Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon 1998 — a report card

You read the vintage hype, stash a few boxes away and now, a decade on, comes the moment of truth. Do your treasured 1998 Coonawarra cabernets measure up to the excitement surrounding the vintage?

It was a warmer than average season in the region, producing sturdier reds than usual. This prompted a 1998s-are-atypical critique, followed a year later by an I-told-you-so as the 1999s reverted to a more traditional regional elegance.

This was all reminiscent of the still running debate on the robust-1990 reds versus the elegant 1991s. No one likes a dry argument, of course, so two weeks back a group of us lined up fourteen 1998 Coonawarra cabernets taken from two comparable Canberra cellars. Here’s our report card.

The tasting revealed something of the vintage, the worth of cellaring, the merits of different winemaking approaches (especially in the use of oak), the effects of vineyard practice on wine quality and the at times surprising individual differences in perception of the same wine.

To remove bias we served the wines masked and made our initial judgement in silence for a period before opening the discussion. This parallels the wine show system where judges see only numbered glasses and score each wine without reference to the other judges.

Why the silence? Well, it’s so easy to be swayed by comments, especially coming from big shots in the game. So, it’s heads down, shut up and make your own call – there’s plenty of time to talk later.

And that’s what judges do after assessing a class of wines. They compare scores and decide on an aggregate for each wine – but not on those with a gold-medal score from any of the three judges.

This recognises that different palates taste different things. The judges now call for fresh glasses of all the potential gold medallists and reappraise them with refreshed palates. Some wines fall across the line for gold, others slip back to silver or bronze or no-medal scores.

In our more casual Coonawarra tasting, instead of doing the potential-gold re-taste we took the bottles to dinner afterwards for a little sip – always so much better than the sniff, sip, spit of a tasting.

While the report card below is my own, it takes into account, second impressions over dinner and some of the comments made by the other tasters.

For the record, the other judges were David Farmer, wine merchant, Bryan Martin, winemaker and wine judge, Peter Gill, restaurateur and caterer, Robert Forbes, long-term industry friend and Jennifer Graham, wine marketing and sales representative.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
A solid varietal expression looking young for its nine years, scored silver in my books, but didn’t receive universal support.

Koppamurra Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
This one’s a ring-in from Wrattonbully, just north and east of the Coonawarra boundary. Scored gold initially because of its exceptional fruit concentration but backed off after a few sips because of slight bitterness. Brian Croser (ex Petaluma) now owns this vineyard in his new Tapanappa venture.

Petaluma Coonawarra 1998
An elegant wine with years ahead of it. I placed it in the middle of the pack initially, but it looked better and better in the post-tasting sip – a very good sign. I suspect the bottle was slightly oxidised, probably a cork failing.

Redmans Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
This was another of the elegant styles, quite mature to my taste, though rated very highly by Farmer. A lovely drink but I wouldn’t be keeping it much longer.

Rouge Homme Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
The only cork-tainted wine in the line up. It was still clearly varietal but the colour suggested advanced age. Bring on the screw caps.

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
A very powerful wine in all departments – masses of rich fruit with oak to match. I’m not a fan of the oak, but it drank well despite this and will live on for many, many years.

Mildara Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
One of the weaker wines in the line up, scored middling at first, but it’s a little lean and has an unappealing menthol character noted by a few tasters. Pleasant enough but unlikely to go anywhere, so drink up.

Penley Phoenix Coonawarra 1998
A wine that shows proprietor Kym Tolley’s Penfolds training – big and solid in this line up, with rich, ripe cassis varietal flavour and layers of oak and tannin. Ready to drink now.

Sharefarmers Coonawarra 1998
This was Petaluma’s second Coonawarra label under Brian Croser and sourced from the once controversial Sharefarmers vineyard that now sits squarely inside the Coonawarra boundary. It’s lighter in colour than its peers and now past its best. Drink up.

Peppertree Coonawarra 1998
This was loved and hated within our small group – a big and buoyant wine with assertive oak. It appealed in the sniff and sip phase but looked a bit clumsy as a drink with dinner.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
This was the youngest looking wine in the group on colour, aroma and flavour. It’s incredibly powerful and has years to go. But in this tasting, as it did in a line up three years ago, I found the oak just too dominant. This will age forever, and served with a nice slab of protein (beef or lamb) it’ll drink beautifully, but that oak won’t ever go away. Sue Hodder’s 2004 version is a superb refinement of the style.

Robertson’s Well 1998
Appealed at first, but faded quickly in the glass and ended up towards the bottom of the deck for me.
Parker Estate Coonawarra Terra Rossa 1998
To me this was one of the oldest-looking wines of the tasting, but appealing nevertheless because of the aged varietal flavours. Drink up.

Leconfield Coonawarra 1998
Syd Hamilton might turn in grave to taste this brown, fading wine. To me it was the weakest wine of the lot and well past its best. Fortunately, since the appointment of Paul Gordon as winemaker, Leconfield has come back strongly in recent years following improvements in the vineyard and winemaking.

We concluded that as a group the wines showed terrific varietal and regional character with great depth and full ripeness. Overall they were in excellent condition for their age and several should continue to age well. Farmer felt that some would’ve been better when younger and fruitier.

If you have 1998 Coonawarra’s in your cellar, it’s probably a good idea to begin drinking them now – but don’t rush unless you’ve got those in the fading category.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007