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Changing Australian Cabernet

At one Coonawarra winery, herbal flavors are giving way to an appreciation for ripe fruit

Harvey Steiman
Posted: December 19, 2005

Don't get me wrong. I do like Australian Cabernet Sauvignons—some of them. The ones that make me recoil go too far into the herbal, vegetal spectrum of flavor. Unfortunately, that's true of too many high-priced ones. Fortunately, there are signs the tide is turning for the better.

My take on Australian Cabernet puts me at odds with a lot of that country's winemakers and commentators, who praise wines as "savoury" that I just find green.

This preference for herbal and vegetal flavors would surprise a lot of winemakers in Bordeaux and California, who make their living with Cabernet. I thought of this recently while tasting the Bordeaux first-growths at the New York Wine Experience, where the wines were all luscious, with ripe fruit character. Any herbal flavors were grace notes.

It's not that Australia can't get ripe fruit character into its Cabs. Most low-priced Cabernets, which come mostly from vineyards in hot regions, taste primarily of ripe fruit. They're usually pretty simple, so I'm not holding them up as examples, but at least they are often pleasant to drink. Why do so many of the higher-priced Cabernets from cooler regions so often forsake the beauty of fruit character for green, weedy, vegetal notes?

That question haunts Sue Hodder, who is responsible for the wines of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, one of the longest-running producers of serious Cabernet in Australia. Wynns' first vintage was 1954, made from vines planted in the 1920s, so there were always mature vines in the mix. Today Wynns is a brand of the giant Foster's Wine Estates, but the Cabernet comes from the same vineyards as always, and is made in Wynns' Coonawarra winery. Hodder has been working to reshape the style, ironically returning to the kinds of wines Wynns made at the beginning. Hodder has been responsible for Wynns since 1998.

"When we took some of the older wines to the lab for analysis on things like methoxypyrazines"—a chemical family that can taste herbal, minty or vegetal, depending on concentration—"we found less of them in the 1950s and 1960s than in later vintages," she says. "The alcohol levels were around 13 percent, the same as today."

Yes, you read that right: Coonawarra is cool enough to keep alcohol levels below 14 percent. Ripe fruit character doesn't require high alcohol levels.

Hodder opened a few older bottles for me when we met in Adelaide earlier this year, including the 1954. It has rich, caramelized aromas, fine tannins, brown sugar, orange brûlée and walnut flavors around a core of cherry. It has length and elegance, still alive and reasonably deep. I could drink it with dinner. In a less ripe vintage, such as 1957, earthy, minty flavors are dominant over the fruit, and it feels like it's drying out.

The range of older wines is instructive. The vintages that are holding up have ripe fruit character somewhere in the mix. My reviews of Wynns Cabernets from the 1990s, however, always seem to mention herbs and vegetal notes first. Of the 1995 I wrote, "like a walk in the herb garden." Hodder wants to change that.

"Since the 1990s we have been in pursuit of ripe flavors," she says, "The wines from the 1960s are inspirational. You can taste the pure fruit in the wines." What happened after that? Minimal pruning, or in some cases machine pruning, became all the rage in Coonawarra. "In the 1990s, we knew we had a lot of work to do on the older vineyards to bring them back into balance," she adds.

The new vineyards have cut away the tangle of dead wood, an artifact of minimal pruning that one still sees in too many Coonawarra vineyards. In many cases, the vines had to be cut back to their trunks and new shoots trained (better than replanting because it preserves the deep root systems). The results are just now starting to register.

If any region is going to take Cabernet up a few levels, I am betting on Hodder's home region, Coonawarra. Although I have rated wines from other appellations as highly, Cabernet Sauvignon clearly likes this stretch of red soil over limestone. Majella, Balnaves, Petaluma and Penley stand out from other Coonawarra Cabernets with a range of pure Cabernet fruit flavors. No weeds. So do the Wynns wines I tasted from about-to-be released vintages. I applaud that as welcome change.

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