I have been tasting through more than 200 Australian red wines in the past few weeks, catching up on everything I can squeeze in before the deadline for this year's tasting report. Mostly, I find the results encouraging. Specific reviews will be coming up over the next few weeks in Tasting Highlights and the Insider, but for now, one observation: The category that surprised me most pleasantly, believe it or not, was Cabernet Sauvignon.
I have always been something of an agnostic when it comes to Australian Cabernet. A few wines have consistently demonstrated how good the wines can be, but so many others missed the mark with weedy aromas and flavors, overripe character or other problems that I often came away from a lineup of Cabs muttering to myself.
So, imagine my surprise when I looked up at the end of one day and saw a bunch of Cabs I had rated in the 90s. And not just once. It happened in several tastings.
What's the difference? It seems to me that more wineries are learning how to balance the savory aromas and flavors that are part of the Cabernet profile with enough fruit to make the wines inviting. My theory is this: In the past Australian winemakers veered strongly toward the herbal end of the flavor spectrum to differentiate their Cabernets from their rich, fruit-forward Shiraz wines. That seemed to be what Australian wine drinkers wanted.
Recently, however, I think everyone realizes that those weedy wines were not as rewarding to drink as those that had, at the core, a nice chunk of fruit. That, plus a series of even-ripening vintages (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007) conspired to get some richness into the wines without losing their essential transparency. Cabernet, after all, usually has less density than comparable Shiraz.
I checked out my theory with Chris Hatcher, the chief winemaker for Foster’s, who was passing through San Francisco en route to London. (When Aussies go to Europe, it’s usually cheaper to get an around-the-world fare than to do a roundtrip.) Hatch agreed that Cabernet is on the rise. He credited lower yields, leading to earlier ripening and better intensity of fruit. That, he said, is what creates a more pleasing tension with the savory elements of the grape.
I wish I could report that all the winemakers have gotten the message, but I still rejected a lot of wines for tasting more like green beans than currants. But the numbers of those seem to be diminishing.
Coonawarra, known for its Cabernets, produced some of the better wines, but not the best ones. Those came from Barossa Valley, as well as Clare and McLaren Vale in South Australia, and Margaret River in Western Australia. I even found a few in relatively cool-climate Victoria. Maybe it’s just the result of the warm vintages, but I think it represents a sea change in many Australian vintners’ approach to the grape.
This is good news, just in time to provide a worthy alternative for anyone looking for good New World Cabernets that don’t cost as much as the big names from Napa Valley do. For the first time, Australia is worth looking at for Cabernet, not just a few wines but a significant percentage of them.
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — June 18, 2009 6:13pm ET
Bryan So — CA — June 23, 2009 3:36pm ET
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