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Cabernet - A Global Exploration

by Tom Cannavan, 04/13

world cabernet In February 2013 Chile's Santa Rita Estates staged a terrific two-day event that explored many facets of world wine, all exhibiting an open-minded approach to gauging how South Amnerica's premium wines stack up against global competition. I have already reported on sessions covering Chile's coastal climate and The influence of terroir on the wines of Mendoza. In this final report, Peter McCombie MW and winemakers Cecilia Torres of Casa Real and Brian Croser of Tapanappa in Australia presided over a blind tasting and discussion of 12 top Cabernet Sauvignon wines from around the world.

Going Green

brian croser Brian Croser (right) spoke a little about the number of wines here that showed some degree of 'green' character: "Cabernet Sauvignon shares Cabernet Franc as a parent with Merlot and Carmenère. All have the propensity to retain the green character of isobutyl methoxy pryazine (IBMP) that probably derives from Cabernet Franc; they have all inherited the green gene. One of the few recognised vices of Cabernet Sauvignon is that in cool and damp years and cool and damp soils where vine vigour is too great and canopy shades the fruit, the grapes retain IBMP, which reflects in the wine as an herbaceous, green character."

In Brian's notes made available after the tasting, he also had an interesting chart showing the relative growing conditions for each of the 10 regions covered by these 12 wines:

Region  GDD     Diurnal Range (°C)  Rain (mm's)  Humidity (%) 
Medoc / Graves 1485 11.4 427 59
Pomerol 1599 11.6 405 59
Maipo Alto 1673 17.6 53 35
Aconcagua Valley 1685 19.0 40 50
Willyabrup 1648 11.2 253 57
Stellenbosch 1945 9.4 286 38
Coonawarra 1414 15.0 257 48
Santa Cruz Mtns 1411 9.1 70 49
Bolgheri (Tuscany) 1712 9.4 462 54
Hawke's Bay 1360 9.0 475 63

Brian emphasised that heat summation is the most important climate parameter contributing to terroir, but diurnal range is also very important. Because the vine can work for 24 hours in maritime climates with low diurnal ranges (i.e. warm nights), the production of colour and flavour is continuous. Sugar is consumed by this 24-hour process, but is only produced in the sunlight of the day. Therefore maturity is reached earlier and at lower sugars than in climates with cold nights and high diurnal ranges. Cold nights tend to trap malic acid and green flavours, requiring the grapes to hang much longer to obtain physiological maturity.

the wines

My tasting notes and scores on the wines are presented below, precisely as written during the blind tasting. The objective of the tasting was not to create a competition between the wines (though inevitably notes and scores do rank the wines from most to least favoured) but to see if some of the tasters' expectations (perhaps even prejudices) were proved true in blind tasting, and to see if the four Chilean wines featured spoke of any particular Chilean style or profile that could be picked out.

Not all of the wines are available in the UK, but where they are I have given approximate prices and wine-searcher links to find current stockists. My thanks to Viña Santa Rita for a superb couple of days of stimulating wine exploration.

Te Mata, Coleraine Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
Medium denisty, garnet colour. Very pleasant and well-mannered aromas, not particularly ripe with a hint of tomato leafy, green character. Lots of fruit on the palate, though quite prominent acidity. Those greenish edges continue on the palate, quite savoury and quite intense, but a little angular and acidic too. Definitely a cooler climate style. Maybe from one of the cooler Chilean regions? 89-90/100.

Petaluma, Coonawarra Cabernet Merlot 2008, Coonawarra, Australia
Much deeper and more solidly opaque, and a big waft of eucalyptus as well as espresso and ripe, deep fruit screams Australia. There is a touch of menthol/green Cabernet which is pleasing in this mix, though on the palate the fruit is really juicy, ripe and sweet. It is fairly muscular, good tannin and oak structure too. 91/100.

Carmen, Gold Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Maipo, Chile
Medium garnet/ruby colour. Rather closed on the nose, seems young, with not a lot of expression. Some savoury dark fruits, a touch of leather or game perhaps. Powerful on the palate, with a lot of tannin and spice, but lovely balance: the tannins are big but sweet and ripe, and the fruit has lovely plush density. I'd guess this was from Chile and very young. 91-92/100.

