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Cabernet: Custom-made for a change

In Europe, Cabernet Sauvignon is considered King of wines. In Australia it seems to sit in the shadow of Shiraz. But a greater understanding of the varietal by producers and key changes in the weather signal an exciting future for this regal wine.

Of all the great wine regions in the world, it is Bordeaux that commands the most respect. Home to esteemed names such as Château Montrose, Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, the wines of Bordeaux have a sense of royalty about them. It is here where Cabernet reigns supreme – dark and brooding with flavours ranging from chocolate, cigar box and tobacco, its broad tannin structure allows it to age far more than any other wine. It is the stuff legend.

In Australia, the thick-skinned grape varietal has been planted in virtually every wine region across Australia, however, it doesn’t always produce the goods. It struggles when it’s too cold and gets too jammy when it is too hot.

Naturally, regions whose climes resemble the maritime climate of Bordeaux, with its warm days and cool nights, produce our best. Traditionally, that has been Coonawarra in South Australia and, more recently, the Western Australian wine regions of Margaret River and Great Southern.

Certainly, these were the regions that shone in our Cabernet tasting with more than half the wines in the Top 30 produced in these three regions. “The potential to make world class Cabernet from Margaret River and the Great Southern is amazing and it’s only just getting started,” says Richard Burch from Howard Park, whose Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 topped the tasting. “Western Australia is a relatively young wine region with vines only planted in the 1970s. But when you put together the benign weather and growing conditions, the gradual accumulation of vine age, and the continuing discovery of the best individual sites for Cabernet in Western Australia, the future looks exciting.”

The Bordeaux of South Australia

Before Western Australia came onto the wine scene, it was Coonawarra that held the mantle as Australia’s premier Cabernet region. For many, it still is. Remarkably similar to Bordeaux in its maritime climate, the region’s famous terra rossa soils were thought to be a hindrance to producing great Cabernet, but as Paul Gordon, senior winemaker at Leconfield points out, it has imparted Cabernet from this region with a unique flavour profile and the climate allows for consistently good vintages.

“That strip of terra rossa soil that sits thinly over limestone. The red soil, high in clay content, provides moisture-holding capacity to sustain the vines over the dry summer months while the porous limestone allows access to high quality water several metres below the surface, says Paul.

“The cold Antarctic waters unique to South East South Australia cool the night summer breezes, ameliorating the warmth of the day to produce a long growing season. In cooler years, the conditions allow for ripening through April and early May and produce fine, elegant styles of great longevity. In warmer seasons, harvest may occur in mid to late March and fuller styles result – but always the emphasis is on patience to allow the flavours and tannins to ripen.”

Care for the canopy

As this tasting shows, Coonawarra is not the only South Australia region to produce quality Cabernet. McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Eden Valley, Barossa Valley and Clare Valley can produce wines with strong varietal characters. “There is very strong potential to make great Cabernet in Clare,” says Sevenhill winemaker Liz Heidenreich.

“Cabernet vines thrive on the cool nights and warm days we see in the Clare ripening period. The best wines come from years when the crop level is not too high, the canopies are full and healthy, allowing grapes to ripen for longer into the season, and when we have long, even summers.

Paul Smith, winemaker at Wirra Wirra in McLaren Vale, also believes canopy management is paramount in the production of great Cabernet, while also highlighting the importance of winemaking nous.

“The vine canopy has to provide dappled light to the fruit, the window of picking for beautiful fragrant Cabernet is short, while handling through ferment and oak selection will expose some winemakers,” says Paul.

While experience has shown Paul that canopy management is important in producing great Cabernet, science is backing up the theory. One of the primary characters of Cabernet Sauvignon is the presence of herbaceous green flavours, particularly when the wine is young. Researchers have found the presence of methoxypyrazine (more commonly called pyrazine) is responsible. It is the compound that gives Cabernet aromas of capsicum, eucalypt and mint. It has been discovered that pyrazine can be altered through attentive vineyard management. By careful pruning of the leafy part of the vines, viticulturists can manage what sort of aromas result in the wine.

While work in the vineyard is becoming increasingly important, winemakers have softened the somewhat off-putting green, stalky flavours of Cabernet simply by allowing the wine to mature. Most of the wines in this tasting have some age, with some of the stars being from vintages such as 2010 and 2012.

A Key Change

One of the surprising findings from this tasting was that cooler wine regions such as the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and even the Hilltops have been able to produce top shelf Cabernet. “The Yarra Valley has a proven track record of producing high quality Cabernet, lets not forget names like Mount Mary, Yarra Yering and Yeringberg,” says Ben Portet from Dominque Portet Wines in the Yarra Valley.

