The best-selling varietal red wine in the United States is Cabernet Sauvignon.
But if you check the shelves of your local wine retailer or the wine list of your neighborhood hangout for Australian options, prepare to be disappointed. Shiraz has deservedly been the dominant force in the American market for decades.
Yet, with a bit of persistence, consumers who seek out Australian Cabernet Sauvignon (and Cab-based blends) will be rewarded with wines that can challenge international classics, often at lower prices. Just know that for many of the top wines, quantities that reach the American market can be limited. Hesitation might mean that someone else grabs your Cab.
Three hours south of Perth, this underappreciated wine region has long been a weekend refuge for that city’s affluent residents and surfer dudes alike. Commercial viticulture here turns 50 years old this year, celebrating the 1967 plantings at Vasse Felix. Other early pioneers include Cape Mentelle, Cullen, Leeuwin, Moss Wood and Woodlands.
Interest in Margaret River was spurred by John Gladstone, a state horticulturist who argued that the maritime climate was ideally suited for Bordeaux varieties. Robert Mondavi was a huge supporter of those early efforts. He repeatedly visited Margaret River and offered advice to the Horgans at Leeuwin Estate and the Watsons at Woodlands. Given how geographically isolated the region is, that’s testament to the potential for fine wine.
While other parts of the country can make terrific Cabernet Sauvignon, I’d agree that Margaret River is Australia’s most consistent region for top Cabs.
The long trip pays off with access to stunning beaches, a bounty of locally produced foods and, of course, the world-class Cabernet Sauvignons (the Chardonnays can be great, too). That point is driven home at the annual International Cabernet Tasting, held at Cape Mentelle.
In November, at the 34th edition of the event, several of Margaret River’s wines made a strong showing in a 20-wine blind tasting. The entrants included benchmarks like Château Margaux, Ornellaia and Chateau Montelena, plus Australian legends Houghton Jack Mann and Wynns John Riddoch, all from the 2013 vintage. You can find my full report and notes at www.winemag.com/capementelletasting.
The mild climate features warmer days than Bordeaux, yet cooler ones than Napa, and the wines tend to fall between those extremes stylistically. Current Margaret River releases are never overripe, yet they avoid overt green characteristics. When the wines show herbal notes, they’re pleasant hints of bay leaf and sage.
“The wines are soft but have those bay leaf and olive edges that say Margaret River,” says Mark Bailey, winemaker at Howard Park. Alcohol levels rarely exceed 14 percent. Oak use, which varies by producer, is generally balanced by fruit intensity. Although most of the wines show ample power, the calling card of the region is elegance.
“I want layers and I want intrigue,” says Sarah Morris, co-owner of Si Vintners. “We’re getting more and more confident, and picking earlier and earlier.”
The result is a group of Cabernet-based wines that James Halliday, Australia’s well-known wine critic, considers his country’s best. While other parts of the country can make terrific Cabernet Sauvignon, I’d agree that Margaret River is Australia’s most consistent region for top Cabs.
Fortunately for those who can’t (or won’t) make the 30-plus-hour trip, a growing number of the region’s wines are available in the United States. Whether it’s the result of renewed efforts at quality from the establishment, upstarts with innovative viticultural practices or small producers that push the boundaries of low alcohol and minimal intervention, these wines reflect a new energy in the region.
Recent Top-Rated Margaret River Cabernets
Cape Mentelle 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River); 91 points, $72. Classic Margaret River Cabernet, showing great balance between cedary oakiness and effusive fruitiness. Cola and plum notes give this a darker flavor spectrum than some vintages, yet the flavors remain crisp and vibrant, ending with soft tannins. Drink now–2025.
Cherubino 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River); 94 points, $54. Of the three Cherubino 2010 Cabernets, I slightly preferred this one (the blended version), but just by a hair. The nose boasts seductive aromas of cedar, smoke, brown sugar and maple syrup, backed up on the palate by a convergence of chocolaty and meaty flavors that end in a softly dusty finale. Full bodied and supple, it’s drinkable now, but should drink well through at least 2020. Editors’ Choice.
