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State of Play, Coonawarra Cabernet
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State Of Play Coonawarra Cabernet

Since table wine a became a ‘thing’ in Australia, Cabernet from Coonawarra was Australia’s benchmark. But in recent decades the popularity of Shiraz, the ascendency of Margaret River, and Yarra’s return to its viti-roots have seen the spotlight spread thin. So where is Coonawarra taking its Cabernet torch?

Cabernet Sauvignon is the so-called ‘King’ of wine grapes; a thick-skinned, hardy, disease-resistant variety that has led to it being the most cultivated grape on earth. When planted in sympathetic environs, it can produce wines with power, elegance, structure and complexity.

Shop Coonawarra Cabernet

 

Coonawarra's famed Terra Rossa soil 

Like most varieties, the difference between good and great is dirt and climate, and Coonawarra is blessed with both. Its anomalous mix of reddish-brown, clay-rich soil, layered over free-draining limestone, is ideal for developing depth of flavour. When picked at the right time and handled with care in the winery, it can deliver tannins that create structure and harmonious textural support.

This two-by-fifteen kilometre strip of terra rossa soil sits 50km from the Great Australian Bight, generating cool nights, warm days, and a long, gentle growing season. When in balance, these conditions align to develop three of the keys that open the door to really good wine: power, complexity and elegance. Another key is acidity, and Coonawarra’s geological soup of clay, iron oxide and limestone contributes minerality and acidity to the mix that, in good years, can build elegant wines that will age gracefully for decades.

 

Coonawarra climate 

Coonawarra is Australia’s original ‘cool climate’ region. Winters are often cold and wet but its summers are long and gentle; perfect for the gradual, layered construction of flavour definition without the weight that often comes with wines that ripen more quickly in hotter climates.

It’s these conditions that give Coonawarra Cabernet its throne, but is also a factor in holding it back when the trend pendulum swings to riper, sweeter wines from warmer places.

Back in the day, sweeter fortified wines drove the birth and growth of Australia’s wine industry (late 1700s to the mid 1900s), and despite being planted in the late 1800s, Coonawarra barely rated a mention. Then, when the dial shifted to table wine in the late 60s to early 70s, the subtle elegance of Coonawarra’s Cabernets started to bring real interest to the region.

 

The rise of Coonawarra Cabernet

Then, in the late 80s through to the early 2000s, the pendulum swung again, and muscular, ripe flavours dominated with Shiraz soaking up all the attention. But quality endures, and with wine lovers currently gravitating towards elegance, identity and drinkability, Coonawarra Cabernet is perfectly placed to surge once again.

So, with help from Hugh Koch and Heidi Guyett from Coonawarra Vignerons, Selector put the call out to Coonawarra producers hoping we could get a good look under the hood.

In all, 60-plus wines were submitted, and with the help of the folks from Parker Estate, Wine Selectors’ co-Chair Adam Walls, and winemakers Keeda Zilm from Parker, Jordan Cory from Hollick, Lauren Hansen from Penley and Peter Weinberg from Brand and Sons put down the tools for a day to sip, spit, assess and get black teeth all in the service of Coonawarra Cab.

The judging panel

Keeda Zilm from Parker, Lauren Hansen from Penley, Adam Walls, Paul Diamond, Peter Weinberg from Brand and Sons, and Jordan Cory from Hollick.

 

Verdict: Tasting Coonawarra's Cabernet 

Overall the standard was encouragingly high, with a tidy array of style across all vintages and price brackets. There were the fuller-bodied, classically crafted built-to-last wines and there were the lighter-bodied, less oaked wines made with a clear priority on drinkability.

One of the clear outcomes was across-the-board flavour and weight consistency. Topographically and geologically, this makes sense. Whilst vine age, picking time, viticultural and winemaking decisions make all the difference, there is a visceral thread running through each season.

“Many of the wines here have been made by the same families for decades and have built their reputations for quality and consistency,” explains Jordan from Hollick. “The region is staying consistent with what it knows when it comes to its legacy and premium wines, but you can see where producers are starting to dabble with different styles.”

 

OLD SCHOOL / NEW SCHOOL STYLES OF CABERNET

The tasting revealed an appealing distinction between the ‘classic’ Coonawarra Cabernets built around structure with a view to ageing, and the wines that are made to be enjoyed in the short-to-medium term.

