Classic Cabernets

Classic Cabernets

Regionality. It’s one of the current buzzwords in Australian wine, ever since the release of the industry’s Directions to 2025 report least year. Heralded as a way of countering a decade of declining prices and a trend toward blended wines, the report cites “Regional Heroes” as “wines from somewhere rather than wines from anywhere鈥攁dding and sustaining interest for consumers by fostering a clean association between region and cariety and/or style.” Bleah. This sort of yawn-inducing marketing-speak may be helpful to business managers, bankers and accountants trying to pry more money out of your pockets, but what does it really mean for you, as a consumer?

At least with respect to Cabernet Sauvignon, it means a wide range of wine styles, broadly correlating to grape origin. Cabernet Sauvignon is the second-most planted red-wine grape in Australia, accounting for more than 70,000 acres of vineyards spread across a country the size of the continental United States. And much as Long Island-grown Cabernet Sauvignon tastes little like Napa Valley Cabernet, the Cabernets from Western Australia tend to bear little resemblance to those from the Barossa, those from Yarra Valley differ from McLaren Vale, and so on. It’s a simple matter of soil and climate differing from place to place, a concept so old that the French long ago coined a word for it鈥攖erroir.

At the budget end of the Australian Cabernet spectrum, terroir is a nonfactor. Winemakers typically use lots from several different regions to fashion easy-drinking blends, using the strengths of one to shore up weaknesses in another. A splash of crisp, herbaceous material from a cool climate may be just what’s needed to perk up a thick, jammy wine from a warm, inland region, or a bit of high-alcohol wine can add flesh to the lean structure of another.

Examples of this may be found floor-stacked at virtually every U.S. retailer in the ubiquitous bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon from “South Eastern Australia”鈥攁n enormous swath of territory that encompasses the states of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the grape-growing portions of South Australia and Queensland. It’s potable, fruity stuff
at comfortable prices鈥攁nd the better examples earn Best Buy commendations from the critics (see sidebar). But these wines rarely move beyond the realm of daily drinkers into wines possessing uniqueness, complexity, length and the ability to improve with age. Cabernet lovers seeking those attributes need to step up and try wines sourced from more specific regions. Here’s an alphabetical rundown of the major possibilities and the top recently reviewed wines.


Barossa’s Best

97 Penfolds 2004 Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon (Barossa Valley); $225. This is incredibly dark, concentrated stuff from what may be the oldest (planted in 1886) continuously producing Cabernet vineyard in the world, located in the Kalimna portion of the northern Barossa Valley. This special selection鈥攃hief winemaker Peter Gago calls it “unadulterated essence of Cabernet”鈥攊s bottled only in top vintages (since 1964, only 1996 and 2004); in other years it forms the backbone of Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon. Minty, herbal notes combine with chocolate and cassis to yield a complex, balanced whole. Despite the density of the fruit, there’s absolutely no sense of heaviness or excessive weight, and while the tannins appear creamy on the midpalate, they fan out into a silky sheen on the lingering finish. About 500 cases produced. Drink 2012-2030. Imported by Fosters Wine Estates.

Better known for its Shiraz, Barossa’s warm climate also fully ripens Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes too much so, losing the subtle complexities of the variety and turning its trademark structure into a soft, flabby wine with cooked-fruit aromas and flavors. Top examples combine a slight minty herbaceousness with great richness and power, and are often sourced from slightly cooler sections, such as Eden Valley.

Other great Barossa Cabs are the product of cool ripening temperatures, which allow better retention of varietal character. The 2004 vintage was especially successful, with viticulturist Rob Gibson calling it “a great year for Barossa Cabernet.”

Top Wines:
路 Penfolds 2004 Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon (97, $225)
路 Grant Burge 2004 Shadrach Cabernet Sauvignon (93, $NA)
路 Elderton 2004 Ashmead Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $79)
路 Henschke 2003 Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $100)
路 Rockford 2003 Rifle Range Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $NA)
路 The Colonial Estate 2004 Etranger Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $33)

Clare Valley
Higher in elevation and subject to greater day-night temperature differences, Clare Valley Cabernets are less prone to overripeness than those of the Barossa. Although most Americans probably are more familiar with Clare Valley Riesling than Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety seems well suited to Clare, producing wines that are classically balanced, with tobacco overtones to the rich cassis fruit and firm tannins. The variety of microclimates and producers make it difficult to generalize about vintage quality; Jim Barry’s The Benbournie excelled in the coolest year on record (2002), while Wakefield Estate’s 2001 (a hot year) eclipses its 2002.

Top Wines:
路 Jim Barry 2002 The Benbournie Cabernet Sauvignon (93, $140)
路 Wakefield Estate 2001 St. Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon (93, $50)
路 Grosset 2004 Gaia (90, $52)
路 Wakefield Estate 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (90, $17)
路 Wakefield Estate 2002 St. Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon (90, $50)

This is the region that can truly be said to be home to Australian Cabernet, with a track record of producing complex and ageworthy Cabernets that goes back for several decades. Coonawarra’s famous terra rossa soils overlay a limestone ridge that provides excellent water-holding capacity, although irrigation is the norm. The climate is moderated by proximity to the ocean, although it remains subject to occasional spring frosts鈥攕evere frosts in 2007 cut yields by up to 70 percent. In top years, the wines are ripe, concentrated and balanced, the cassis fruit often marked by mint or eucalyptus characters. In lesser years, or from less conscientious producers, that green edge can be pronounced.