“In saying that, the potential to make even greater, and more importantly, more consistent Cabernet is strong, especially with the increase in our growing season average temperature and in turn our drier climatic conditions.” Vic Peos from Peos Estate in the cool climate region of Manjimup of Western Australia also agrees that climate change has had a positive effect on the potential for cooler regions such as his to produce great Cabernet. “The last decade the weather has really changed, the last six years, apart from 2010, have been spectacular for producing Cabernet,” says Vic. “We still have the cold nights and early rainfall in late winter and early spring, so the canopy is lush and the berry is great. But during the summer, it is not as wet anymore, so we can really hang our Cabernet a lot longer on the vines, and we can get skin and tannin ripeness. We are thinking that Cabernet can be one of our real stars. The future is exciting.”

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All Pizzazz - South Australian Shiraz
Words by Nick Ryan on 18 Aug 2015
It's a good and appropriate time to undertake a tasting of good ol’ South Australian Shiraz. While Pinot Noir is strapped tight to the rocket of rapidly ascending popularity and wine lists across Australia overflow with so-called ‘alternative’ varieties, the fact remains more bottles of Shiraz are consumed across the country than any other red variety and of those bottles the majority trace their origins to South Australian dirt. A good reason for the variety’s ubiquity is its ability to grow well in just about every wine region in the country and to present a different angle on its varietal character in each of those places. It really is our national barometer of terroir, the control that gives our experiments in regionality their context. When it gives us medium-bodied savouriness we’re in the Hunter, when it’s exuberantly spiced we’re in Canberra or central Victoria. When it’s all that and more we’re in South Australia. The results of a large tasting of South Australian Shiraz throwing up 30-odd top pointed wines offers a great opportunity to assess where the variety is at – they don’t call them State of Play tastings for nothing – and the results have presented some juicy food for thought. Some key observations follow. The Barossa is still king If we include the higher, cooler and bonier vineyards of the Eden Valley along with those down on the Valley floor, then the Barossa has produced almost half of the top pointed wines in the tasting. That shouldn’t really surprise us, after all the Barossa has always been South Australia’s Shiraz heartland. But what’s really exciting is the diversity of styles across the wines that performed well. “Ten years ago you could be forgiven for thinking Barossa Shiraz was pretty much all the same,” says senior Red Winemaker at Yalumba, Kevin Glastonbury. “A lot of the Barossa’s best wines were blended from across the region and made to a certain style, but now there’s a much greater focus on capturing what’s special about great single vineyards.” That’s got to be a good thing considering the Barossa has some of the greatest viticultural resources on the planet, including some wizened, deep-rooted old vineyards that date back to the early days of the South Australian colony. Zooming in closer on the Barossa’s viticultural map has also given a deeper understanding of sub-regionality across the Barossa. Glastonbury is well placed to comment on this development, having had a significant hand in two high-pointed wines in the tasting, each one representing a different approach to Barossa Shiraz Yalumba’s 2010 Paradox Shiraz is an outstanding example of this new way of thinking about Barossa Shiraz. Its vineyard sourcing is drawn from a narrow band across the northern Barossa, primarily around Kalimna, Ebenezer and up towards Moppa Springs, and the winemaking is carefully controlled to express the character of this corner of the region. “We want something that’s really savoury and supple rather than hefty and sweet fruited,” he explains. “We also back right off on the new oak and use old French puncheons.” Glastonbury is also a big fan of the distinctly different fruit that comes of vineyards up in the Eden Valley. “The nature of the place allows us to apply a few winemaking techniques that work well with that finer fruit. We’ve started to do things like a bit of whole bunch fermentation in some Octavius parcels and it really adds an extra dimension to the style.” The Barossa is clearly in a golden age South Australian Shiraz is becoming cool and getting high. Anyone labouring under the out-dated impression that South Australian Shiraz is all big flesh and brute power should look to the impressive number of top pointed wines in the tasting coming from the Limestone Coast and Adelaide Hills. Wines from Zema, Wynns and Brands help us realise there’s more to Coonawarra than just Cabernet Sauvignon and remind us that the famous terra rossa soils can produce outstanding, fine framed and elegant Shiraz. It’s particularly exciting to see a wine from Wrattonbully – Coonawarra’s near neighbour to the north – a region that really has the capacity to produce a fragrantly spicy Shiraz style. If this tasting took place a decade ago, we’d be surprised to see a single entrant from the cool, elevated vineyards of the Adelaide Hills, but in 2015 we have five breaking into the Top 30. Where many saw Pinot Noir as the future star when vineyards began to take root in the Adelaide Hills, it’s been Shiraz that has performed best. The Hills offers a huge diversity of sites for growing Shiraz and canny winemakers have harnessed this diversity to produce some of the most impressive cool climate Shiraz in the country.  