“It feels like an incredibly important moment in the evolution of Coonawarra Cabernet,” says Penley Winemaker Lauren Hansen. “We’ve emerged from the ‘Parker Era’ where more oak and more alcohol were goals, and it feels like the tides have shifted. The end goals are more about elegance, balance, and you don’t need to cellar the wines for 10 years before they’re in the drinking window.”

 

NO GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

One of the past criticisms of Coonawarra Cabernet was the presence of ‘green’, under-ripe flavours and aromas in the wines, particularly in the cooler years. These characters can present as green, bell or jalapeno peppers, green olive, mint or eucalyptus, and can be the result of fruit struggling to ripen in cooler seasons. Across the board there were no green characters in sight, proving that the whole region has worked hard to put any criticism in the past and show a positive viti-winemaking evolution across the board.

 

VINTAGE QUALITY, DEFINITION AND STYLE

In cool regions, vintage conditions are everything, and despite it being too early to bottle, everyone was excited about the potential of the Cabernets from the 2023 vintage which is shaping up to be a cracking Coonawarra year. The previous vintage was also excellent, with classic Cabernet styles emerging with dark fruits, savoury characteristics, acid and fine tannins building wines with awesome cellaring potential.

The 2021 vintage was slightly warmer and drier, and has built stand-out wines with richer, bolder flavours and fantastic intensity. Vintage 2020 was affected by a cooler spring that resulted in a smaller crops, but some great wines with lovely tannins were made. Vintage 2019 was fantastic, with great fruit intensity and depth working well for winemakers who wanted approachability and freshness, as well as those wanting to make more classic Cabernet styles. If you like your reds with power and intensity, however, look for the wines from the warmer 2018 vintage – rich and muscular, with strong varietal flavours and soft ripe tannins.

 

A POSITIVE FUTURE FOR COONAWARRA CABERNET

Overall, the tasting was clear evidence of a region focused on further elevating its value as an Australian benchmark. There’s little doubt that the folk of Coonawarra want the quality of their wines to do the talking, and as a remote region with a small share of South Australia’s wine voice, it’s well on track to again punch above its weight.

Keeda Zilm of Parker Estate was emphatic regarding the overall quality shown. “It’s very strong, I was so impressed... especially the 2021 wines: balanced, expressive and elegant. It makes me proud to be a member of the Coonawarra winemaking community, it was such a privilege.”

 

State of Play, Coonawarra Cabernet

Brand & Sons Nightfall Draco Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $250

A magnificent wine. Powerful, fleshy and balanced with cassis, redcurrant, blackcurrant, coffee, and thyme defining the palate. It’s medium-bodied with supple, mocha-like tannins. Cellar or drink now – whichever you choose, you’re sure to be highly rewarded.

 

Riddoch The Pastoralist Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $40

Recently awarded ‘Best Cabernet Sauvignon’ in the world by the IWC, this classically-styled drop exudes blackcurrant, mint and cassis characters in a well-rounded wine with distinct fruit flavours and a fresh finish. Astounding value for the price, from a long-established regional player.

 

Penley Estate Helios Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Coonawarra, RRP $150

Muscular yet poised, with dark fruits and focused tannins lending superb structure. The palate is complex and bold, savoury and long, with mulberry, liquorice and oak in evidence.

 

Reschke Empyrean Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Coonawarra, RRP $150

A wine that lives up to its name as the ‘highest and purest sphere’. Long, powerful and richly fruited, this is a distinguished and masterfully oaked flagship wine with years ahead of it yet.

 

Majella Gpl68 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Coonawarra, RRP $130

Rich and dark with exceptional cellaring potential of up to 15-20 years, this well crafted wine rewards the palate with cassis and bay leaf notes leading convincingly to a savoury and satisfying finish. A classic.

 

Katnook Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $110

Powerful, rich and poised. A bright, sweet core of blackberries and blue/black plums, textured with well integrated oak and tannins. Aromas are heady and floral with stewed fruits, mulberries, spices and herbs. A genuine keeper.

 

Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $40

Voluminous aromatics of red fruits with classic cassis, savoury and earthy notes elevating the young fruit flavours, with underlying nutty, chocolate characters evident. Palate delivers plush plum characters with subtle oak, in signature Wynns style.

 

State of Play, Coonawarra Cabernet

Balnaves Of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 219

Coonawarra, RRP $40

A standout from the strong 2019 vintage. Youthful, bright and elegant with red florals, blackcurrant lending superb structure. The Long, powerful and richly and plum aromatics pushing to a fruited, this is a distinguished and powerful, lengthy and balanced masterfully oaked flagship wine palate framed and soft, fine tannins. liquorice and oak in evidence. with years ahead of it yet. A truly delectable wine.

