When cabernet sauvignon reaches full ripeness, there’s the chance to bottle the variety on its own, writes Peter Ranscombe.
“CABERNET is a serious variety – whenver I think about it, I always hear my mother telling me to ‘Sit up straight and don’t slouch’,” laughed Louisa Rose, the chief winemaker at Australian producer Yalumba during this morning’s virtual tasting.
Rose has a point – while grapes like glera, grenache, and even sauvignon blanc come with a certain playfulness, cabernet sauvignon has a stuffier image.
When was the last time you saw a skin-contact, low-intervention, day-glo pink cabernet pet nat gracing a shelf or a wine list?
Part of that seriousness comes down to the way cabernet is made.
“Cabernet does its own thing,” Rose told the tasting, with fewer variations to the winemaking process than there would be with other black grapes, like grenache or shiraz; no whole berry, whole bunch, or temperature varying fermentations for cabernet.
Instead, the grape has traditionally been blended with other varieties to “fill its hole”.
It’s often described as a “doughnut wine” because it delivers lots of fruit upfront and lots of tannin on its long finish – but not a lot in the middle.
In France, varieties including merlot, cabernet franc, and a cast of smaller players like petit verdot, malbec, and carmenere are corralled together in the blend.
Those Bordeaux varieties also play a role in California for Napa’s cabernet blends, with zinfandel and even petite sirah putting in an appearance occasionally, often below the 15% threshold that means they’d have to be named on the labels for sale in the European Union.
Down under, it’s shiraz that usually responds to the call, giving rise to “The Great Australian Blend”.
Yet warmer climes also mean cabernet gets riper and so delivers more fruit flavours, giving winemakers the option to bottle the variety on its own too – if they can solve that mid-palate problem.
Two Australian regions in particular – Coonawarra in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia – are renowned for their single variety cabernets.
“It’s unusual for us at Yalumba to talk about cabernet on its own,” pointed out Rose.
“Often when we’re talking about cabernet, we’re talking about it as a blend with shiraz for wines like the Caley and Signature, so it’s a nice change to focus on cabernet on its own.”
Meeting ‘The Menzies’
Sitting at the top of Yalumba’s cabernet tree is The Menzies, a wine named after former Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies, who was a fan of the winery’s bottles.
Its grapes come from fields planted in 1975 in Coonawarra – Yalumba had been buying fruit from the site for decades, but began bottling The Menzies as a standalone wine in 1987 and bought the vineyard in 1993, renaming it after its celebrity fan.
Coonawarra is famous for its “terra rosa” red soils that sit on limestone, and for a certain minty note.
There was definitely a touch of that mint on the nose of the 2014 Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon (equivalent to £35.10, Vinvm), alongside a complex mix of dark chocolate, cedar, cigar smoke, and coffee, plus lighter blackcurrant and redcurrant notes.
On the palate, savoury roast meat was joined by more red and black currants, plus the start of mushroom and prune flavours too.
Its tannins were grainy, but really well integrated; Rose contrasted 2014’s long ripening season to 2015’s shorter period, suggesting tannins from cooler years with longer growing seasons tended to deliver riper tannins.
“Great cabernet needs time,” she enthused.
I’d certainly go along with her theory by contrasting her 2014 with the more assertive and mouth-filling tannins in the 2015 Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon (£33.99, Majestic Wine), made in a milder year and now starting to replace the previous vintage on British shelves and lists.
For me, there was much redder fruit on the nose and palate too, with redcurrant and raspberry dominating over the blackcurrant.
It needs a meaty sirloin steak or wild mushroom risotto to show at its best right now – or more time for the tannins to knit together – yet there’s a spell-binding touch of dark chocolate that lingers on its extremely long finish.
From doughnuts to cigars
As well as its red soils and minty notes, Coonawarra is also noted for a “salty tang” to its wines, and that minerality was certainly on show in the 2017 Yalumba The Cigar Cabernet Sauvignon (£23.95, The Fine Wine Company).
While The Menzies focuses on fruit from the older vines in its eponymous vineyard, The Cigar is a blend of grapes from younger and older vines on the site, along with a few percentage points of malbec grown there too.
There’s no compromise when it comes to the depth of the dark fruit aromas, along with a damp earth note that avoids straying into unripe green territory.
I really enjoyed the smoked meat, blackcurrant, and deeper prune and damson flavours on the palate, along with the grainy but well-integrate dry beef-friendly tannins.
Shifting through the gears, the 2018 Yalumba Y-Series Cabernet Sauvignon (equivalent to £10, Vinvm) is a great starting point to explore single-variety cabernet sauvingon from Australia.
It’s made from a blend of fruit from Coonawarra, nearby Wrattonbully, and two other regions in South Australia, and the result is lighter and more perfumed aromas on the nose, with red and black currants, plus a herbaceous-yet-ripe note that’s more dried mixed herbs than mint.
There’s much more depth to the dark fruit flavours on the palate than the nose would suggest, plus grainy yet well-intergrate tannins – the type that would lend themselves to sausage casserole or slow-roasted lamb, rather than meatier steaks.
The wine is made in stainless steel tanks, so there’s no oak to help soft the wine and solve the mid-palate problem; instead, Rose uses a clever “pulse-air” system to bring tiny amounts of oxygen into the tanks during fermentation.
For those looking to extend their exploration across the continent to Margaret River, I’d recommend the excellent 2018 Robert Oatley Finisterre Cabernet Sauvignon (£19.10, Hedonism Wines), full of ripe blackberry, juicy raspberry, sweeter raspberry jam, and well-integrated vanilla.
Its tannins are softer than those in the Coonawarra examples, with Margaret River’s cooler influences harking back to Rose’s comments about a longer growing season leading to riper tannins, which are perhaps more approachable in their youth or without food.
For more of Peter’s wine, beer, and spirits reviews, check out his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.