Howard Park 2012 Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon (Western Australia); 94 points, $90. A blend of Mount Barker and Margaret River fruit (30% Margaret River, 70% Mount Barker), this is lavishly oaked, chocolaty and rich, as decadent a bottle of Cabernet you’ll find in Australia. Baking spices accent mocha and cassis in this full-bodied wine, which features a velvety texture and long finish. Drink 2020–2030, and possibly beyond. Cellar Selection.
Leeuwin Estate 2012 Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River); 92 points, $60. The Art Series Cabernet seems to be increasing in quality nearly every vintage. The 2012 boasts plenty of sweet, cedary oak, but backs that up with layers of red currant fruit and hints of bay leaf. It’s silky and harmonious on the finish, adding tea-like notes of complexity. Drink now–2025.
Moss Wood 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River); 95 points, $84. Perhaps the best young wine I’ve tasted from Margaret River, this makes a compelling case for the region’s Cabernet. Pure cassis fruit is lifted and framed by hints of toasted cedar, making for soaring aromatics and flavors, but what sets this wine apart is the tender, silky texture married to ample weight and richness. The finish lingers, with a supple, dreamy character that speaks to a gentle climate and careful winemaking. Drink now–2030.
Vasse Felix 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River); 93 points, $43. This is firm, dusty and seemingly built for the cellar. Toasty, cedary and chocolaty oak frames dark fruit, yet it remains fresh in character, not dried or overripe. The finish is long, tannic and reminiscent of fine Bordeaux. Try after 2020. Cellar Selection.
Xanadu 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River); 93 points, $29. This paints a true picture of Margaret River in its sage and bay leaf shadings and concentrated cassis fruit. It’s all framed by hints of vanilla and toasty oak, but the emphasis remains on dried herbs and fruit through the long, mouthwatering finish. Drink now–2030. Editors’ Choice.
Once, this was Australia’s Cabernet star.
It still offers the terra rossa soils and temperate climate that made it famous, but at least for the moment it’s been eclipsed by Margaret River’s success. Expansive vineyards and a lack of labor resulted in shortcuts like machine pruning and, even more disastrous from a quality standpoint, minimal pruning. Excessive vegetative growth led to fruit shading and green aromas and flavors in the finished wines.
Today, decades of vineyard mismanagement are gradually being reversed, and quality is on the rise. Leading the way are the same big companies that many blamed for Coonawarra’s decline.
Sue Hodder, senior winemaker at the iconic Wynns of Coonawarra, admits that the region has faced some challenges.
“The 1990s were a dream decade in terms of climate, but we’d let our vineyards go too long without proper care,” she says.
More recently, the efforts of Allen Jenkins, viticulturist at Wynns, have revived quality, says Hodder.
“There are fashions or trends or styles that we can see over time—leafy ’80s, bigger ’90s,” she says, but the goal is always “medium-bodied wines that age well.”
As part of the same corporate ownership as Penfolds, Hodder’s team at Wynns has influenced that company’s viticultural practices. Penfolds consistently draws a portion of its high-end Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra.
Today, decades of vineyard mismanagement are gradually being reversed, and quality is on the rise.
Coonawarra Cabernet also goes into the company’s very limited Bin 60A (blended with Barossa Shiraz) and Bin 620 (blended with Coonawarra Shiraz).
Like Penfolds, other notable producers truck fruit from Coonawarra to wineries elsewhere. St. Hugo, a recently revived label under the same ownership as Jacobs Creek, makes its Coonawarra Cab in the Barossa, and Yalumba’s The Menzies is also made there. Jim Barry brings fruit up to Clare Valley. Local wineries who currently export to America include Balnaves, Di Giorgio, Katnook Estate and Penley Estate.
Whether from Margaret River, Coonawarra or one of the many other Australian regions that produce high-quality Cabernets, most of the prices remain accessible, at least relative to competition from Napa or Bordeaux. None of the 11 wines pictured in this story retails for more than $100.
To date, only a few Australian Cabernets (or blends) have crossed that price barrier, but expect that number to increase as word about the quality of the wines spreads. The time to add these future collectibles to your cellar is now.
Recent Top-Rated Coonawarra Cabernets
Di Giorgio Family Wines 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra); 91 points, $26. While this wine comes out of the chute loaded with toast, mocha and brown sugar-inflected oak, the wood falls appropriately into the background on the palate, allowing cassis fruit to come forward. It’s firm and tannic, with a powerful structure that requires a few years to come into perfect balance; try it after 2020. Cellar Selection.
