Cabernet Sauvignon is one of Australian wine’s great success stories, though in recent times its star has waned in the public’s imagination. Sometimes perceived as old-fashioned, unapproachable or austere, Cabernet Sauvignon is proving its status as a true noble grape varietal that creates rewarding, complex wines. While often blended with Merlot or hidden away in multi-varietal blends, pure Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine worthy of a place in any serious wine lover’s collection. Here we look at the evolution of Cabernet Sauvignon in Australia, where it’s grown successfully and who to watch for the future of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet Sauvignon: The king of Australian vines?
Cabernet Sauvignon made its way into Australia in the collection imported by wine pioneer James Busby in 1832. Taking rootstock from France and planting it in Australia was initially fruitless as without the skills necessary to select the right sites, the vines died.
Though the encouragement and persistence of later pioneers, including John Macarthur and Gregory Blaxland, found suitable sites and vineyards planted eventually across New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. While the first Cabernet Sauvignon crops were mostly used to contribute to blends, viticulturists and winemakers soon saw the potential of Cabernet Sauvignon as a single-varietal wine and it’s this individuality and personality that gives Australian Cabernets their edge and personality.
Australia boasts what are believed to be the world’s oldest productive Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the northern Barossa at Penfolds Kalimna Block 42. These were planted in 1886 and the wines from that vineyard play an important part in the Penfolds story.
In 1966, Cabernet Sauvignon only accounted for a mere 620 tonnes of the grapes crushed in Australia. Today, after Shiraz and Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon is Australia’s third most planted wine grape variety and is the world’s most widely planted vine. In 2016 255,000 tonnes of Cabernet Sauvignon were crushed in Australia.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening vine that performs most successfully in warm to cool, dry regions. In hot regions the fruit characters become less defined, but are still useful for use in low-cost commercial blends - often adding much-needed tannins to help add structure to wines made from other high-cropping vines. Although Cabernet Sauvignon can perform well in cool climates, if they are too cold and the wines may reflect excessive methoxypyrazine characters which present as capsicum, green leaf and herbaceous notes. Such tones in greater concentrations can adversely affect Cabernet Sauvignon’s quality and leave the wine tasting green and stalky.
The Cabernet contenders: Coonawarra and Margaret River
Coonawarra and Margaret River can vie for the title of Australia’s leading Cabernet regions – though the finest wines from the cool climate Yarra Valley are also on the contender’s list. With a longer history of growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra can lay claim to having mastered the style long before Margaret River, which began significant wine production in the 1970s.
Coonawarra’s wine story began when Scottish pioneer John Riddoch established the Coonawarra Fruit Colony in 1890, planting his first Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 1893. Coonawarra’s trump card is its rich, red terra rossa soil which, combined with the warm-hot climate, provides ideal conditions for Cabernet to reach perfect physiological ripeness. This is essential for premium Cabernet as it helps avoid the green methoxypyrazine characters (even long-term cellaring won’t improve such characters). Coonawarra is home to historic brands that continue to champion the region’s Cabernet Sauvignon style: family-owned Redman, established in 1908 rose to fame with their “Rouge Homme” labels. Wynns is one of Coonawarra’s best-known names, the legacy of those first vines planted by John Riddoch. Coonawarra Cabernet found instant fame in 1963 when the 1962 Mildara Cabernet Sauvignon won the Jimmy Watson Trophy, one of Australia’s most prestigious wine awards. In the five decades since then, there have been six Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Jimmy Watson winners.
Margaret River’s wine industry was brought to life by Dr John Gladstones in the late 1960s. Gladstones saw potential in the region’s mild Mediterranean climate, which is similar to Bordeaux in dry years. Striking the perfect balance of hot daytime temperatures and cool nights with no frost risk, Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon reaches depths of ripeness with optimal acidity levels that sets it above other regions. Some of Margaret River’s finest Cabernets come from Leeuwin Estate, Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Cullen, Cape Mentelle, Houghton, Woodlands, Howard Park and Lenton Brae.
Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon is richer in flavour and more rounded in texture than that found in Coonawarra, and in the best years showing astonishing balance between fruit ripeness, acidity and defined tannin structure.
Cabernet Sauvignon: An Australian gem
Cabernet Sauvignon’s brilliance can be found across Australia. In the Yarra Valley cool climate wines of sublime subtlety and graces are to be found from labels including Yarra Yering, Yarra Yarra, Mount Mary, Yeringberg, Seville Estate, Dominique Portet and Levantine Hill. The Yarra Valley style shows elegant black fruits with a backbone of tannins varying from soft and approachable to firm and drying. The spectacular Pyrenees region in western Victoria is also home to outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon, creating a regional style that reflects upfront fruit supported by tight tannins.
