Aussie Bordeaux Blends

Australia has historically made a better fist of pure cabernet sauvignon than it has Bordeaux-styled cabernet blends. The reason for this is the same reason that Bordeaux traditionally makes its best wines by blending – but in reverse. They needed to do it in order to put together a good wine from year to year; Australians didn’t need to, because cabernet sauvignon (the perceived king of the Bordeaux court) ripened fully with year-to-year consistency.

A graphic illustration of this is in the Five Nations (formally Tri Nations) Wine Challenge, of which I am a judge. Australia consistently excels in the cabernet sauvignon class while New Zealand struggles, but the reverse is the case in the ‘Bordeaux blends’ class, where the Kiwis’ merlot-dominant blends excel. Cooler climate…merlot easier to ripen than cabernet sauvignon.

Merlot also seems to produce better wine in cooler, more marginal climates which may help explain why Australia has produced so few great merlots.

Still today, most Australian wineries that produce both pure cabernet sauvignon and a Bordeaux blend – usually a cabernet sauvignon merlot – reserve their best cabernet grapes for the pure wine, age it in better oak for longer, and sell it at a higher price, often with extra bottle-age. The same winery’s cabernet merlot, on the other hand, is usually a softer, lighter, less-tannic wine designed for earlier drinking. Leeuwin Estate is an example: its flagship red, Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon, is just that while its budget model is a cabernet merlot under the cheaper Prelude label.

Against this background, though, there is a dogged back-line of determined Bordeaux-philes who continue to hold the classic Medoc blend as their holy grail and whose top wine is a blend unashamedly inspired by the likes of Latour, Lafite and Margaux. Margaret River’s Cullen Diana Madeline (tastings) and Vasse Felix Heytesbury (tastings) are modern examples; the traditional, and long-established, examples of these multi-varietal blends are more likely to be found in older regions such as the Yarra Valley. Here, the classics are still, as they’ve been for decades, Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No.1 (tastings), Mount Mary Quintet (tastings formerly Cabernets), Wantirna Estate’s Amelia (tastings) and Hannah (tastings) blends, and Yeringberg’s five-way blend, simply labelled Yeringberg.

The Hunter Valley’s iconic but lone member of this pack is Lake’s Folly Cabernets (tastings).

Some of these wines could be branded as old-fashioned for their leanness, elegance, relatively low alcohols, and yes sometimes it must be said, slight greenness. Loud critics have occasionally been negative about some of these wines: Mount Mary Quintet (tastings) was once slammed as little better than a petit chateau Bordeaux costing a tenner from any supermarket. Opinions will no doubt continue to differ: in top vintages I believe Quintet is a great wine; in lesser years I wouldn’t disagree with the above criticism. Lake’s Folly, ditto.

Personally, I love the style of Yarra Yering No.1, Wantirna, Cullen and Vasse. But there is no denying the main game in Australia is focused brightly on full-bodied, ripe reds from cabernet sauvignon alone – and our own proudly traditional cabernet sauvignon shiraz blends, which are outside the purview of this article.

Ageing Potential

There’s no argument about the ability of the best Bordeaux blends to age long and gracefully. As always with wine, it’s the best years that age longest and give the greatest reward in the long run. The 1990 vintages of both Yarra Yering No.1 and Mount Mary Cabernets were great wines at the age of 20 years, and no doubt well into the future if well cellared. The last time I drank the 1979 Mount Mary, a decade ago, it was superb and looked set for a good 20 years. The first Lindemans Pyrus, 1985, was still excellent when I drank a bottle a couple of years ago. I admit to mixed feelings about Lake’s Folly Cabernets but my last bottle of 1993 was outstanding two years ago at the age of 17, and seemed certain to drink well for at least another 17 years.

Looking at newer producers, I’ve tasted every vintage of Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot (tastings) and all but the poorest vintages can last 25 years; the better vintages much longer, I suspect. It’s been produced only since the late 1970s and the style has been refined and improved greatly since then. But at last year’s Cullen 40th anniversary tasting, the 1982 cabernet sauvignon merlot proved one of the highlights. At nearly 30 years old, it was in great condition: a wonderfully refined, nuanced, elegant old cabernet full of classic cigarbox complexities. It could easily have been a cru classe Bordeaux. The ’84, ’85 and ‘86 are all excellent vintages; the ’96 and ’99, two of the best of all, both look set for a good 40-year lifespan.

