Three decades to take on the world

The 30th annual Cape Mentelle Cabernet Tasting highlighted just how good Australian cabernet is today, how far it has come in that period, and what good value for money it affords.

The cabernet tasting was started by Cape Mentelle founder David Hohnen 30 years ago, and the present chief winemaker Rob Mann invited him to take part in this landmark event, and to give a speech. Hohnen, who was so emotional at being back in his old winery for the first time in nearly a decade, lost his composure several times. He had entered the barrel hall where the tasting was conducted unaware that hugely enlarged photographs of the early days of Cape Mentelle, depicting him and his brothers, would be staring him in the face. The Hohnen family completed a stepped sale of Cape Mentelle to Champagne Veuve Clicquot in the early 2000s. Hohnen departed in 2003.

Hohnen said the tasting was never meant to be a competition but a celebration of cabernet, arguably the world’s greatest wine grape. The concept is that a selection of the best cabernet-based wines from Margaret River, the rest of Australia and the world, with particular focus on Margaret River and Bordeaux, are tasted blind in three flights and discussed before their identities are revealed. All are from the same vintage, which moves every year so the wines are all three and a half years old (three years for the northern hemisphere wines). This year it was 2009, which happened to be a top year in every region. It is a brave and bold exercise as the Cape Mentelle wine is always in there somewhere. Occasionally the home wine has come in for some criticism, but not so much this year: the 2009 Mentelle was one of the greatest wines in the group, by my reckoning. When the wraps came off, it was revealed that Cape Mentelle (tastings), Woodlands ‘Alma May’ (tastings), Chateau Palmer (tastings) and Chateau Leoville Las Cases (tastings) were the final quartet of wines. In both quality and character, they were hard to separate. All scored trophy points from me.

In his speech, Hohnen mentioned that the first Cape Mentelle cabernet sauvignon to be widely available, the 1978 vintage, sold for $4.50 – a premium price at the time, in 1981. Now, 31 years later, the 2009 is $89, a 20-fold increase (small when compared to first growth Bordeaux). But the quality is better than ever. Great strides have ben made in both viticulture and winemaking since the 1970s, the original vines that produce the estate cabernet sauvignon are fully mature and producing better fruit than ever. One of the biggest contributors to improved quality is an optical grape sorting machine that was installed in the 2008 vintage. This uses sieved shaking tables and air jets to remove leaves, sticks and other unwanted ‘material other than grapes’ (MOG), before the grape are passed under a camera which recognizes overripe (raisined), underripe and rotten berries, and ejects them. The upshot is better fruit purity: the wine is no longer being diluted or polluted by MOG. Only grapes with perfect ripeness gain entry to the fermenters. The result is more polished wine with purer cabernet fruit aroma and flavour, no herbaceousness, but ideal fruit ripeness. It is expensive – the machinery cost $400,000 – but the stature of the wine is such that its price now justifies the expense.

The other local wine that gobsmacked me was the Woodlands (tastings). This too is made from grapes off original plantings, about the same age or even older than Mentelle’s, and it too is an expensive wine ($130) produced totally without compromise. This is a sumptuous, profound wine perhaps showing a little more toasty oak than the Mentelle, but similarly exquisite in its array of aromas as the Palmer and LasCases. All three showed astonishing complexity despite their tender age. The Mentelle was faintly, almost imperceptibly, foresty and minty, with a subtle lick of the classic ‘iodine’ regional character. It had tremendous tensile strength and marvelous elegance matched with profound depth.

The 2009 vintage for red Bordeaux was hailed by wine producers and the media as one of the best ever. Even the normally reserved Brit writer Steven Spurrier declared it the best vintage of his lifetime. Robert Parker said it was the best since 1982 and others have rated it the best since 1961 or 1959. The reservation is that it’s not a typical vintage as the wines are ultra-ripe – sometimes overripe, opulent in sweet fruit, and high in alcohol – sometimes to excess. The wines have recently begun arriving in Australia, starting with the earlier-bottled, lesser wines and more recently the top wines, the first and second growths. I’ve attended some tastings recently which included some high-raked wines including second growths and second wines of first growths, but no firsts – on account of their prices. They all cost about $2,000 a bottle today, a completely irrational sum which is due to increased demand, largely from Asia. Even the second wine of Chateau Haut Brion, Le Clarence du Haut Brion (tasting), is retailing for $400 now; the fashionable St Emilion Chateau Pavie is $700, third growth Chateau Palmer is $690 (tasting) and second-growth Chateau Leoville Poyferre (tasting) looks relatively good value at $400. These prices are from Ultimo Wine Centre.

Favourites from my limited tastings to date are Palmer (tastings – very luscious, opulent, powerful, a great wine), Leoville LasCases (tastings – very powerful, elegant and long, oaky at this stage but a beautiful wine), Leoville Poyferre (tastings – massive, powerful, slightly closed but mighty impressive), Langoa Barton (tastings – unusually oaky for this chateau but powerful and long-term), Grand Puy Lacoste (tastings – masses of sweet fruit, blackcurrant pastilles), Giscours (tastings), Baron de Brane (tastings), Beychevelle (tastings), Lagrange (tastings), Haut Batailley (tastings), Lafon Rochet (tastings), Chapelle de la Mission, d’Issan, Pichon-Lalande (tastings), Magdelaine (tastings) and La Dominique (tastings). Best value were Fombrauge ($80), Villars ($36 – tasting), Baron de Brane ($60 – tasting) and Ferriere ($90 – tasting).

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 27 November 2012.


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