Investigating Cabernet Sauvignon

Is it me, or has Australian cabernet sauvignon dropped out of fashion in the past couple of years? Is less being sold, are consumers fed-up with it? Has the media stopped reviewing it?

With the above questions tumbling around my mind I decided to investigate where Australian cabernet sauvignon sits today in the world of wine. My investigations took me to Darren Rathbone, CEO Rathbone wine group:

“As a Cabernet lover living in Melbourne I am frustrated by the lack of Cabernet on Melbourne wine lists. The number of wine lists that have a big Pinot selection, a big Shiraz selection, a big “other” section and a choice of two cabs. That said, I am very pleased to say Xanadu’s Cabernet sales are growing both in the domestic market and in exports, and Yering Station Cabernet is selling well. Xanadu cabernets have also done well in wine shows and been positively reviewed, so I don’t think they are forgotten. There does seem to be an expectation amongst Australian wine consumers that cabernet is green and hard, but when you serve them a well-balanced, structured, Cassis/Blackberry driven cabernet they seem to respond with amazement.”

I was in agreement with Rathbone, as I have also observed restaurant lists becoming more focused on pinot noir at the expense of cabernet. One can say the same about sauvignon ousting chardonnay.

Are the media following fashion and turning their back on cabernet? Not according to Huon Hook, Wine Correspondent, Sydney Morning Herald:

“I do believe cabernet sales have slowed. At the expense of shiraz, pinot and others. It’s a fashion thing. Bordeaux is also out of fashion in this country and has been for some years.

“However, I continue to review Australian cabernet enthusiastically as do other writers, so it’s not our fault!

“Also I think Australian cabernet is very good at present, especially Margaret River. It is running rings around Coonawarra these days. A run of very good vintages in the West doesn’t hurt.”

If restaurants are turning their back on cabernet but the media continue to review, what do those that make the wine think? Steve Webber, senior winemaker at De Bortoli Wines in the Yarra Valley, presents the winemakers’ view, plus some fascinating history:

“Premium cool region Cabernet seems to be a little out of fashion in Australia, although sales are OK without setting the world on fire.

“My personal feeling is that Cabernet needs a mild autumn to fully develop tannin without excessive sugar. A series of very good mild seasons through the 90’s produced very good Cab wines and they sold well. The 2000’s gave only a few good Cab years due to short seasons and lots of heat and the wines were never as good (Margaret River wines were the exception)

“During the 2000’s, many big alcoholic Cabernets from warm regions were made with good show success (2-3 Jimmy Watson trophies) and were popular for the traditional old boys, but the wines were short lived and not really great food wines or good wines at all. This has probably had a bigger effect than we think.

“Because Cabernet wines a need a few years in bottle, the young exciting winemakers that make much of the local media noise, can’t afford to make such wine (even if they do like Cabernet which very few do). Maybe Pinot, Syrah, Shiraz, Grenache, Sangiovese etc. are more fashionable.

“The Yarra (and probably Coonawarra as well) have had four outstanding Cabernet vintages in a row (2012-2015). The 2012’s have mostly gone and 2013’s starting to come on the market. The 2012’s are about the age when I think Yarra Cab starts looking good. Expensive keeping 2-3 vintages in bottle before selling.

“Timo Mayer in the Yarra is doing a very interesting 100 per cent whole bunch cabernet with some good success and a real buzz within the sommelier community. We [De Bortoli] trialled this method last year as a portion of a new blended red under our La Bohème range that will be released in June.

“In the Yarra, I will be interested to see what happens to the older Cabernet planting with the effects of Phylloxera. We have some Cabernet on rootstock and will be replanting the best blocks over the “next few years to better Cabernet clones and closer spacings. When these have maturity about them and are producing some profound wine, then hopefully the excitement will be back.

“We have, however, already replanted the majority of our Tarrawarra Vineyard cabernet and merlot to pinot noir due to the crazy demands for Pinot.”

Often what we think or feel is not always backed by facts. Shane Tremble, Head of Corporate Development, Woolworths Liquor Group said, “There has been no decline in Cabernet sales. In fact higher price point wines in particular are showing very good growth.”

Thanks to Treasury Wine Estates for the information they supplied plus stats from Aztec (with permission) for the below. The TWE observations are based on figures on a MAT to 26 July 2015.

“Cabernet has the biggest buyer base of any red wine in Australia and (at end June 2015) it was second largest red varietal with $250m of sales.

“The Cabernet buyer heart-land is consumers aged over 55yrs who have medium to high involvement in the category. As such, there is a need to introduce younger consumers to Cabernet in order to increase the buyer base and maintain sales growth.

“TWE wines presently have around a third of the total Australian Cabernet market.

“Coonawarra is the largest Australian Cabernet region and on average, generates around one quarter of all Australian Cabernet sales”.

The Aztec figures below are for bottled cabernet sauvignon on a MAT to end of December 2015.

Cabernet is in growth plus 2.6 per cent on year average and it is growing faster than total wine (+0.5 per cent), it is however down in the latest quarter by -1.3 per cent
Cabernet represents 6.8 per cent of total bottled wine value
Volume is growing faster than value is showing (volume growth is +4.9 per cent)

Aztec points out that cabernet blends are in decline.

