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State of Play: Cabernet Sauvignon

It is revered as one of the world’s great wines. A generation ago, it seemed Australia was also at the forefront of making great Cabernet. Are we still?
 
If there was an Australian talent show for grape varieties, Cabernet would be the underdog. The one out of the spotlight, quietly waiting for its time to surprise and then everyone would sit up and take note. Shiraz, on the other hand, would take centre stage and be the all-rounder – entertaining and delivering instant gratification. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir would be versatile performers with quirky nuances, but Cabernet would be the shrinking violet not quite sure of when to hog the spotlight.

The thing is, Cabernet is having an identity crisis – it’s the one grape variety that mirrors Riesling on the popularity scale, seemingly mistrusted by consumers who have a preconceived idea of what it tastes like. This is a strange state of affairs. It never used to be this way. Australia used to be celebrated for its Cabernet – in the 70s and 80s it was more widely planted than Shiraz, making it Australia’s go-to red variety.
 
In fact, it was Australia’s Cabernets in the halcyon days that inspired winemaker Dominique Portet to leave Bordeaux and come to these shores, knowing full well the potential of this noble grape.
 

Nobility and structure

Cabernet is one of the world’s most planted grape styles and has been immortalised by Bordeaux and California alike, where it can command ludicrously high prices at the top end. In the glass, it’s all abundant black fruits with firm tannins and high acidity, meaning the best examples age well and it’s perfect with protein-heavy meals, especially lamb.
 
According to Wine Australia’s 2017 National Vintage Survey, 279,041 tonnes of Cabernet Sauvignon were crushed that year, up 8 per cent on 2016. It’s still Australia’s second most grown variety after Shiraz.
Yet it would seem that Cabernet can suffer based on how it’s positioned. It’s not exactly the first thing you would drink after mowing the lawn in terms of refreshment.
 
Dominique, who was one of our special guests for Selector’s Cabernet tasting, sagely pointed out, “When you go out in Bordeaux, you drink Rosé or Semillon Sauvignon blends, you would only order Cabernet if you were  eating."
 
Here lies the difference – the structure and the all-round shape of Cabernet, including its tannin framework, makes it an obvious choice for robust and fatty proteins – not something you’d glug down with an antipasto plate or a dozen oysters.

So how do we get the public to engage better with the graceful blackcurrant warrior cloaked in tannin? Hopefully, a rigorous tasting might provide some answers.
 

The state of play

We were asked to look at the state of play of Cabernet by Selector, who had assembled a cross section of 70 examples from regions high and low to assess where we were with this mercurial style.

The tasting itself presented a mix bag. One of the oldest wines, the Watershed Awakenings Cabernet 2011, was a beacon for the Margaret River, cementing its reputation early as the most highly awarded wine of the tasting. In terms of winners, we had a top 30, and there were some strong contenders in the mix. Regionally, it was Margaret River and Coonawarra almost head to head with strong representation from Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, Yarra Valley, Clare Valley and Wrattonbully.
 
Our other guest judge, Gwyn Olsen, has been making wines for Pepper Tree for the last four years in both Coonawarra and Wrattonbully. The latter region is charging up there, but as Gwyn points out, the vineyards are only 25 years old and are just finding balance.
Vine age and what we do with the fruit in the vineyard are certainly key factors when I ask Dominique of his appraisal of where we’re at with Cabernet in Australia.

“Do you want me to answer that as a French man or an Australian?” he retorts. “From an Australian point of view, Cabernet production is lacking in experience and site selection, as picking and pruning are essential and we need to be looking at fruit per vine and winemaking.
 
“If I was to wear my French hat, I would say we still have a long way to go. I think Australia, overall, is lacking Cabernet character and finesse – this includes aromatics, colour, mouth-feel and flavour derived from oak.
 
“The other thing I’ve noticed is it’s hard to get good Cabernet at a good price, unlike in France.”
 
Gwyn is quick to reply, pointing out that winemakers are indeed invested in producing great quality Australian Cabernet.

“We are not France and we don’t have the history they have, but it’s getting better and we are making sound wines that express where they come from,” she counters.

“It’s got better because we have looked at picking dates and for better blocks. Hand picking has really improved the quality. If it’s too ripe, it can be voluptuous and look like Shiraz, alternatively, if picked too early, it can look green and unripe.”
 