 

Hollick Estates Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon 2020

Coonawarra, RRP $36

A classic, long and intense Coonawarra Cabernet. Leafy mulberries, blackcurrants, earth and spice aromas move to a nicely integrated and supple mouthful of cassis, blackcurrants, dark chocolate and cedar: Hollick delivers again.

 

Leconfield Cabernet Sauvignon 2020

Coonawarra, RRP $36

The flagship wine of a Coonawarra icon since 1977, this is a fragrant and distinctly varietal expression of depth and elegance, with blackberry and cedar aromas opening onto a textural, rewarding palate. Excellent ageing potential for patient souls.

 

Raidis Estate The Trip Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Coonawarra, RRP $100

A beautifully layered, nuanced bouquet of earthy characters opens onto an intense yet elegant, soft tannined palate. A boutique benchmark from the heart of Coonawarra.

 

Rymill The Surveyor Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Coonawarra, RRP $90

A dark fruited delight thanks to a deep palate rippling with plums, fennel, mocha and mint in a full bodied frame. Elegant oak and robust tannins means this one will go the distance.

 

St. Hugo Flint Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $90

An exquisitely structured wine with long, delicate tannins complementing a blackcurrant fruit core, opening to reveal sophisticated, earthy flavours beneath. Wow.

 

Highbank Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Coonawarra, RRP $89

Another 2016 wine ageing elegantly. Deep lines of dried currants, spices and dusty leather are framed with earthy, sweet sour aromatics. A great dinner drop.

 

State of Play, Coonawarra Cabernet

Rymill Classic Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Coonawarra, RRP $36

Crimson red with forward spice notes, this attractive wine leaps out with a plum and charry pepper punch before resolving into a dark and spicy fruit dance across a floor of well-defined tannins. Long and lovely, firm and fine, in the best region-and-variety tradition.

 

Bundalong Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Coonawarra, RRP $35

A pretty wine with mulberry, vanilla, fennel seed, leather and blackcurrant jam aromas pushing through to a big mouthful of nicely balanced cassis and black fruits. Supple but firm tannins flow nicely across the palate, resolving into a deeply satisfying finish.

 

Di Giorgio Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $35

Full-bodied, juicy and bright with savoury blackcurrants, herbs and 5-spice. This wine has good aromatic energy, characterised by blackcurrants, spice, and vanilla, making it a food-friendly accompaniment.

 

Parker Estate Terra Rossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $34

Presenting light, earthen aromatics sprinkled with blackberry hints, this early-drinker is delightfully acidic with plush and perky juicy fruit flavours delicately supported by soft, refined tannins. Dangerous, and damn good.

 

Bowen Estate Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $33

A dark-fruited, opulent wine with aromatics of plums, blackcurrants and vanilla-spiked cooking chocolate. The palate is balanced and medium-to-full-bodied with classic Coonawarra tannins rounding out its mouthfeel. A wine to savour now and in coming years.

 

Redman Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 

Coonawarra, RRP $55

A beautifully aged wine with a nose of ripe dark fruit, black olive and subtle oak. Palate is dense and rich in lovely dark fruits, with an impressive tannin structure assuring longevity.

 

Ottelia Taschini Bushy Cabernet Sauvignon 2022

Coonawarra, RRP $32

A lighter-bodied take on Coonawarra Cabernet with fresh, lifted notes of red fruits, thyme and blackcurrant, and a bright palate of red fruits and herbs. A wine worthy of interest with a distinctly easy-drinking appeal.

 

State of Play, Coonawarra Cabernet

Patrick Of Coonawarra Two Blocks Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Coonawarra, RRP $32

Lifted aromas of blue and dark berry fruits with a hint of vanilla. The palate is full yet soft, with tertiary notes of soy beyond the sweet blue fruit and spice core, with fine-grained tannins making it an approachable wine.

 

Brand & Sons Old Town Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $85

Terroir-driven with compelling aromas of salt-licked mulberries, blackcurrants, graphite and eucalyptus. Dark fruited and muscular, balanced nicely with a plush mouthfeel.

 

Brand’s Laira One Seven One Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Coonawarra, RRP $80

An exceptional wine, beautifully illustrating the ageing potential of Coonawarra Cabernet. Well-weighted, dark berry fruits flow across the palate to a silky, fine-grained finish.

 

Wynns Glenygle Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $80

Vibrant and lighter in style, with sweet florals and red forest fruit aromatics opening to a clean, bright palate with lovely fruit weight and cranberry crunch. A finely structured, mouth-watering wine.