St. Hugo 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra); 93 points, $40. This historic label is experiencing a new lease on life, finally returning to the U.S. market. Toast and vanilla frame Ribena-like cassis fruit, picking up hints of dark chocolate as it glides across the palate. This is a firm, linear style of medium- to full-bodied Cabernet, built to age and yet approachable now. Cellar Selection.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2013 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra); 90 points, $40. This is a full-bodied, rich and round Cabernet Sauvignon. Juicy, mouthwatering cassis fruit is framed by cedar, vanilla and baking spices, while the finish showcases fine tannins. Given the quality of this wine, it’s a shame that Wynns’ high-end john Riddoch Cab doesn’t get exported to the U.S.
Yalumba 2013 The Cigar The Menzies Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra); 92 points, $26. Menzies is the name of Yalumba’s Coonawarra estate, which is almost entirely devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Like most of the Yalumba wines, the oak levels have been pared back in recent vintages, allowing this wine’s cassis fruit to to shine. Hints of tobacco, bay leaf and sage bring complexity, while the tannins are fine, adding a softly dusty feel to the long finish.
Other Aussie Cabernet Regions
One of Australia’s legendary Cabernets comes from this portion of Western Australia, which includes the inland Frankland River region: Houghton’s Jack Mann Cabernet Sauvignon, named for the winemaker who created it. Other wines of note include offerings from Frankland Estate, Howard Park and Plantagenet.
The site of Taylor’s, sold in America as Wakefield Estate, was selected based on its suitability for Cabernet Sauvignon. An inland region, its cool nights preserve acidity, although the hot days sometimes mean a warm note creeps into the wines, and often there’s a touch of eucalyptus. Other wineries worth seeking out include Grosset, Jim Barry and Kilikanoon.
Even this hotbed of Shiraz produces Cabernet Sauvignon. Because of the region’s warmth, often these are wines built on ripeness and power, not dissimilar to the Shiraz. That bold, dry-red tendency meshes well with the house style at Penfolds. Throw in what may be the world’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines, and its occasional releases of Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet are special, indeed.
Eden Valley is best known for its Riesling, but it’s also home to some of the country’s finest Shiraz. That doesn’t leave much room for Cabernet Sauvignon. Still, cooler temperatures than those found on the Barossa Valley floor mean that the few that are made typically retain more perfumed varietal character. Henschke’s Cyril Henschke is the obvious one to seek out, while Yalumba’s FDR1A blends Eden Valley Cabernet and Shiraz to good effect.
This cool-climate region is increasingly planted to Pinot Noir and white grape varieties, but Cabernet can perform well in some warm, north-facing pockets like near The Lane’s cellar door and winery in Hahndorf. Its 2012 19th Meeting Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon marries richness with complex spice notes and enough structure to warrant cellaring through 2025.
In a region that seems able to grow virtually any grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t known as traditional or cutting edge. It lives somewhere between those extremes, normally only a small part of most wineries’ production. Producers to seek out include Fox Creek, Hickinbotham, Kay Brothers, Mitolo, Penny’s Hill and Wirra Wirra. If you enjoy a superripe, nearly over-the-top style, Mollydooker’s Gigglepot will scratch that itch.
This region includes Coonawarra, Mount Benson, Mount Gambier, Padthaway, Robe and Wrattonbully. After Coonawarra, American consumers are most likely to find wines from Padthaway. Wines from Henry’s Drive Vignerons and Morambro Creek are solid bets, if often marked by eucalyptus notes from the region’s large gum trees. Casella’s 2007 “1919” Cabernet (the current release) shows the potential of Wrattonbully.
For years, fruit from Langhorne Creek was the secret sauce that lent silkiness to some of South Australia’s biggest regional blends (and it still does). Now, it’s gaining increased recognition in Cabernet Sauvignons made outside the region like Noon’s Reserve and Heartland’s Directors’ Cut. Local wineries Bleasdale and Bremerton also make notable Cabernets.
Now primarily known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Swiss vine pioneer Paul de Castella originally sourced Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux’s Château Lafite for his vineyards back in the 1850s. The few Cabernet-based wines that remain are some of Australia’s most sought after for their cool-climate elegance: Mount Mary Quintet and Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No. 1.