Australia’s best reds

I’ve already reviewed Australian Shiraz. Now it’s time to look at red wines made from every other grape variety or combination of grape varieties. Australian wine importers sent me samples of “red wine excluding Shiraz” for review. I grouped those samples by style and tasted them blind. A summary of results is shown overleaf while you can find scores and tasting notes on every wine rated 78 points (bronze medal) or more on my website

What did I learn from the tasting?

Cabernet Sauvignon is hot

The most impressive class of wines in the tasting were made from Cabernet Sauvignon. Shiraz can be very seductive but when you’re looking for an absolutely top Australian red wine I rate Cabernet Sauvignon ahead of Shiraz.

Cabernet Sauvignon’s image has suffered in this country. It’s a grape variety that needs plenty of heat to attain full physiological ripeness and even the hottest New Zealand wine regions can be marginal, especially in cool vintages. Under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon is usually thin and hard with vegetal flavours suggesting green olive, capsicum and green bean. It is not an attractive wine. I’m not suggesting that all New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon falls into that category but many do.

Australia seldom produces under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon. Heat is not a problem in the “lucky country” although some wines can suffer from too much of a good thing. Australia’s warmer regions can produce rather bland over-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon that’s dull and slightly jammy. My tasting demonstrated that the countries cooler regions, such as Coonawarra and Margaret River, make some of Australia’s finest wines from Cabernet Sauvignon. The best are intense with blackcurrant and blackberry flavours together with mint, cedar and black olive characters. Cooler regions in Victoria and the Clare Valley also produced some of the tastings top wines. As if to demonstrate that the exception proves the rule, the warm Barossa Valley did produce one outstanding wine, Barossa Valley Estate 2004 Ebenezer Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings). Although it was clearly wine from a warmer region, with rich, ripe Christmas cake/dried fruit flavours, I was impressed with its density and array of ripe fruit flavours.

If you’re looking for a good value Australian red wine under $20 I’d choose Shiraz ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon which fares less well in the lower price bracket. Rymill 2006 The Yearling Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra (tastings) offers pretty good value at $16.30 although you’ll get better value by paying a few dollars more for Zilzie 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon $20 (tastings).

Blended wines offer variation and value

Top wines in the blended section of the tasting were both blends of classic Bordeaux varieties made by Moss Wood (tastings) in the Margaret River region. Blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are common in Australia with wines such as Barossa Valley Estate 2006 E Minor Cabernet Merlot, Barossa Valley $21.99 (tastings) and Mad Fish 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc, Western Australia $19 (tastings) offering particularly good value. Both are well ahead of any New Zealand reds in that price category.

Shiraz is a popular addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot mix and that grape variety can often add welcome fruit sweetness boosting drinkability.

One of my favourite blended Australian styles is Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre (GSM) although the tasting attracted only one entry of a style which mimics, and is often superior to, the wines of France’s southern Rhone Valley. At best these wines are pungently scented with heady fruit flavours and a beguiling slippery texture. Hardys 2006 Oomoo Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre $19.99 (tastings) is rather more robust than most.

Merlot disappoints

A high number of Merlot entries boosted my hope that this would be a strong class. While the best two wines, Hewitson 2007 Miss Harry “Dry grown and ancient” Merlot $27 (tastings) and Taylors 2002 St Andrews Merlot $55.99 (tastings), were excellent the class was generally disappointing with too many soft and simple wines that lacked much interest. Best value wine in my book was Wyndham Estate 2008 Bin 999 Merlot $16.95 (tastings), a Merlot that offered more weight and flavour than most.

Pinot Noir plus …

Other grape varieties featuring in my tasting included Pinot Noir, the Italian grape variety Sangiovese and the Spanish grape Tempranillo.

Australian Pinot Noir can be very good although their wines are typically more austere than the “fruit bomb” styles we’re used to on our side of the Tasman. I rate Tasmania as the country’s top Pinot Noir region with other cooler areas such as Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills and the Great Southern also producing their share of stars.

If you’re looking for something different try Tar & Roses 2007 Tempranillo (tastings) or 2006 Sangiovese (tastings), both priced at $28. They are reliable replicas of the real thing and a useful alternative to mainstream styles.

And now for something slightly sweet

Red wines are seldom sweet so I was intrigued to taste three pretty good examples ranging from the slightly sweet Banrock Station 2008 Crimson Cabernet $10.99 (tastings) to the sweeter Brown Brothers 2008 Cienna $14.90 (tastings) and Brown Brothers 2007 Tarrango $14.99 (tastings). Cienna and Tarrango are new Australian-bred grapes developed for growing conditions in that country while Crimson Cabernet was bred in the US.

