Whatever happened to cabernet?

Whatever happened to cabernet, former king of the reds? By volume it’s running a distant second to shiraz. And in the publicity stakes it struggles to a poor third behind tiny-volume pinot noir.

Yet, when Australia’s modern table wine boom began forty years ago, cabernet sauvignon was revered as one of the four ‘noble’ grape varieties, along with riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir.

In this era our ubiquitous workhorse, shiraz, rated as an also ran, despite the standing of Penfolds Grange Hermitage – a shiraz – as our greatest red wine.

Those early boutique wineries, inspired by the originals from Bordeaux, tended to focus on cabernet. And the wine buzz through the late seventies and eighties was on the likes of Bill Pannell’s Moss Wood and Kevin Cullen’s Margaret River cabernets, along with the top wines of Bordeaux and, for a time, leading examples from California.

Shiraz was always there in our vineyards, especially in the warmer regions, but it didn’t attract the same respect as cabernet until the late eighties and early nineties. At about this time Grange creator Max Schubert, received UK-based Decanter magazine’s winemaker of the year award; a band of Barossa makers, dubbed the ‘Rhone rangers’, asserted the beauty of their traditional varieties, led by shiraz; and the world had begun to take fresh stock of superb shirazes from Cote-Rotie in France’s northern Rhone Valley.

It was also at this time that Canberra’s Clonakilla made its first straight shiraz, having blended it with cabernet for almost twenty years. Even that was partly an accident – a fortunate one that highlighted the variety’s quality and suitability to Canberra’s climate.

As shiraz gained respect globally, Australia took ownership of the variety, principally because it suited our growing conditions, we had lots of it and we had over a century of experience making it. Cabernet slipped to the backburner. But cabernet didn’t, and won’t, disappear.

The gap between the two varieties really opened up during the planting boom of the nineties. In 1995 we harvested 62,080 tonnes of cabernet sauvignon and 77,080 of shiraz. This year, with the full impact of the plantings, we picked 253,852 tonnes of cabernet and 435,850 tonnes of shiraz.

If cabernet’s not doomed, I do believe that in Australia it’s destined to fall further behind shiraz and may even lose some ground to pinot noir (our pinot harvest grew from 13,600 tonnes in 1995 to 47,104 tonnes in 2008).

This is because the average quality of our shirazes seems to be greater than the average quality of our cabernets. Where shiraz seems to be adapted to a wide range of conditions, cabernet is fussier. Too often cabernet is a little green, a little astringent and lacking in mid-palate flesh. Shiraz, on the other hand, tends to be soft, juicy and easy to love.

With a tendency for people now to enjoy a glass or two of wine on its own, the growing preference for shiraz is understandable – and good for Australia’s vignerons given our propensity to grow it.

Over time this will probably see cabernet retreat to the areas (like Margaret River and Coonawarra) that do it best. As well, we’ll probably see more of it blended with shiraz – a proven combination in which shiraz fills the flavour hole and cabernet shores up the structure.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008