It ain’t easy being green

The idea of Cabernet, particularly young Cabernet, being green was certainly a point of discussion. As was the very Australian character of mint, well, eucalypt to be precise. Some consumers seem to like it and point to it as being a positive regional character. After all, small amounts of eucalypt can add a positive lift, but too much is overpowering and it ends up obscuring the beautiful blackcurrant fruit flavour. 

“It (eucalypt) is not evident in Bordeaux – so it’s definitely not a varietal quality” says Dominique, who believes it is a negative character, as does Gwyn. She’s been actively trying to eradicate this flavour profile in her Wrattonbully vineyards by hand picking fruit. It seems to be working.

The problem with young Cabernet being green and brambly is also an issue that needs to be addressed.

“We need to work harder on making young Cabernet more drinkable – we have the sun here to help with ripeness, but we have to be focused on what will sell,” says Dominique.

“It’s a difficult beast to grow as it needs flavour and you need it to be finessed and balanced. However, with French wines, especially En Primeur from Bordeaux, they still have elegance and aromatics, especially from the use of oak.”

Of course, it is known that Cabernet is a tough proposition on its own and needs assistance from its blending buddies to make it more approachable and less angular, particularly early on. After all, some of Australia’s most famed Cabernets are blended, such as Cullen’s Diane Madeline.
 

Where next for Cabernet?

Still, the question remains: why has Australian Cabernet seemingly taken a bit of a dip in quality compared to the wines that lured Dominique from Bordeaux in the 1970s? He believes that there was too much vineyard development in the 80s and 90s without care given to where it was planted.

“Cabernet needs youthful innovation,” he attests. “In the Yarra Valley, we have young people searching for the best sites and how to improve the quality – Cabernet needs care.”
 
Gwyn also believes working hard in the vineyard with good viticulturalists will lift Australian Cabernet’s game. Her focus is already seemingly paying dividends with her Pepper Tree Cabernet winning back-to-back trophies at the Limestone Coast Wine Show.

“There’s great potential in Australia, as we have all the elements to make the variety well,” says Dominique. “I have no doubt that the variety will grow and will bring a great reputation for Australia.”

For mine, the answer lies with time itself – we are certainly able to produce world class Cabernet, we just need to be patient. And as far as people drinking it? Quality wines will always be sought out. Get that part right and we’re halfway there. All we need to do then is show what a great food wine it is, perfectly suited to winter comfort dishes. Roast lamb and rosemary with an aged Coonawarra Cabernet? Yes, please.

 

SHAW VINEYARD ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
CANBERRA DISTRICT, RRP $30

Shaw Vineyard Estate’s Cabernet is a ‘shaw’-bet with its list of wine show bling, and it came up trumps with our Panel, too. For Trent, its appeal lay in the fact that it was so full, plush and rich, while Adam enjoyed the fact that the lick of oak was swallowed by the fruit.
Purchase from Wine Selectors now. Just $25.50 per bottle in any dozen. Order code SHAW31215 
 

PEPPER TREE SINGLE VINEYARD CALCARE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
COONAWARRA, RRP $44

‘Calcare’ means ‘limestone’, a reference to the limestone rock under the shallow soils of Pepper Tree’s Coonawarra vineyard. There’s nothing shallow about the quality of this wine though, with Dave praising its deep, rich, chocolately characters. Adam enjoyed its fragrant nose, poise and balance, and described its tannins as manicured. Certainly showing regional polish!
 

ROBERT OATLEY THE PENNANT CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2012
FRANKLAND RIVER, RRP $80

The Pennant is the pinnacle of the Robert Oatley range and pays homage to this late, great yachtsman’s sailing success. With six years under its belt, it’s a broody drop according to Will, presenting a subtle fruit core and soft oak. Rich and vibrant was Matt’s description, adding that it features lots of class. A level of adulation of which Bob would no doubt have been proud.
 

CLAYMORE BLACK MAGIC WOMAN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
CLARE VALLEY, RRP $45

Named after the Fleetwood Mac song that proved a hit for Santana, this Reserve Cabernet is only produced in great vintages. Its magic, according to Will, is its mulberry and blackcurrant-palate with its complement of soft cedar. Dave also thought it deserved critical acclaim with its youthful allure and tannin grip, but went on to say that its time in the sun may be yet to come.
 