All three wines are like Rosé on steroids and are delicious when served chilled with spicy Thai curries or without the complication of food.

Tasting Notes

Blended Wines

Top Two

94 Moss Wood 2007 Ribbon Vale Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Margaret River $52 (1)

A top producer in one of Australia’s top Cabernet Sauvignon regions. Wonderfully perfumed red with power and elegance.

90 Moss Wood 2007 Amy’s, Margaret River $42 (1)

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Intense fruit and classy oak flavours. Needs at least another three years in bottle.

Best Value

87 Barossa Valley Estate 2006 E Minor Cabernet Merlot, Barossa Valley $21.99 (2)

Deep, dense red that’s packed with intense red and black fruit flavours. Big, chewy wine with tonnes of appeal. Very good value.

86 Mad Fish 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc, Western Australia $28 (1)

Bright, vibrant flavours showing good intensity. This is a deliciously drinkable red – every glass gets even better than the last.

Bargain basement

78 Hardys 2007 Nottage Hill Cabernet Shiraz $12.99 (2)

Serious red at a relatively frivolous price. Good gutsy Aussie red that’s bone dry with character.

78 Knights Tale 2006 Cabernet Merlot $9.90 (3)

Dry, light, easy-drinking red with pleasantly fruity flavours plus a seasoning of oak.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Top Two

95 Brown Brothers 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon $55 (4)

Aussie Cabernet doesn’t get much better than this intense wine with berry, spice, Christmas cake and mint flavours. A classic that will age well.

94 Barossa Valley Estate 2004 Ebenezer Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Valley $51.99 (2)

Truly impressive red with Christmas cake, anise/spice and bitter chocolate flavours. Very dense, will age well.

Best Value

87 Taylors 2005 Jaraman Cabernet Sauvignon, Clare Valley & Coonawarra $27.99 (2)

Richly-textured red with impressive weight and flavour concentration.

85 Zilzie 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon $20 (5)

Solid red with dark berry and spicy oak flavours. A snip at this price.

Bargain basement

83 Rymill 2006 The Yearling Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra $16.30 (6)

Robust red with plenty of character. Good drinking, great price.

78 Commissioners Block 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon $16 (5)

Mint and berry fruit flavours with a strong toasty influence.


Top Two

89 Taylors 2002 St Andrews Merlot $55.99 (2)

Super-serious aged Merlot with masses of classy oak influence.

85 Moss Wood 2007 Ribbon Vale Merlot $54

A long-distance runner with great cellaring potential. Powerful wine with oodles of class.

Best Value

85 Katnook Estate 2006 Founder’s Block Coonawarra Merlot, Coonawarra $24 (7)

Elegant Aussie Merlot with appealing layers of berry and plum flavours.

84 Wyndham Estate 2008 Bin 999 Merlot $16.95 (8)

Another winner from Wyndham – solid richly-textured red with plenty of flavour.

Bargain basement

78 Jacob’s Creek 2008 Grenache Shiraz Merlot $13.95 (8)

Light, fresh and fruity red that can be served slightly chilled.

78 Zilzie 2007 Selection 23 Merlot $16 (5)

Charming, easy-drinking red at a smart price.

Pinot Noir

83 Taylors 2008 Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills $20.99 (2)

Light, supple Pinot Noir in a bone-dry style.

Other Grape Varieties

86 Tar & Roses 2007 Tempranillo $28 (6)

Serious wine with layers of leather, oak, spice and wild flower flavours

85 Tar & Roses 2006 Sangiovese, Heathcote $28 (6)

The best Australian Sangiovese I’ve tried – better than most Italian Chianti.

83 Brown Brothers 2006 Tempranillo $18.95 (4)

Perfumed wine with the flavours of hot earth and violets.

Moderately sweet red wines

83 Brown Brothers 2008 Cienna $14.90 (4)

Sweet, fruity red – delicious when served chilled.

78 Banrock Station 2008 Crimson Cabernet $10.99 (8)

Slightly sweet and seductively fruity.

78 Brown Brothers 2007 Tarrango $14.99 (4)

Moderately sweet with delicate fruity flavours.


  1. Macvine 0274 358 584
  2. Constellation NZ (09) 412 4805
  3. Southern Wines (03) 3899688
  4. Botica Butler 021 994 009
  5. Eurowine (04) 472 2638
  6. Red & White (09) 376 0760
  7. Hancocks (09) 361 8488
  8. Pernod Ricard NZ (09) 336 8370

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Aug 2009.

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