Cab Merlot is down -7.8 per cent in value terms
Cabernet Blends down -3.8 per cent in value terms

Fact file:

There are 24,000 hectares of cabernet sauvignon planted in Australia. The 2015 vintage produced a total of 202,700 tonnes split between 127,700 tonnes from the inland regions and 79,000 tonnes from cool climate regions.

The average inland region price in 2015 was $321 tonne with cool climate fruit fetching an average $1,149 tonne.

When it comes to export the USA is the top destination for Australian cabernet sauvignon at 34 per cent, China follows (23 per cent), a long way behind is the UK and Canada at 8 per cent each with Hong Kong coming fifth with 5 per cent.

Facts and comments aside the rest are my reviews.

Hesketh ‘Regional Selection’ Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: As Coonawarra as Coonawarra can only be. 93 points and outstanding value at just $18.

Redman Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: So very Coonawarra, so very Redman, so very good. 95 points and well worth $34.

Jack Estate Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: Sound Coonawarra wine but there are others around that beat it for the same or $5-8 less, so not so good value at $25, 89 points.

Cricket Flat Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: Very sound, dark, brooding wine. I’m not doing it a disservice when I say it slips down a treat. All it should be and a bit extra. 94 points and great value at $21.

St Mary’s ‘House Block’ Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: Spice with a hint of mint on the nose which follows through to the palate. An interesting style worth trying. 92 points, top end of the price scale at $30.

Yarnbomb by Corrina Wright McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: A bold number, it comes right out of the glass and says g’day. 92 and worth its $22.

Hickinbotham ‘Trueman’ McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: Rich for cabernet but still within bounds; goes on and on. 94 points, pricey at $75 and not as good value as the shiraz.

d’Arenberg ‘The Coppermine Road’ McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2012: The richness is overwhelming at first, rather like an elaborate embroidery, it takes time to focus in and see the detail and then admire the workmanship. It’s one of the richest expressions of cabernet I know but it works. 95 points and for those that have it, worth $65.

Chapel Hill McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: The nose had slight, young, raw leather notes mixed with classic blackcurrant. The palate also had a raw edge to it but that was just youth. It’s a good wine well-made and now needs more bottle age, but that is being picky. Sipping and drinking without looking for critical aspects, it’s a good drop. 94 points and value at $30.

5171 McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2014: An exclusive to Aldi supermarkets, immensely plump and pretty, a lady of fulsome charm. To miss the charm is to miss out. 94 points and fantastic value at just $13.

Zonte’s Footstep ‘Avalon Tree’ Fleurieu Peninsula Cabernet 2013: Although it says cabernet on the front label it contains 5 per cent tempranillo. In James Halliday’s 2016 Wine Companion it gets a rating of 87. I can’t go that far, 84 for me. It is quite the poorest example of cabernet I have seen in a long while. It retails between $18 and $25 and it’s money that can be better spent elsewhere.

Thorn-Clarke ‘Sandpiper’ Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2014: Has that Barossa chocolate edge; a sound but not over exciting wine but then it’s only $19 and well worth that. 91 points.

St John’s Road ‘Line & Length’ Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2014: Rich, ripe, full on, hardly cabernet but somehow gets away with it and drinks very well. 93 points and worth $22.

Jacobs Creek ‘Reserve Barossa Signature’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2014: It was all over the place on first sip but letting it settle and returning to it later the wine came good. A hint of chocolate, very good length and a mix of flavours that please all the way. 94 points and well worth $20.

Crabtree Clare Valley Watervale Cabernet Sauvignon 2012: Very seductive on the nose, sits pert at the front of the palate then travels on two levels, ripe black fruit on the bottom overlaid with five spice. 93 points, perhaps one more to come as it ages and worth $28.

Mitchell ‘Seven Hill Vineyard’ Clare Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: There are not many 7-8 year old Australian wines that can be found, let alone bought for $25. This is one and should not be missed. It’s not a great wine, as in top Bordeaux, but it is very well-made, sits gently in the mouth and then progresses with an elegance and persistence of flavour that is to be congratulated. 93 points and good value.

Chain of Ponds ‘Amadeus’ Adelaide Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2010: Light on nose to start but comes out in time; a beautiful dry edge that worked well at the table. Fine and elegant style. 94 points and worth $38.

Howard Park ‘Scotsdale’ Great Southern Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: Yes it’s different from the ‘Leston’ Margaret River wine, but it’s splitting hairs. In my mind it’s Australian, no nudging me towards Bordeaux but the mark is the same. 94 with more to come and well worth the $46 if putting away for a year or three.

Patina Orange Region Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: It’s good to see a wine with age, more so as it’s only $30. The fruit is drying out but only slightly and the characters of age are creeping in. It’s not the greatest nine year old wine I have tried but it is good and an incredible value. 93 points.

Queens Pinch Vineyard Mudgee Cabernet Sauvignon 2012: The everyday drinking cabernet, lighter than the ‘select’ but pleasing enough and an OK price at $18.50. 91 points.

Best’s Great Western Cabernet Sauvignon 2014: it is its own style of cabernet and rather wonderful for being so. The family resemblance is there but there is also an individuality. It’s very smooth and stretches in a lazy fashion like a classic beauty on a chaise lounge. 94 points and incredibly cheap at $25.

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