When the best cabernet is a shiraz!

A little over a year ago I reported on an American tasting that rated an Australian shiraz as the best cabernet in the world and promised a re-enactment of the tasting here in Canberra in conjunction with Alby Sedaitis of Barocca Cafe and Cafe Chaos fame.

On a smaller and more intimate scale we re-assessed some of the top 1982 wines tasted by the Americans and drew somewhat different conclusions.

Results of the original tasting, conducted by international wine society, Les Amis du Vin dispelled, in my mind, any lingering belief in the sanctity of wine-show results or the infallibility of wine-guru palates.

They provided palpable evidence of the subjective, unreliable, and often meaningless nature of wine judging. As well, the automatic supremacy of cabernet amongst red grape varieties came under challenge.

The masked tasting, conducted by the Chicago chapter of Les Amis in February 1994, lined up many of the finest French and American cabernet sauvignons from the 1982 vintage.

After the wrappers came off fifty judges wondered how a ring-in won the day. As Chapter Director Paul H. Ernst reported, a shiraz was “the hands-down, consensus favorite of the entire tasting.”

How could grubby-old, workhorse shiraz lick the glitziest names in the glitziest of all red grape varieties, cabernet sauvignon? What was it doing there in the first place?

Ernst wrote, “… this year’s ringer was the 1982 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage… no one overtly identified the wine, the combination of cassis-like fruit and green olive character contributed by the oak, sufficed to stump the majority of attendees. Its relative maturity and round, elegant fruit were certainly some of the elements that resulted in it being… the favorite.”

Why the ringer was included, I don’t know. But anyone who attends masked tastings appreciates just how difficult it is to spot the unexpected. When we’re told there are twenty-four cabernets to assess, we assume that’s what’s in front of us. Trickery’s the last thing we expect. So, it’s not surprising that no one identified one big, rich shiraz amongst twenty-three big, rich cabernets.

Still, assessing the 1982 reds, not spotting the odd one out, was the theme of the tasting. And because the press release focused on scores, presumably the organisers believed the results had some significance beyond being simply a tally of preferences on the day. Were they telling us it was a valid and definitive ranking of the wines tasted when they couldn’t tell cabernet from shiraz?

For the Canberra tasting, we reduced the field from 24 wines to just 6, all with impeccable reputations. And instead of fifty judges, there were 6 who first tasted and discussed the wines seriously, then over a long Sunday lunch cooked by Alby, laughed and talked the bottles through one by one.

Perhaps the most striking feature when you taste wines of this quality, is the strong individuality of each wine. This was the case even with three of the Bordeaux wines, Chateaux Mouton Rothschild, Margaux and Latour, produced in close proximity to each other.

The second striking feature was the extraordinary difference between the French wines and the Australian ones — and not just because Grange 1982 is a shiraz. It and Penfolds Bin 820 Coonawarra Cabernet Barossa Shiraz 1982 stood apart from the comparatively austere French wines for their sheer opulence and rich fruitiness.

Of the French, in brief, Chateau Mouton is the model cabernet: powerful and austere at the same time; Margaux is the model of elegance, finesse and complexity, an intriguing mix of perfume, power, and delicacy; Latour is model Claret, offering infinite complexity of aroma and flavour, with sweet fruit lurking beneath huge tannins that need years more to tame; and Cheval Blanc, more cabernet franc and merlot than cabernet sauvignon, offered an utterly beautiful range of fragrances and sweet, wonderfully supple flavours.

It’s hard to see now how the Americans missed Grange as a ring in. The 1982 is a great wine and, to my surprise, easily held its own in this company. I maintain my belief that it is an underrated vintage that’ll still be here when those who criticise its longevity are in nursing homes.

Penfolds Bin 820 remains a wonderful wine, a rich, silky blend of cabernet and shiraz. It, too, seems long from the early demise predicted for it by some critics five years ago.