Sassicaia 2009, Tuscany, Italy
There's a barnyardy and Bretty whiff from this, the colour medium ruby with some light on the rim. Cedary and vegetal in turns, it is very Old World in style, and though that bit of Brett is there, it seems appealingly savoury. Very dry on the palate, a lot of dry extract with tannins and savoury black fruit, good balancing acidity and a touch of smokiness. Bordeaux I presume, maybe St Estephe? 90-91/100.

Domaine de Chevalier 2009, Pessac-Léognan, France
Much darker and deeper in colour, this is meaty and meat-stocky, solid and smoky. Quite firm on the palate, structured, perhaps even a touch austere? There's a lot of tannin here, a lot of spice, a freshening acidity and a lovely core of fruit begins to assert. This tastes very serious but very young, and is all about the structure at this stage. Quite a classy wine that needs time, and I think Bordeaux. 93/100.

Jordan, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Dark core with a hint of orange on the rim. There's a huge green streak here, a real capsicum edge. Might be a bit of Carmenère if this is Chilean. The palate has a fine, savoury freshness, but there's no escaping that impression of rather green under-ripeness too. It is spicy, tight, a touch too lean. This could be in an awkward phase. Could be Chilean but has the green note of some South African cabs too. 89/100.

Santa Rita, Casa Real 2010, Maipo, Chile
Dark, deep, vibrant purple colour of a young wine. Slightly resinous nose, the oak a bit too dominant, but there's massive, ripe blackcurrant fruit beneath. That consuming depth and sweetness of blackcurrant on the palate too, a touch of dark, minty chocolate too. It has a sinewy structure beneath that cloak of sweetness, and plenty of spice too. Is it a touch short? It is delicious however and does taste as if it needs time. Might be Seña or similar? 91-92/100.

Cullen, 'Diana Madeline' 2009, Margaret River, Australia
Moderate colour, and lots of juicy-ripe fruit on the nose: beautifully pitched stuff this, with both red and black fruit characters. Sensitively handled on the palate, there is a gorgeous core of ripe, intense, sweet plum and blackcurrant that is poised and long, the tannins silky. Superb stuff. Might be Californian or a top Chilean. 94-95/100.

Errazuriz, Seña 2008, Aconcagua, Chile
Very dark, and very powerful and dramatic on the nose. It is expressive, perhaps a touch resinous with plenty of oak showing. The palate is meaty and powerful, but there's a lovely core of fruit ripeness. Big wine, seems quite high in alcohol (fruity but with a bit of heat), but that sweetness really surges through the finish. Could be Californian or Australian, but might well be Chilean too. 91-92/100.

Château Pontet-Canet 2008, Pauillac, France
Deep, opaque colour, the aromas a touch more subdued but very classically Bordeaux with cedary refinement to cassis beneath, a touch of meat-stock and game is deliciously inviting. On the palate it is beautifully juicy, naturally concentrated and has a lovely structural framework of refined tannins and plum skin acidity. Delicious and serious. 94/100.

Santa Rita, Casa Real 2008, Maipo, Chile
Very vivid, dark colour to the core. Powerful hit of mint and coffee, plenty of oak but also of super-ripe fruit - cassis and black plum, a fleeting glimpse of something herbal is attractive. Sweet and powerful on the palate, silky textured plushness and quite fat, but a big surge of tannins and acidity drys and sharpens the picture. Very New World, full of extract and fully sweet fruit and deliciously so. 93/100

Ridge, Monte Bello 2009, California, USA
Opaque, blackish-purple colour. A touch of cedar and of sweet, damp earth, just a touch of something gamy too and a hint of liquorice. This is complex and serious stuff. Delightful palate combining something vegetal like endive and liquorice again, very dry and savoury, but with really ripe black berries at the core. Something meaty here too, a nice touch of roughening tannin and weight into a long finish. A serious wine, could be Chilean but pretty sure it is New World. 93-94/100.