Petaluma (tastings) is another case worth examining. The first vintage was a cabernet shiraz but shocked everyone by outliving most of the early vintages of cabernet merlot. The ’90, ’92 and ’98 are all long-living wines – at least 30 years – and recent vintages, from 2004 to 2008, should prove to be 30 to 40-year wines.

Wendouree (tastings) of course has a great cellaring record, although I suspect the best cabernet fruit goes into its pure cabernet sauvignon rather than the cabernet malbec.

In the interests of balance, I must re-emphasise the point that for long-term cellaring, pure cabernet sauvignon is generally a better bet than cabernet blends in Australia, and there are few exceptions. This is mainly because most winemakers elect to channel their best cabernet sauvignon into a pure varietal wine. And wine-buyers understand that. A secondary reason may be that merlot generally doesn’t bode so well for ageing.

A note must be added on Coonawarra here: the lack of great merlot in Coonawarra is the elephant in the room. Putting aside for the moment Petaluma and the occasional Parker Estate, and what have you got? The same paucity of high-quality merlot explains the relative lack of top-level merlot-containing Bordeaux blends in Coonawarra. The tell-tale is Wynns (tastings): the biggest producer of great Coonawarra wine – by a country mile – doesn’t even produce a serious cabernet merlot, let alone a pure merlot. The grape simply doesn’t perform well enough. The other side of the argument is that cabernet sauvignon is so good in Coonawarra as a stand-alone, why would you water it down with second-rate merlot – other than to please marketers, who want a cabernet merlot to sell?

Vineyard Sites

In Coonawarra, the question of which sites yield the best Bordeaux blends is hardly worth discussing as there are so few, but the cigar-shaped strip – the original Coonawarra – is still the best place for all red wines.

In Margaret River, the Wilyabrup sub-region, with its ironstone gravelly soils, is reputed to yield the best cabernet and the presence of Cullen, Moss Wood, Woodlands, Vasse Felix and others is ample evidence. But Voyager Estate and Cape Mentelle are further south in the Wallcliffe area, and both are making some excellent merlot-containing blends. Leeuwin Estate’s Prelude cabernet merlot is also rising in stature. Note, however, that Mentelle’s new super-Bordeaux blend is a Wilyabrup sub-region wine.

Aside from the big three – Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Coonawarra – what other Australian regions produce good Bordeaux blends? The accompanying Hall of Fame list has a sprinkling of good producers in Clare, where the cabernet sauvignon malbec blend is a local specialty. Adelaide Hills has a few starters, none of whom are outstanding, and it’s much the same in Eden Valley although Irvine’s The Baroness (merlot cabernet franc cabernet sauvignon tasting) has impressed from time to time. Henschke’s Abbott’s Prayer (tastings) has its fans. Langhorne Creek is the unsung hero in Australian cabernet sauvignon, and perhaps also in cabernet blends. Wolf Blass, Lake Breeze and Bremerton have all delivered the goods, the latter with its inexpensive Tamblyn blend (tastings). Orange looks to have great potential but it’s only just starting to be tapped.

The Blending Varieties

What of the small clique of merlot-dominant cabernet blends? Henschke is an interesting case here, with its Adelaide Hills wine, Abbott’s Prayer. It started life as a cabernet sauvignon-dominant blend in the late 1980s and gradually morphed into a merlot-led blend. Cabernet sauvignon was too difficult to ripen. Similarly, Petaluma’s Coonawarra is mainly cabernet sauvignon in the riper years (it’s occasionally been 100%), but merlot-dominant in cooler years. Merlot devotees are rare among Australian winemakers, but Philip Shaw is one such. He is convinced Orange is ideally suited to growing merlot (it’s cool, high-altitude and has high UV light) and puts his money where his mouth is: Philip Shaw No.17 is merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon in that order (tastings).