HARDYS TINTARA CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
MCLAREN VALE, RRP $25

Tintara was Hardys’ original winery, bought by Thomas Hardy in 1876. Today, the range combines traditional and contemporary methods to create stunners like this. Gwyn complemented its savouriness and great tannin structure, while Dominique was impressed overall.
Purchase from Wine Selectors now. Just $21.25 per bottle in any dozen. Order code HARDY30216 
 

PENLEY ESTATE STEYNING CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
COONAWARRA, RRP $45

Cabernet was the first grape variety planted at Penley Estate and the first wine, a 1989 vintage, won Gold. Twenty-six vintages later and the success continues. For Gwyn, the seamless structure stood out, as did the lovely line and great acidity. Dominique was won over by its great food-matching potential, saying it would be particularly delicious with aged cheddar.

 

BEST’S GREAT WESTERN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
GREAT WESTERN, RRP $25

This is a great example of the fact that while Shiraz is Great Western’s hero red variety, Cabernet is nipping at her heels. In keeping with being the less showy star, this 2016 vintage was described by Patrick as nicely understated. He also noted the appeal of its cassis and blackcurrant flavours framed by balanced oak. Dave was fond of its youthful intensity and vibrant fruit.
 

BOWEN ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
COONAWARRA, RRP $27

The Bowen family don’t make a lot of wine, but this Cabernet shows their quality over quantity approach is really paying off. Trent was impressed by how smooth, ripe and powerful it tasted with Will agreeing, and highlighting its blackberry, mulberry, cedar and bay leaf characters with oak intensity. Speaking of which, it’s been matured in a unique mix of French and Russian oak.
 

LECONFIELD CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
COONAWARRA, RRP $29

Over 75% of Leconfield’s Coonawarra vines are Cabernet and they promote themselves as specialists in the variety. According to the Panel, their claims well and truly stack up with Patrick admiring its dark fruit and chocolate characters integrating well with the oak.  
Purchase from Wine Selectors now. Just $24.65 per bottle in any dozen. Order code LECON30216 
 

DOMINIQUE PORTET CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $60

Special guest, Dominique showed his ninth generation winemaking prowess with this 2015 beauty that includes a splash of Malbec and Merlot. It was the beautiful texture that had Trent extolling its virtues, describing it as elegant, seamless, plush and smooth. Gwyn was also taken with its polished line and liked how it spoke of its cool climate origins in its bright floral characters. 
 

REDMAN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
COONAWARRA, RRP $29

With four Trophies and six Gold medals to its name, this was always going to be an impressive drop. And just as it shouts victory from the trophy cabinet, it dazzles in the glass with Adam describing it as being loud with fruit power to burn. Yet at the same time, he found it fresh with great tannins. Just $24.65 per bottle in any dozen. Order code REDMA30215 
 

THORN-CLARKE WILLIAM RANDELL CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
EDEN VALLEY, RRP $60

If you want a genuine taste of the Barossa, this is it. The William Randall bears the Barossa Trust Mark in recognition of its regional authenticity.
It was its intensity that really struck Dave, who also commended its concentrated dark berry and toasty oak qualities. Matt also threw his support behind this drop, describing it as savoury, developed and rounded – lovely!

GRANT BURGE CORRYTON PARK CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2013
BAROSSA VALLEY, RRP $44

Corryton Park is one of the highest and coolest vineyards in the Barossa – perfect, Grant Burge says, for making world-class Cabernet. Reflecting the cooler conditions, Gwyn was impressed with its elegance, describing it as very pretty with beautiful fruit and ethereal bay leaf and sage qualities. Matt added a touch of masculinity to the description with his detection of a hint of tobacco.
 

HOWARD PARK MIAMUP CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
MARGARET RIVER, RRP $28

While Coonawarra takes the bulk of the Australian Cabernet glory, Margaret River’s star shines just as bright. This is evidently clear in the Miamup, which is part of Howard Park’s everyday drinking range, but holds its own alongside much pricier examples. Matt was certainly wowed, hailing its savoury elegance. For Gwyn, the allure was in its lovely line and crunchy characters. 
 

