All hail the cabs

You can hardly blame the winemakers of Coonawarra or Margaret River for talking up cabernet. It’s what both regions do best.

If cabernet falls out of fashion for a while, as it’s done lately, producers in those regions aren’t about to rip it out and replace it with tempranillo or pinot gris in the hope of surfing a fashion wave. Chances are, by the time the vines are bearing fruit (usually three years) and the wine is ready for market, the fashion-makers have moved on to something else.

So it was no surprise to hear Virginia Willcock, chief winemaker at Vasse Felix (tastings), going in to bat for cabernet recently: “It’s the new era of cabernet, yay!” she cried, doing her little trademark shimmy. “We are refining the style. We’re making it more subtle – less tutti-frutti and more restrained, more elegant. We’ve come back from the ‘bigger is better’ era.”

Looking at what Margaret River wineries are doing, there’s no big boom in alternative varieties – hell, they don’t even have pinot gris over there yet. They’re simply doing what they’ve always done, but doing it better.

The same is true in Coonawarra, our other great cabernet region, perhaps even moreso. At Wynns (tastings), for instance, far from leaping into Italian and Spanish varieties in a knee-jerk reaction to the market, what have chief winemaker Sue Hodder and the team done? More cabernets and shirazes, that’s what. The latest stunning Wynns crop of reds includes a new black label shiraz to accompany their most famous wine, the $40 black label cabernet sauvignon. And single vineyard cabernets lately have included the Glengyle 2009 (tastings) and Davis 2008 (tastings). Add to that the $60 V & A Lane shiraz (tastings) and cabernet wines from selected vineyards, debuted a couple of years ago, the $45 The Gables Cabernet Shiraz, and the new entry-level cabernet sauvignon, the $25 The Siding (tastings), which slots in above the cheapest Wynns red, the $22 white label shiraz. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of new labels at Wynns, but it all involves just two grape varieties. At the same time, Hodder has been careful to ensure the wines all have their own personalities – it’s not a matter of repetition. And the quality overall has been pushed up and up. This has all served to draw more attention to Wynns.

Over at Margaret River, no-one has the fantastic vineyard resources of Wynns (neither does anyone else in Coonawarra) but the focus has remained similarly tight. At Vasse Felix, they’re actually making less wine now, but they’ve re-focused on their core strengths: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc/semillon. Yes, they still make shiraz, and it’s good, but it’s not part of the core strategy. The new focus can be traced to two people. Willcock took over as chief winemaker in time for the 2007 vintage. And at the start of 2010, the ownership changed subtly from the Holmes a Court family to a single member of that family: Paul, one of the sons of Janet Holmes a Court.

The product-range has contracted, the number of grower vineyards from which grapes are purchased has shrunk, while the area of owned vineyards has increased. The idea is to grow as much of their own fruit as possible, and to that end, says Willcock: “By 2014, 92 per cent of our fruit will be own-grown”. Greater control means better quality, at least in theory.

In 2009 Vasse Felix bought a 35-hectare vineyard at Karridale, in the cooler southern end of the region. This supples only white grapes: sauvignon blanc, semillon and chardonnay. At the same time, they’ve slightly increased the area of red-grape vineyards in the Wilyabrup sub-region near the winery. The gravelly hills there are great for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. “We have made tempranillo and sangiovese, but these are not the future of the region,” she says. “Margaret River is a world-class region for a number of varieties, and should be seen as such in time.”

She explains how suited cabernet sauvignon is with a simple example. Cabernet is often described as having a hole in the middle-palate – which is often cited as the reason it’s blended with shiraz or merlot. “It’s not a fault of cabernet; it’s a fault of the way it’s been handled,” says Willcock. She also agrees that it’s often a fault of planting cabernet in the wrong places. In Margaret River, she maintains, there is no such shortcoming – at least not in Wilyabrup.

And Vasse Felix is learning a lot about the hitherto little-explored topic of cabernet clones. Willcock finds it odd that so much is known about pinot noir and chardonnay clones but so little about cabernet. The best clone, she says, is the so-called Houghton clone, which Vasse Felix’s founder Tom Cullity got from Jack Mann, winemaker at Houghton, in 1967. It was also planted at Moss Wood. There are other clones, but “We’ve chosen the Houghton clone as the core of our plantings.”

Vasse Felix makes a $25 cabernet merlot (tastings), which is delicious in a relatively early-drinking style, a straight cabernet sauvignon ($40 tasting) and the flagship red, Heytesbury ($90 tasting), which is a cabernet dominant blend, increasingly with malbec and petit verdot rather than shiraz or merlot as the minor varieties. It’s a statuesque wine; deep, powerful and laden with black-fruit and violet aromas. “The other varieties are there for perfume, but I especially love the structure the petit verdot gives.”

The regular cabernet sauvignon is only a whisker less impressive in my book, and is also an excellent cellaring prospect. But chardonnay is where Vasse and Willcock have made their biggest impact, especially in the wine shows. The regular chardonnay is outstanding value for money at $27, but the Heytesbury Chardonnay ($60 tastings) is in a higher realm, ranking with the best in this country. Combining richness with refinement, length with delicacy, it’s a rewarding drink and good value when the price is compared with those of its peers at the sharp end of chardonnay quality.

If you follow the thinking that cabernet and chardonnay shouldn’t excel in the same region, and a region cannot be both Bordeaux and Burgundy, my advice is simply to follow your nose and avoid the pitfalls of generalisation. And perhaps because there are so many regions producing great chardonnay and so few great cabernet, we should especially respect the great cabernet regions and their wines.


First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 14 August 2012. 


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