In regions with slightly warmer climates, Cabernet Sauvignon reflects plush, deeper flavours and softer tannins. Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and Barossa Valley create powerful, luscious Cabernet Sauvignon that takes on riper, richer fruit characters than its cool-climate cousins. The trade-off with warm-climate Cabernet is that it can offer a shorter cellaring life but easier immediate or short-term enjoyment.
In some regions (Coonawarra excluded), Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes said to have a hole in its mid palate, often referred to as the Cabernet “doughnut”. The wine hits the front of the palate with fruit flavour, then leaps giving a distinct impression of lingering flavour and tannin on the back-palate, leaving a hollow sensation in the middle of the tongue. This is why winemakers blend Cabernet with other grapes, to help fill out the palate and smooth over any gaps in Cabernet’s flavour profile. Other than Merlot, some compatible grapes for blending with Cabernet include Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz.
The three keys to Cabernet Sauvignon
Several factors influence the style, intensity, favour and longevity of Cabernet Sauvignon. The first and most significant is regionality – the effect of soil and climate. McLaren Vale Cabernets might often show chalky dark chocolate notes, Coonawarra cigar box, mint and cedar, Barossa Valley rich blackberry fruit, Margaret River blackcurrant and dried herbs or Mount Benson wintergreen undertones.
The second factor that influences Cabernet Sauvignon is viticulture – how the vines are pruned, shoot-thinned, irrigated (or not), trellised and harvested (hand or machine picked) will have an impact on the finished wine. Over-cropped Cabernet Sauvignon vines will produce wines with less-clear varietal definition than those with low-yielding crops; this is often the practice where the wines will be used in blends rather than standalone wines. The third factor is winemaking: whether the grapes are whole-bunch pressed, with stalks or without, the use of carbonic maceration, micro-oxygenation, whether cultured yeasts or wild yeasts begin the ferment, pre-fermentation cold soak, how long the wine is left in contact with skins and seeds, whether it’s fined and filtered and how oak is used will all define Cabernet Sauvignon’s character, complexity and lifespan.
Trailblazers of Australian Cabernet Sauvignon
As one of the noble red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon crafted in the traditional, classic style will always have a place in the market and in serious collections. But reaching a new market could benefit from a different approach. Winemakers taking Cabernet Sauvignon to the edge of conformity may be the ones who give Cabernet a new image, gaining a new generation of collectors.
Teusner’s ‘The Gentleman’ Eden Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is balanced and complex, showing the single-vineyard approach of winemakers Kym Teusner and Michael Page. Juicy with mint, blackcurrant and supported by dusty tannins, this high-altitude Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most generous from the region.
At Bellwether in Coonawarra, winemaker Sue Bell presents a complex Cabernet Sauvignon, hand pruned and hand picked, fermented with wild yeasts. The fine-grained tannins make it easy to approach in its youth, but it is also carrying the structure and complexity to age for decades.
Husband and wife team Iwo Jakimowicz and Sarah Morris are behind the pure, natural wines of Si Vintners in Margaret River. Grown with natural wine practices, their low-cropped Halcyon Block Cabernet is basket pressed, fermented in open vats and matured in a combination of old and new oak for one-and-a-half years. The result of their non-traditional approach creates wines with power, purity of fruit and clear regional expression.
Cullen wines in Margaret River has been a proponent of natural, holistic growing practices for more than forty years, gaining organic certification in 2003 and biodynamic certification in 2004. It’s also Australia’s first winery to be certified 100% carbon neutral. Recognising the link between the soil, vine and rhythms of nature, winemaker Vanya Cullen’s approach creates some of Margaret River’s finest, most collectible Cabernet Sauvignons. Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon is deeply coloured, fragrant, flavoursome and has incredible length that is the signature of the Margaret River style. Cabernet of this calibre can cellar for 20–30 years, making it one of the great wines of the world.
The future Of Australian Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon is an essential part of Australian wine’s classic heritage and is a worthy addition to any collector’s long-term collection. The excitement lies in small-batch wines made with an individual approach that highlights regionality and the inherent varietal qualities with a deft winemaking touch. Margaret River, Coonawarra, Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Barossa Valley and the Yarra Valley will be leading regions at the forefront of Cabernet’s future and with the style of wine changing to a lighter, more food-focused approach, these are wines to please both now and in the future.
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