Aussie, French, US and Chilean cabernets reviewed

While shiraz and chardonnay slug it out for top spot (we produced 436 thousand and 445 thousand tonnes respectively in 2008), cabernet holds confidently to its less publicised third position at 254 thousand tonnes.

Like shiraz, it works in a variety of regions, if not as easily, producing robust, pleasing flavours – albeit with a boost, on occasion, through the addition of shiraz, merlot, malbec or petit verdot.

Like shiraz, it’s a variety that performs across price points from wine casks, to function wines to wines that can hold their own in any company in the world.

This is a review of some that’ve drifted across the Chateau Shanahan tasting bench recently.

Majella The Musician Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2008 $18
Prof and Tony Lynn’s Musician gives elegance a good name. It’s sourced entirely from the Lynn’s southern Coonawarra vineyard and made specifically for early drinking. It captures Coonawarra’s bright, magic berry aromas and flavours. And though it’s soft and easy to drink, it still has the structure of a real red. The sensational 2007 is still available around town, but we can move onto the vibrant 2008 with equal confidence when the 2007 sells out. I rate this as my top Australian red under $20.

Knappstein Clare Valley Enterprise Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 $42
Alas, the musty, mouldy reek of cork taint ruined a wine that, on reputation, should’ve been superb. We could be generous to the winemakers and say, oh dear, what bad luck. But realistically, guys, you make your own luck with seals these days. How about a screw cap next vintage?

Balnaves Coonawarra ‘The Tally’ 2007 $90
This one cuts the mustard in any company – a deep and powerful but elegant red built for long cellaring. It’s from two of Doug Balnave’s best vineyards and matured in top-notch new French oak – a classic example of ‘letting the wine eat the oak, not letting the oak eat the wine’. In a scaled down version, Balnaves Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($35) and Cabernet Merlot 2007 ($24) also deliver Coonawarra flavour, elegance and drinkability. This is a great estate.

Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 $60
Farmer Bros imported this into Canberra in the late seventies and early eighties when good Australian cabernets were scarce. The competition’s fiercer now (cabernet’s second only to shiraz in volume), so at $60 it’s a bold move by Foster’s. It’s big, ripe style of cabernet, with juicy, blackcurrant-like flavours offset by firm, ripe tannins. It looks young and fresh at four years’ age and probably will drink well for a decade or two. A superb wine.

Barwang Hilltops Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $20
This is a solid cabernet, made by McWilliams from their Barwang Vineyard located at nearby Young (the Hilltops region). The underlying ripe, varietal flavours manage to push up through assertive, firm, drying tannins. Needs a good chunk of protein (rare steak would be good) to cut through that firm structure. Very good value and sometimes discounted well below the $20 recommended price.

Penny’s Hill McLaren Vale Cabernet 2007 $24
This is a big, ripe red from the warm McLaren Vale region. The firm tannins suggest cabernet, but in the aroma and flavour the varietal character becomes a little blurred. It’s a nice, chunky red offering fair value.

Howard Park Scotsdale Great Southern Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $40
We return to sharp varietal definition in two contrasting Howard Park wines from individual vineyards in Western Australia’s Great Southern and Margaret River regions. The Great Southern wine presents ripe-berry flavours – in a lovely interplay with classy oak – without the leafy notes (usually indicative of a cool season) seen in the Margaret River wine. Scotsdale features very intense, very young flavours and taut, elegant structure.

Howard Park Leston Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $40
Just as in the Scotsdale vineyard wine, high-quality oak plays a dominant flavour role in Leston. It’s symbiotic relationship between oak and fruit that lifts the wine to a more complex, enjoyable level. There’s crystal-clear varietal definition, too, with that ‘leafy’ edge adding more complexity, as it doesn’t descend into green, unripe characters. In this wine it’s part of a harmonious, high-toned, elegant cabernet of considerable strength. These Howard Park cabernets are strong, characterful wines needing a few more years’ bottle age to reveal their best.

Moss Wood Margaret River Moss Wood Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 $100
The law of diminishing returns applies as much to the wine world as any other. So, no, Moss Wood isn’t two and a half times better than the $40 Howard Park wines.  But there’s discernibly more body, extra flavour concentration and a lovely slick, silky depth – in the taut, elegant regional mould. The lofty price reflects scarcity and a hard-won reputation earned over many decades by one of Margaret River’s oldest vineyards (founded 1969). Pure class.

Cape Mentelle Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 $84
This is another of the time-proven Margaret River cabernets, founded by David Hohnen in 1970 and now owned by Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. It’s a firmer, more tannic wine than the Moss Wood with quite strong ‘tomato leaf’ character seasoning the riper, underlying cabernet berry flavours. While the austerity of the tannins seems in keeping with a cabernet of this fruit intensity, I suspect it’s not one of the Cape Mentelle greats and I have a caveat on the persistent ‘leafy’ character in this wine. At this price caveats are significant.

Juniper Estate Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 $40
Juniper, too, comes from old (36 years) Margaret River vines, and, like Cape Mentelle, shows some austere tannins. But there’s a good depth of varietal fruit to match – adding up to good value in this distinguished company.

Helm Premium Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 $52
For the second year in a row Ken Helm (hand-in-hand with grape grower Al Lustenberger) has banished the green notes that blighted too many Canberra cabernets in the past. The 2006 is opulent by comparison with those earlier wines. Indeed, there’s a plush depth to the fruit, good varietal definition and ripe, firm tannins to hold it all together. But there’s one last frontier for Ken to conquer – oak – if he’s to justify the $52 price tag and bear comparison with the greats. The Howard Park, Moss Wood, and Balnaves wines in particular demonstrate how the right oak lifts high-calibre wine to another flavour and structural dimension.

Chateau Peyrabon Haut-Medoc 2005 $29.40
As a retailer I made several trips to Bordeaux seeking mid-priced cabernets for the Australian market – but gave up. The quality was there in abundance at higher prices. But occasionally, it seems, $30 wines, like this Woolworths’ import for its Dan Murphy chain, just trip over the ‘value’ line. It’s not comparable in style, say, to Balnaves cabernet at $24. But it’s a decent, solid wine from a strong vintage, featuring ripe fruit and the classic, austere ‘claret’ tannin structure. It’s fully priced at $29.40, so watch for the specials!

Montes Apalta Vineyard Colchagua Valley Chile Cabernet Sauvignon Carmenere 2007 $14.60
Note to Woolies’ wine buyers: have you actually tasted this?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009