I’m a big fan of cabernet sauvignon. My introduction to fine wine came working in the UK wine trade in the early 1990s, and it was de rigueur to drink copious quantities of claret, the name given to red wine from Bordeaux in France. Cabernet sauvignon is a hugely important variety in Bordeaux, and I developed a particular affection for the grape’s intense flavours of blackcurrant and cedar, and its firm, fine, long tannins – tannins that, I learned, give cabernet-based wines the brilliant ability to slowly mature in the cellar.
At the wine shop I worked at I also sold a lot of cabernet sauvignon from other parts of the world – Chile, California, Bulgaria, Australia. This was clearly a grape that had travelled happily over the centuries, with colonial wine producers keen to emulate classic claret.
While these global wines were all quite different in style, they shared cabernet’s unmistakable varietal flavour profile: more or less blackcurranty, depending on where they were grown (I remember a particularly fruity example from warm McLaren Vale, almost Ribena-like in its richness), more or less firmly tannic, depending on how they were made (Californian producers all seemed to be in competition with each other to see how full bodied they could make their cabernets).
Then, when I worked my first vintage in Australia, picking grapes, I discovered that cabernet sauvignon is one of the easiest varieties to identify in the vineyard. It has distinctive, large, five-lobed leaves; the bunches are long, the grapes small, and they taste unmistakably like the wine they produce. This may sound odd, but other red grape varieties, pinot noir for instance, can taste surprisingly un-vinous when you bite into a berry: it’s only after they’re fermented and turned into wine that their varietal flavours emerge.
I discovered that cabernet sauvignon has been grown in Australia since the early 19th century, and some pockets of old vines still exist: Penfolds’ famous Block 42 cabernet vineyard in the Barossa dates back to the 1880s, and Wendouree’s oldest cabernet vines in the Clare Valley were planted in the 1890s.
For most of the 20th century, cabernet sauvignon played a relatively minor role in Australian red wines, often blended with shiraz to produce a local version of “claret”. But since the wine revival of the 1960s and ’70s, the grape has been embraced by Australian producers and consumers, is now found in almost all regions across the country and is the second most-planted red grape after shiraz.
Three regions in particular have established reputations for producing great cabernet, both on its own as a varietal wine or blended with merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. The Yarra Valley in Victoria has a long history with cabernet: cuttings from Château Lafite in Bordeaux were planted at Chateau Yering in the 1850s; Coonawarra in South Australia has been synonymous with cabernet since the middle of the 20th century, thanks to the great wines of Redman and Wynns Coonawarra Estate; and since the early 1970s, Margaret River has become the epicentre for outstanding cabernet in Western Australia.
In fact, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to cabernet sauvignon in this country. Choosing just four to recommend here was hard – each of the regions featured (and others) could have provided excellent examples of the grape at all price points.
2017 Warramate Cabernet Sauvignon, Yarra Valley, A$30
Made by Winemaker of the Year finalist Sarah Crowe at Yarra Yering, this beautiful cabernet offers exceptional value for money. It has gorgeously ripe, concentrated glossy black fruit, framed by firm tannins.
2018 Corymbia Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, A$65
The first cabernet from ex-Cape Mentelle winemaker Rob Mann – grandson of legendary WA winemaker Jack Mann – under his own label is ravishing. It’s saturated with succulent blackcurrant juice, a grippy undertow of pure Margaret River forest floor.
2015 Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, $150
A dead-set Australian classic from Sue Hodder and the team at Wynns. It has dense, dark cabernet fruit wrapped up in seductive warm oak flavours and firm but supple tannins. Drinking beautifully now, but will cellar for 20-plus years.
2010 Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France, A$394
Four hundred bucks is a lot of money to spend on a bottle of wine, but this one is arguably good value compared to the $1,000-plus price tag of most top Bordeaux. It’s exceptionally complex, multi-layered, cedary, toasty, and is settling into a long life in the cellar.
Available at danmurphys.com.au