Australian Cabernet Sauvignon can taste green and herbal to American consumers attuned to California Cabernets. On the other hand, wine drinkers who like a little savory flavor because they’re accustomed to European wines can find the Aussie versions too rich.
So why does at least one noted importer think the future for Australia wine in America is Cabernet Sauvignon? Because it carries an important message, that Australia is not just big Shiraz. The country has widely varied regional distinctions, and nothing reflects that better than Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Everyone knows Shiraz and thinks they know what it is,” says Ken Onish, whose Southern Starz imports wines from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. “But Cabernet Sauvignon shows those regional differences so well. It’s the best vehicle for telling the story of Australian wine as it is.”
Onish is focusing on two areas for Cabernet, neither of them obvious. He’s counting on Clare Valley for high-end Cabernet, Riverina for bargains, when most Aussies will tell you their best Cabernets come from Coonawarra, or maybe Margaret River. But Onish thinks that’s a mistake.
“People always thought the tradition would be Coonawarra for Cabernet Sauvignon,” he said. “The guys in Coonawarra know their best wine is Shiraz.”
That comment may cause some buzz, because so many of the very best Cabernets do indeed come from Coonawarra. But, Onish believes, the region as a whole really does best one year out of five. As does Margaret River, where the top producers can count on making outstanding wine only in exceptional vintages. When either region misses, the wines lack ripeness and sport much more vegetal character than most Americans want to put up with.
“Clare makes good Cabernet four years out of five, while Coonawarra struggles every year to make a wine that’s ripe in style,” Onish noted. Price matters too. “We can sell Clare Valley Cabernets for $20 to $25 a bottle that would be $50 if they said California.”
It’s not just Clare that can produce excellent Cabernet. A glance at the appellations of my top-rated Aussie Cabernets from the past 12 months shows Barossa, Coonawarra, Margaret River, Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek, too. This only supports Onish’s first point, that Cabernet Sauvignon is a good entry point for exploring Australia’s regional differences. Barossa Cabs have the region's signature density, McLaren Vale the brightness of fruit, while Margaret River often shows peppery qualities and Yarra Valley a distinctive savoriness. Langhorne Creek Cabs often come off as tarry to me.
One of the Cabernets from Clare in Southern Starz’s portfolio is Reilly’s. The current vintage, 2005, amusingly labeled Barking Mad, struck me as a lithe mouthful of cherry fruit and savory, meaty nuances, not quite plush but playing out its flavors on a comfortable bed of fine tannins, lingering well. I rated it 89 points and it sells in the U.S. for $17.
Onish sees Clare Cabernet as different from what we expect from either Bordeaux or California. “When softened with French oak, it could really appeal to both a European palate and a California palate,” he said.
At the bargain end, Onish pointed to Nugan’s new $10 Vision line, from a 1,200-acre estate vineyard in Riverina. Most grapes from this area, in the hot central plains, mostly go into wines labeled South Eastern Australia, Australia’s equivalent of a “California” appellation. Mostly, these are basic varietals with no aspirations for greatness.
Nugan hired consultant Brian Light from McLaren to work with senior winemaker Daren Owers on how to improve the wines, Onish said. They cut the yields from more than 10 tons per acre to below 4, and the results are eye-opening. He opened several bottles over lunch, including a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon that showed lovely currant and berry intensity on a medium-weight frame, adding some extra nuances from second-year creamy oak barrels. It will be coming up soon in my blind tastings, but it struck me as a significant step up from the 85-point wines Nugan was making previously under its South Eastern Australia rubric.
These kinds of wines could open American wine drinkers’ eyes to the possibilities in Australia. All it takes a little sense of adventure.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel — March 20, 2009 5:00pm ET
Bill Croom — March 23, 2009 6:57pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — March 23, 2009 8:59pm ET
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