And what of cabernet franc, the forgotten one? Maryann Egan at Wantirna Estate (tastings), Brian Croser at Tapanappa (tastings) in Wrattonbully, Barrie Smith at Frankland Estate (with Olmo’s Reward tasting) and again Philip Shaw are believers in its potential. But there aren’t many runs on the scoreboard. Perhaps a renewed focus will yield some excitement in future: there are already a few growers who have reversed the traditional order and are now putting franc before merlot in their priorities.

Six Exciting New Aussie Producers of Bordeaux Blend


 1 Woodlands ‘Margaret’ Reserve (Cabernet sauvignon merlot malbec)
Margaret River 2008 95pts. Not strictly a new winery, but a re-born one since the second generation Watson brothers took over from their father David. Pristine, elegant violets and blueberries. 13.5%. Drink now to 2028. A$46.Ranked #2 of 43 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Blends tasted from Margaret River


 2 Flametree Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot
Margaret River 2010 92pts. Bright fleshy cassis flavours. Flametree hit the ground running with a Jimmy Watson Trophy in its first year. Winemaker is Cliff Royle, ex-Voyager Estate. 14.2%. Drink now to 2018. A$30.
Ranked #3 of 17 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Blends tasted from Margaret River


 3 Philip Shaw No 17 (Merlot Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignon)
Orange 2008 92pts. Elegant weight; spicy red fruits. The veteran former chief winemaker for Rosemount and Southcorp is now makes estate-grown wines from his mature Orange vineyard, helped by his two sons. 14%. Drink now to 2023. A$25.


 4 Brangayne The Tristan (Cabernet sauvignon shiraz merlot)
Orange 2009 93pts. A complex, savoury, medium-bodied trophy winner from the Hoskins family’s 850-metre high-altitude vineyard on the slopes of Mount Canobolas. 14.5%. Drink now to 2025. A$30.
Ranked #1 of 3 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Blends tasted from Orange


 5 Churchview St Johns (Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Petit Verdot Malbec)
Margaret River 2009 92pts. Succulent ripe blackberry fruit. From a new player in the prized Metricup Road locality of Wilyabrup. 15%. Drink now to 2020. A$35.
Ranked #5 of 36 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Blends tasted from Margaret River


 6 Cape Mentelle Wilyabrup (cabernet sauvignon merlot cabernet franc)
Margaret River 2009 93pts. Full-bodied and tannic. A new sub-regional wine from an established producer, fitting in between the cheaper Trinders cabernet merlot and the flagship cabernet sauvignon. 13.5%. Drink 2014 to 2029. A$49.
Ranked #2 of 36 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Blends tasted from Margaret River


Bordeaux Blend Hall of Fame

  • Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No.1 (cabernet sauvignon merlot malbec petit verdot)
    Yarra Valley (tasting)
  • Mount Mary Quintet (cabernet sauvignon merlot cabernet franc malbec petit verdot)
    Yarra Valley (tasting)
  • Wantirna Estate Amelia (cabernet sauvignon merlot) (tasting); and
  • Wantirna Estate Hannah (cabernet franc merlot)
    Yarra Valley (tasting)
  • Yeringberg (cabernet sauvignon cabernet franc merlot malbec petit verdot)
    Yarra Valley (tasting)
  • Petaluma Coonawarra (cabernet sauvignon merlot shiraz)
    Coonawarra (tasting)
  • Lindemans Pyrus (cabernet sauvignon malbec merlot)
    Coonawarra (tasting)
  • Cullen Diana Madeline (cabernet sauvignon merlot)
    Margaret River (tasting)
  • Vasse Felix Heytesbury (cabernet sauvignon petit verdot malbec)
    Margaret River (tasting)
  • Brookland Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot,
    Margaret River (tasting)
  • Voyager Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot,
    Margaret River (tasting)
  • Wolf Blass Black Label (cabernet sauvignon shiraz malbec)
    Langhorne Creek (tasting)
  • Lake Breeze Arthur’s Reserve (cabernet sauvignon petit verdot malbec)
    Langhorne Creek (tasting)
  • Grosset Gaia (cabernet sauvignon cabernet franc merlot)
    Clare Valley (tasting)
  • Wendouree (cabernet sauvignon malbec)
    Clare Valley (tasting)
  • Lake’s Folly Cabernets (cabernet sauvignon merlot petit verdot)
    Hunter Valley (tasting)

First published in Decanter Magazine, May 2012.


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