More Than Shiraz
Tatler Malaysia|November 2021
Australia may not be the first place you think of when it comes to cabernet sauvignon, but to ignore its offerings is to miss out
Sarah Heller

The wine world has a funny relationship with the idea of signature wines. On the one hand, regions or even countries seem to benefit heavily when able to carve out a clear niche (think Napa cabernet or New Zealand sauvignon blanc); but what at first seems like a blessing can sour on the vine when producers find themselves unable to escape that narrowly defined box.

This is particularly pertinent when it applies to entire countries. Too often, a diverse portfolio of specific and sensitively made wines gets brutally overshadowed by the “signature” behemoth. Australia, for example, can struggle to raise awareness internationally of even its most deeply historical wine styles because its name is inextricably linked with shiraz.

A subset of Australian wines that seems to have got lost in the vast gulf between its “modern wave” of big, boisterous shirazes and its hip “new wave” of skinny chardonnays, pinots and funky natural wines is classic Aussie cabernet sauvignon, incarnations of which have been quietly chugging along, developing an ever more nuanced and sophisticated profile.

So when an opportunity arose to taste a selection of top Aussie cabs against international benchmarks, I happily put my hand up. It did not hurt that Wine Australia had pulled together a truly plum list (the international benchmarks alone included such treats as Pichon Baron 2015 and BV Georges de Latour 2015, while the Aussie list included two listed as Exceptional in Langton’s Classification, the ranking of best-performing Australian wines) for a webinar led by Oz Clarke, Mary Gorman-McAdams MW and John Szabo MS.

There are three areas of Australia that are associated with cabernet sauvignon to varying degrees: Coonawarra in South Australia, the Yarra Valley in Victoria and Margaret River in Western Australia. The grape is also grown in other regions, including Barossa and Langhorne Creek in South Australia, but these have less of a clearly defined regional style.

A quick refresher on the variety: it is one we think of as “structure-driven” in that it has comparatively high levels of acidity and small berries with thick, dark skins that give high levels of tannin (plus a deep ruby-purple colour). It usually has only middling levels of body and alcohol (say 14 per cent on average) unless very ripe, which it ideally should not be. As a result, it is commonly blended with merlot, which has complementary traits to cab, as well as a smattering of other varieties like cabernet franc and petit verdot. As a late ripener, cabernet is happiest in an environment with a long, sunny growing season but it wants cooling maritime influences to save it from excess weight. Some connoisseurs also feel it should retain a hint of leafiness; others abhor those notes.

A unique characteristic of Australian cabernet sauvignon is that, due to its long history in the country (the oldest cabernet vines in the world are believed to be found in Penfold’s Kalimna Block 42, planted in 1888), several regions have had decades to develop distinct styles that draw the best out of their natural environments.

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