Clare is the real dark horse One of the really significant elements of this tasting has been the strong performance of the Clare Valley. Clare attracts most attention for its Riesling, and while Shiraz lovers might look closer to Adelaide for their red wine thrills, it’s clear that the distinctive, consistent and exceedingly delicious Clare Shiraz style is something very special. Andrew Mitchell has been making Shiraz in Clare for four decades and his Mitchell Wines ‘McNicol’ Shiraz 2005 was the highest pointed wine of the tasting. “When we first started this place most people in Clare used Shiraz for making port,” he says. “ Even when table wines started taking off in the 70s, the market really wanted Cabernet, but I’ve always known Clare Shiraz was something pretty special. “Clare Shiraz can give you power, intensity, depth and length, but does it all with great balance and a kind of elegance that I think defines the regional style. “And it ages really well too. That’s why we release the McNicol with bottle age. I want people to experience just how beautiful these wines can be when mature.” There is such a wide range of Shiraz styles scattered throughout the top wines in this tasting that we can safely say there’s a South Australian Shiraz to suit just about any palate. The key word in discussing these results is ‘diversity’. The one obvious conclusion to be drawn from these results is that to talk of South Australian Shiraz as one homogenous thing is unjust. There is such a wide range of Shiraz styles scattered throughout the top wines in this tasting that we can safely say there’s a South Australian Shiraz to suit just about any palate. Click here see the Wine Selectors range of Shiraz
Wine
Australia’s Italian dream: An alternative future
Words by Adam Walls on 1 Sep 2016
The state of play tasting for this issue took an Italian turn as the Panel looked at four of Australia’s hottest new alternative varieties. When you think about cutting edge, alternative destinations in Australia, does Mildura spring to mind? If you’re a wine-lover, it should, because this small Victorian city is home to the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS). Held every November, the AAVWS celebrates outstanding ‘alternative’ wine styles during a week of educational and celebratory events. I had the honour of being selected as the 2015 AAVWS Fellowship winner and experienced firsthand the diversity and fun it promotes. But before I go on, let’s define ‘alternative varieties’. Firstly, they’re varieties that general wine drinkers have little knowledge and/or awareness of, and secondly, they’re relative newcomers to the Australian wine drinking scene. In the short time these varieties have called Australia home, they have generated a great deal of excitement and momentum. For a snapshot of this, you only have to look at the swell in the number of classes at the AAVWS. The 23 classes that made up the inaugural show in 2001 have grown to a total of 47 in 2015. While the quality of wines on show was high across every class, four varieties really stood out. The two white varieties, Fiano and Vermentino, and the two red varieties, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano are not only producing amazing wines, but there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of wineries producing them. Since 2010, Fiano has gone from eight to 37 AAVWS entries, and Vermentino has swelled from 15 to 38. Montepulciano has jumped from two in 2010 to 20 in 2015 and Nero d’Avola went from no entries in 2010 to 18 in 2015. This increase across these four varieties has been mirrored by the greater number of Fiano, Vermentino, Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola wines we have been tasting and offering at Wine Selectors. This begs the question, if this popularity continues, could these alternative varieties soon be held in the same esteem as the likes of Chardonnay and Shiraz? With this in mind, we set out to discover where Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano thrive and who is making the best examples. The call was put out to noted Australian producers and our Tasting Panel sipped through over 100 wines. But before we discuss the tasting, let’s give these four grapes a quick introduction. Meet the Italians While Vermentino is grown in a number of Italian regions, it’s on the island of Sardinia that it is most well-known. Famed for its notes of peach, lemon and dried herb, its high and refreshing acidity and its distinctive sea salt character, it is thought to be the same variety as the French grape Rolle. Fiano’s home is the hills of Avellino, inland from Naples in the Campania region. Famous for being full of citrus and stone fruits with racy and mouth-watering acidity, it can range in style from light and fresh to rich and mouth-coating. Montepulciano is widely grown in central Italy, but most famously in the eastern region of Abruzzo. It gives dark coloured wines full of black fruit and has softer tannins than most Italian red grapes. Nero d’Avola is the famed red grape of the island of Sicily. It makes wines with deep dark colour, high, refreshing acidity and black and red fruits. The style of Nero can range