less current vintages to restaurants, wine drinkers will ask, “What’s wrong with the wine, why did they hold it back?’”
“Bordeaux [and Australian cabernet sauvignon] hardly exists on Australian wine lists today, but 50 years ago it was the opposite,” Peter says. He believes a reserva concept, with set rules and definitions around maturation and when a wine can be released, similar to Spain, would work well for cabernet. “Why is Spain the only country in the world that has a reserva and gran reserva program?” he asks. “We should be in a position in Australia where we could do the same thing. Some of our cabernets would look great. Some of the cabernets and cab merlots we keep in the Dan Murphy’s cellar program – entry-level wines – look really good with three to five years in the bottle.”
So who is drinking it?
Peter Nixon says cabernet and blend sales are pretty strong – second to shiraz, but with a loyal following. “Cabernet does seem to have an older, more mature audience,” he says. “I think the millennial audience has yet to discover the delights of great cabernet. That will happen. At this stage it’s still a big audience and sometimes I think we underestimate it. Over $20, there’s a strong market for premium cabernet and under-$20 people are looking for a bit more softness – the warm, generous styles out of the Barossa or Coonawarra, or merlot blends. Where there’s a rich, opulent style, people are prepared to drink cabernet or shiraz, and people seem prepared to try both. There’s life in cabernet yet!”
From the makers
What to expect from makers around the country.
Riverland, South Australia
“In terms of a regional profile, I’d struggle to pick out one particular character. They’re a much more fruit-orientated style – the warm summer weather ripens the grapes fully so we tend to have the fruits that go from blackcurrants to the really ripe, jammy characters. If you get a good vineyard and producer, you’ll always know you’re tasting cabernet.” Andrew La Nauze, Yalumba
McLaren Vale, South Australia
“McLaren Vale produces wines that are quite dark, with structure and dark fruits, plus capsicum depending on when you pick it, and it always seems to have a minty, leaf-like character to it that screams that it is cabernet.” Chester Osborn, d’Arenberg
“The styles [of cabernet] the Pyrenees can produce varies widely – anything’s possible. It’s just up to the winemaker. There’s such diversity that there’s no particular style. The structure of Pyrenees cabernet is like a good book – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. If made in an old-style way, the wines can be incredibly long lived.” Neill Robb, Sally’s Paddock
Barossa Valley, South Australia
“It’s a medium- to full-bodied style, with textural, grainy tannins that drive the length and mulberry, cassis flavour spectrum. They have an amazing ability to age. The cooler years are when it really shines.” Shavaughn Wells, Saltram
Yarra Valley, Victoria
“Ageworthiness is a hallmark of Yarra Valley cabernet. Low pH is a good start for a wine, and I think also some more subtle fruit flavours and a reasonable weight. The tendency is delicacy, good strength and good backbone and usually fruit [flavour].” Reg Egan, Wantirna Estate
Clare Valley, South Australia
“We get those cassis, rich berry, chocolate, earthy liquorice characteristics. The structure is all in the velvety mid-palate and we don’t get the doughnut structure. We like cabernet straight and we’ve had great success with merlot, but don’t tend to blend the wines.” Mitchell Taylor, Taylors Wines
Next article: read up on riesling with Ralph Kyte-Powell
Back to the cabernet sauvignon showcase