 

Riddoch The Author Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Coonawarra, RRP $60

Smooth and overflowing with fruit purity, this deeply coloured wine resounds with aromatics of dark berries and spicy vanilla oak. A lovely fruit and cassis palate, good oak and fine Coonawarra tannins make this a winner.

 

Reschke Vitulus Cabernet Sauvignon 2020

Coonawarra, RRP $32

Opening with licks of vanillin oak, blackcurrant and graphite, this is a bigger-style wine that is layered yet balanced. A little green edge brings freshness to its otherwise savoury character, making it very representative of the 2020 vintage.

 

Zema Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $30

Brilliant crimson, lifted, and perfumed with classic varietal fruits, this is the very picture of a Coonawarra Cab. Palate is lush and generous with varietal dark fruits and and rounded palate of balanced oak and dry fine tannins, making for a genuinely top-shelf drop that's worth holding onto... if you can resist it.

 

State of Play, Coonawarra Cabernet

Banks Thargo Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $28

A classy, well-structured wine from 2018. Pure aromas of red and purple flowers, fresh mulberries and blackcurrants drive through to a luscious palate of savoury red black fruits. A robust wine with a fine and considered finish.

 

Brand’s Laira Blockers Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $28

Perfumed and earthy with blackberries, blackcurrants and sweet red-fruited aromas, this wine is a crowd pleaser. The palate is elegant and fine-grained with blueberries, blackberries, and a soft, lingering finish.

 

Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $60

Brick red with subtle, dusty spice and brambly notes that amplify briar and dark berry fruits laced pure with balanced oak and very once opened up. Slippery entry with oak, opening onto a smooth fine tannins, making for a generous wine.

 

St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $58

Aromatically enticing with pure briar and dark berry fruits laced with oak, opening onto a smooth and rounded palate of deep, rich brambly fruits, fine tannins and subtle cedar oak. Yes please!

 

Jack Estate Mythology Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Coonawarra, RRP $55

A classic, ageing classically. Dense blackcurrant, coffee, eucalypt and black olive aromas push through to layers of rich and ripe black fruits, fresh and secondary. Fine, dusty tannins round out the mouthfeel.

 

Redman Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $32.50

Garnet-coloured with a complex nose of blackcurrant, tomato vine, cedar and bay leaf, this is a deeply savoury wine that is defined by a bedrock of tannins in support of black fruit, plum and earthen flavours. Lip-smacking and utterly lovely.

 

Zema Estate Family Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Coonawarra, RRP $49

A light and appealing wine with aromatics of leafy red fruits and a rounded, soft palate with confectionery hints, drying tannins and a supple, curranty finish.

 

State of Play, Coonawarra Cabernet

Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $44.99

Beautifully crafted and made to last. Brooding, herb laden blackcurrants, cassis and graphite aromatics lead to a palate full of plush red, blue and red fruits. Lovely mouthfeel with deep set, svelte tannins.

 

Whistle Post Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $44

A straight up Coonawarra Cabernet that presents well with tightly concentrated, mid weight blackberry/ black cherry fruits on a nicely textural and rounded palate. Drinking well already.

 

Patrick Of Coonawarra Home Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $50

An earthy, smokey style with dried herbs and baked berries leading to a concentrated palate of rich redcurrants and cassis, with dusty tannins and a long, elegant finish.

 

Whistle Post Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $26

Aromatics of plum and concentrated cassis with dusty white pepper notes and dried thyme. A juicy, textured entry opens onto a palate with good fruit weight and sappy tannins, in a still-youthful wine that’s great value.

 

Jack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Coonawarra, RRP $25

Powerful, restrained and in its sweet spot. Juicy and generous with a fleshy palate of blackcurrants, plums and violets. Aromas are pure, detailed and complex; blackberries, cassis, cedar, blueberry and rhubarb.

 

Majella The Composer Cabernet Sauvignon 2021

Coonawarra, RRP $25

Orange peel and ripe plum aromatics open up to reveal vibrant, fleshy black fruits and structural oak, with long savoury tannins rounding out the palate. A well-made, interesting wine that’s a real conversation starter.

 

Penley Estate Preservative Free Cabernet Sauvignon 2022

Coonawarra, RRP $25

Dense in appearance with a rich, briary nose and a fleshy, mid-weight palate of black and blue fruits with long, fine tannin grip. Plump and preservative-free, it’s a fine example of what a minimal intervention Cabernet can be.

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Published on
11 Jul 2023

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