from light and fresh wines for immediate drinking to rich and dense wines that will benefit from age. In style Outstanding wines from all four varieties were revealed during our tasting with style and the region of origin emerging as hot topics of discussion. Across both Fiano and Vermentino there were two styles. The wines were either lighter in body with dominant citrus fruit flavours, or richer with more weight and pronounced stone fruit characters. Most of the richer wines were the result of the smart use of lees or subtle oak influence. So if you’re a fan of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot G, you’ll likely enjoy the lighter styles, while lovers of modern Chardonnay will find much to enjoy in the richer examples. Unlike the whites, the two reds could be clearly differentiated from each other. Montepulciano showed off black fruits and soft, silky mouthfeel, revealing itself as a wine with mass appeal, especially to anyone who loves the fruit power of Australian Shiraz. Nero d’Avola turned out to be a more delicate, fresher style. 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Wine
Natural Wine
Words by Nick Ryan on 9 Aug 2016
Natural wine is the hottest thing in the world of wine right now, the boozy buzzword from Brooklyn to Bondi and all licensed points in between. The term ‘natural’ wine is problematic, more on that later, but in essence we’re talking about a winemaking movement that seeks to produce wines with the bare minimum of human intervention. That means no additions, no adjustments, no filtration or fining. Basically we’re talking about removing human intervention in the winemaking process from everything that happens between the picking of the fruit from the vine and crushing it to get the juice through to getting the resultant wine into the bottle. The juice begins to ferment not through the addition of commercially packaged yeast, but rather through the naturally occurring yeasts floating around in the vineyard and winery. The various options winemakers have to fill the gaps that the vagaries of vintage can create are also shunned, which means no added acid, enzyme, nutrient or tannin. Manic organics Any discussion of ‘natural’ wine will invariably touch on organic and bio-dynamic practices and while they’re intertwined, they’re not indivisibly so. When we talk about organic or bio-dynamic wines, we’re referring primarily to the farming practices in the vineyard, while most of the requirements for classifying a wine as ‘natural’ occur, or more accurately, don’t occur, within the winery. So any ‘natural’ wine worthy of the name will come from organic or bio-dynamic vineyards, but there will be wines produced from similarly certified vineyards that can’t be considered ‘natural’ because the winemakers responsible for them choose to be a little more ‘hands on’ when it comes to helping them along the journey from grape to glass. That’s just part of the difficulty with such absolutist terminology. Also tied up in this milieu are the wines that proclaim themselves ‘Orange’, not because they come from the central New South Wales wine region, but rather because they range in colour from the bruised umber of a hobo’s urine to a turbid tangerine akin to flat Fanta. Thrill or spill In essence, Orange wines are white wines made as if they were reds, meaning the juice is kept in contact with skins, often in oxidative environments, to allow the extraction of tannin, phenolic compounds and colour. This can make for some intriguing wines, but anyone expecting them to behave like conventional white wines might be seriously weirded out by the step up in texture and weight. Advocates for natural wine will say that the removal of winemaking fingerprints from these wines allows for the purest expression of terroir, a wine’s ability to express the true nature of the place from which it comes. In theory, this should be right, but experience tells me that’s not always the case. I’ve had natural wines that have thrilled me utterly and I’ve had natural wines that have made me wonder if I should rip my tongue from my mouth and wipe my arse with it rather than subject it to another drop. That’s part of the pleasure, and part of the problem, too. A natural division There is a political statement inherent in the whole ‘natural’ wine movement that makes me a little uncomfortable, an unfair juxtaposition that banishes all other wines that don’t fit the criteria into a bin implied to be ‘unnatural.’ I prefer the term ‘ low-fi’ that some of the best exponents use. It also has to be accepted that a more open-minded attitude to winemaking faults is required to enjoy a lot of these wines and I’m cool with that. There is beauty in the flawed as well as the perfect. But there is a worrying trend amongst the loudest advocates of natural wine to treat any criticism as simply the old-fashioned windbaggery of an old guard who just don’t get it and I think that’s wrong. A natural wine isn’t good just because it’s been made in line with the philosophies and methods that define the movement. A natural wine is good, just as any wine is, when it’s simply a delicious liquid you want to put in your mouth. The world of natural wine is one well worth exploring and some real thrills await those who seek them. Just remember, the best guide is always your own palate and a wine with nothing but a philosophy to commend it will always leave a bad taste in your mouth.
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