Top Wines:
路 Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2004 John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon (93, $45)
路 Jim Barry 2005 First Eleven Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $60)
路 Katnook 2002 Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $60)
路 Balnaves of Coonawarra 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (91, $28)
路 Jacob’s Creek 2003 St. Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon (91, $33)
路 Parker Coonawarra Estate 2004 Terra Rossa First Growth Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (91, $70)
路 Penley Estate 2004 Chertsey (91, $65)
路 Penley Estate 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (91, $65)

Langhorne Creek
Australian winemaking legend Wolf Blass is a huge fan of Langhorne Creek Cabernet, which he almost singlehandedly put on the map with a series of great wines back in the 1970s. But lacking the panache and saleability of other South Australia wine regions, Langhorne Cabernets are often blended in with other wines, such as Wolf Blass’s Black Label Cabernet-Shiraz at the high end, or Heartland’s less expensive 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, which blends Langhorne Creek fruit with a dollop from the Limestone Coast. The mild climate, deep alluvial soils and ample yields result in typically fruit-driven and softly structured Cabernets.

Top Wines:
路 John’s Blend 2003 Individual Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (93, $50)
路 Lake Breeze 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (91, $22)
路 Bleasdale 2005 Frank Potts Red Wine (90, $27)

Margaret River
Winemaking in Margaret River goes back only 30-odd years, a result of John Gladstones’ pioneering 1960s research into climate and viticulture. With chilly ocean currents on three sides, Margaret River has a strongly maritime climate, which prompted comparisons to Bordeaux and the initial plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Today, the region has added Chardonnay and Riesling to its repertoire, but its greatest strength is still Cabernet Sauvignon, which can show great complexity and finesse allied to rich fruit. The best examples resemble ripe-vintage Bordeaux, but marked by softer tannins.

Top Wines:
路 Moss Wood 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (93, $75)
路 Vasse Felix 2003 Heytesbury (93, $50)
路 Evans & Tate 2003 The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $30)
路 Leeuwin Estate 2002 Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $45)
路 Cape Mentelle 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (91, $45)
路 Howard Park 2004 Leston Cabernet Sauvignon (91, $20)

McLaren Vale
With its multitude of mesoclimates and varied topography, it’s difficult to generalize about McLaren Vale Cabernets, but for the most part they fall somewhere between the warm, superripeness of Barossa and the more herb-inflected wines of Coonawarra. The fruit can be dark and sometime chocolaty, but remains balanced by bright acidity (natural or added). Tannins are soft, sometimes accompanied by alcohol levels that can reach 15 percent. Of the premium Cabernet regions, this is the one that currently offers the most bang for the buck, with several top-rated wines retailing for $30 or less.

Top Wines:
路 Chapel Hill 2005 The Apostle Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $30)
路 Clarendon Hills 2004 Sandown Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $65)
路 Shingleback 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $22)
路 Joseph 2003 Moda Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (91, $48)
路 Tapestry 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (91, $22)
路 Wayne Thomas 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (91, $22)

Yarra Valley
Although probably better known today for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Swiss immigrant families first began growing Cabernet in the Yarra back in the 19th century, a tradition that was reawakened only in the late 1960s when pioneers such as John Middleton of Mount Mary and Bailey Carrodus of Yarra Yering were drawn to the region by its unique climate. The cool weather鈥攁verage summer temperatures are lower than those of Bordeaux or Burgundy鈥攎akes site selection of paramount importance, and emphasizes the effects of vintage variation. “You need to be facing north for Cabernet,” says Dominique Portet, who started his Yarra Valley winery in 2000. Many Yarra Valley Cabernets have distinct herbal components that can veer into the vegetal realm in off years, yet bring wonderful complexity to the wine in ripe vintages. Some of the 2004 wines are nice, but look for remaining 2003s鈥”probably the best Cab year I’ve seen here,” according to winemaker Rob Dolan鈥攁nd newly arriving 2005s.

Top Wines:
路 Yarra Yering 2004 Dry Red Wine No. 1 (92, $75)
路 Coldstream Hills 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (90, $NA)
路 Sticks 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (90, $NA)

Aside from these major names, plenty of other regions in Australia are making successful Cabernet, from Adelaide to Wrattonbully. Don’t discount a wine simply because it doesn’t come from one of the regions detailed here. Longview, in the Adelaide Hills, made top-notch Cabernets from its Devils Elbow Vineyard in both 2005 and 2006. Wrattonbully, with terra rossa soils like those found in Coonawarra, is an up-and-coming region in which both the Hill Smith family (the owners of Yalumba) and Jean-Michel Cazes have invested. Both endeavors have yielded encouraging results; Mawson’s (the Hill Smith project) garnered 90 points and a Best Buy, while the more expensive TapaNappa rated 89 points in its first vintage.

Beyond South Australia look for wines from Balgownie Estate and Water Wheel, both in Victoria’s Bendigo region. From Western Australia’s Frankland River and Great Southern regions come excellent Cabernets from Frankland Estate, West Cape Howe and Howard Park. There’s credible Cabernet to be found even in such offbeat locales as Orange and the Southern Highlands.

“I recently tasted a great one from Tasmania,” enthused retailer Chuck Hayward of The Jug Shop in San Francisco, when I spoke with him about this story. Unfortunately, the wine he was referring to鈥擠omaine A’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon鈥攊s not currently imported to the United States, but it does help illustrate the breadth of Australian Cabernet. For savvy consumers looking for alternatives to confected California Cabs or overpriced Bordeaux, Australia’s diverse Cabernets represent a whole new continent of opportunity.

For reviews of all the wines tasted, visit our online Buying Guide at

Published on March 21, 2008
Topics: Australian WineCabernet