PETALUMA WHITE LABEL CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
COONAWARRA, RRP $26

Petaluma goes to the best regions for particular varieties, so naturally chose Coonawarra for Cabernet, selecting fruit from no less than five separate blocks for this 2016 vintage. The result, in Patrick’s words, is a wine with delicious fruit, great weight and lively concentration. Just $22.10 per bottle in any dozen. Order code PETAL30216 
 

VOYAGER ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2013
MARGARET RIVER, RRP $70

Voyager Estate takes Cabernet very seriously and invests a lot of time into research and development to ensure optimum quality. It’s paid off in this 2013 expression with, as Trent experienced, its ripe, juicy and seamless palate with ripe tannins, great line and length and lovely development. Matt found it to be subtle with savoury, creamy oak and elegance.
 

HAY SHED HILL BLOCK 2 CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
MARGARET RIVER, RRP $60

Another Margaret River beauty, this one from Hay Shed Hill comes from vines planted back in 1975 and over their 40+ years, they’ve dug their roots deep down into the soil in search of essential nutrients. They obviously found what they needed, because this wine, according to Dominique, is excellent. Dave agrees, noting its deep dark intensity and its great cellaring potential. 
 

LENTON BRAE LADY DOUGLAS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
MARGARET RIVER, RRP $30

This wine is named after the Lady Douglas, the ship that winemaker Edward Tomlinson’s family travelled to Australia on in the late 19th century. So in a roundabout way, she’s to thank for this Cabernet. Gwyn is certainly grateful for its presence, praising its wonderful structure and cool climate spice. Trent was taken with its elegance and flavours of currant and plum. 
 

 

YALUMBA THE MENZIES CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
COONAWARRA, RRP $60

The Menzies comes from Yalumba’s Rare & Fine collection, which is crafted from hand-selected fruit grown on carefully tended vines. It’s only made in years where the fruit quality and winemaking present perfectly. Lovely and rich was Gwyn’s appraisal, saying it has gorgeous expression. Dominique was also an admirer, complimenting its excellent concentration. 

 

BRAND’S LAIRA BLOCKERS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
COONAWARRA, RRP $22

Another Coonawarra classic, Brand’s Laira says this wine is one of their icons. Adam was attracted to its richness, pointing out the combination of its tightly wound tannins, fruit and oak gave real presence. Dominique found appeal in its rich chocolate characters. 
Purchase from Wine Selectors now. Just $18.70 per bottle in any dozen. Order code BRAND30214
 

CORIOLE ESTATE GROWN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
MCLAREN VALE , RRP $32

While we usually associate terra rossa soils with Coonawarra, Coriole’s Estate Cabernet is grown on McLaren Vale’s ‘red soils’. Plus, the vines have the added advantage of being 40-50 years old.
The result, Will says, is a wine that abounds in blueberry, cedar, crushed herb and lavender characters. Patrick enjoyed its sweeter edge, admiring its tannins and length.
 

ROB DOLAN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $35

Having spent 25 years making wines for other people, Rob Dolan struck out on his own in 2010, releasing his first wines two years later. He’s a Yarra Valley stalwart with a great talent for Cabernet, which Trent saw shine through in this example with its full red currant and plum flavours and firm tannins. Gwyn enjoyed it for its admirable structure and great varietal expression. 
 

SANDALFORD ESTATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
MARGARET RIVER, RRP $45

Sandalford’s senior winemaker, Hope Metcalf is incredibly lucky, she says, to work with some of Margaret River’s oldest vines. There’s no luck involved in the quality of this wine, though, just sheer dedication. Matt commended its concentrated cassis and ripe tannins.
Purchase from Wine Selectors now. Just $38.25 per bottle in any dozen. Order code SANDA30216
 

CAPE MENTELLE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2015
MARGARET RIVER, RRP $98

Cape Mentelle is a Margaret River pioneer who pride themselves on crafting Cabernet expressive of the vintage. This 2015 stunner boasts small percentages of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Shiraz and the result, Adam says, is a fragrant nose and powerful fruit flavours yet long tannins. Will describes those flavours as mulberry, cranberry, cedar and bay leaf, while Matt adds it has a lovely finish.

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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