Barcelona Wine Tasting: Around the World with Cabernet Sauvignon

*This is the write-up for one of our bi-weekly tastings with Maestrazgo Wine Club; tastings organised for people living and working in Barcelona, Spain.

I can’t believe it’s taken me almost 3 years to do a wine tasting based around Cabernet Sauvignon. Not only is it the most widely planted quality black grape in the world, responsible for iconic wines across almost every climate its planted in, but I also drink a reasonable amount of it and always enjoy the different mutations and styles. The key to the commercial success of Cabernet Sauvignon is easy to understand. It not only maintains a strong, signature flavour profile almost regardless of where it’s grown but blends well with other varieties, has a strong affinity for oak, is resistant to rot, has a lovely deep colour, masses of tannins and yet can yield good fruit even at relatively high yields. Whether you’re a consumer or a grower, there’s a lot to love about this. It’s only real requirement is a warmish climate and poor, well drained soils as it’s a vigorous vine and would far prefer to grow shoots and leaves over quality grapes, given the choice.

For all that, it’s not the most historically important variety and only really came into focus in the 18th century, where it started to make its mark on the recently drained left-bank of Bordeaux. Thanks to the work of UC Davis in California, we now know that it descends from a crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, a happy accident of haphazardly planted vineyards in years past. Fast forward to present times and Cabernet Sauvignon is, along with Chardonnay, probably the most recognisable grape variety in the world. New World countries in particular have adopted plantings with enormous enthusiasm, with huge success as both varietal wines and as part of ‘Bordeaux blends’. As most New World countries only require 75-85% of the wine to be made from the stated variety, this opens up a wealth of stylistic and economic choices, all whilst being able to proudly state ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ on the label.

Whilst stylistic differences are becoming smaller between the Old and the New world countries, I’d argue that Cabernet Sauvignon still showcases some of the more obvious ones. The most famous wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon in New World countries tend to come from warmer regions; Napa Valley, Barossa, Maipo etc. Bordeaux remains the heartland of Cabernet Sauvignon production in the Old World, and even the next best areas tend towards moderate climates, resulting in drastically different styles. Not only that but with the comparatively recent adoption of Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa, Australia, USA, Australia, Chile and so on, it’s being vinified with modern consumers in mind. Softer acids, bigger flavours and riper tannins make for juicier, more accessible wines and the extended ripening of many of these regions means that Cabernet Sauvignon is often vinified 100% varietally. Compare this to the archetypal Bordeaux, where the climate is still (just about) on the cusp of being able to reliably ripen Cabernet Sauvignon most years, leading to a choice of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec as constant companions.

I love tastings like this. It’s an excellent opportunity to not only profile a single grape variety and understand its core strengths and weaknesses, but also to use it as a vehicle to see how climate, geography and wine-making choices can so significantly affect the style of a wine. Given the vast plantings of this grape across the world, narrowing it down was a difficult process. In the end we settled for 6 wines, from France, Italy, Argentina, USA, Australia and Chile (the latter a stand-in for a corked bottle from Spain).

Chateau Senejac 201455% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot from the Haut Medoc in Bordeaux. Malolactic conversion in barrel and aged for 12-14 months in 33% new French oak. 13.5% ABV

Naturally, we have to start with a Bordeaux wine; Cabernet Sauvignon is likely to have originated here, so unsurprisingly this has been the historical stomping ground for the grape. The moderate climates of the Atlantic-influenced region mean that Cabernet Sauvignon can rarely ripen reliably year after year; a nightmare for the vigneron, but ideal for quality. Chateau Senejac is to be found on the Haut-Medoc on the left bank of Bordeaux, where their free-draining gravelly soils are planted with a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Ideally I would loved to have found this wine from 2009 or 2010, but there really is a dearth of affordable, aged Bordeaux in Barcelona! Still, 2014 is a lighter vintage and so the wines should be approachable sooner, at least with a good decant. There’s a lovely freshness to the fruit on this wine, with blackcurrant and raspberries settling in with notes of graphite, muted green bell pepper, toast and a touch of tobacco. Fresh and naturally still a little grippy on the palate, but drinking surprisingly well! 89pts

Tenuta Guado al Tasso ‘Il Bruciato’ 2015Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah in unspecified quantities from Bolgheri, Tuscany. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in oak barrels for 7 months prior to bottling. 13.5% ABV.

To round off our now diminished Old World selection, we head towards Tuscany. Cabernet Sauvignon based wines rose to fame in Tuscany with the enormous success of Sassicaia, the first ‘Super-Tuscan’ and producers around the country were quick to follow, including Antinori, the owner-operators of Tenuta Guado al Tasso. Bolgheri, and the Maremma coast in general, is at a lower elevation to the inland areas of Tuscany, and so is more likely to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals reliably. However, the choice of geography, soil type and aspect make for some very variable wines within the region.

Choice of vineyard is hard to specify here, as Antinori have access to grapes from over 1000 hectares of owned land! Still, the result is quite convincing. Deeply coloured and restrained on the nose, with some classic blackcurrant, black cherry and earthy aromas. There’s oak influence here but it’s not strong, more helping to maintain the dusty, old-fashioned style of the wine. Fresh and firm on the palate, with a surprising amount of flavour intensity and a long, slightly drying finish. This is a pretty convincing Bordeaux imitation! 89Pts.

Veramonte ‘Primus’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2014100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley, Chile. Fermented in stainless steel and aged for 12 months in 20% new French oak. 14% ABV.

So, onto our fill-in bottle, hailing from the Maipo Valley in Chile. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted variety in Chile by some distance and is a big part of the countries commercial success. The warm, Mediterranean climate of the Central Valley is ideal for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon and with little disease pressure to speak of, yields can be high and of good quality. Veramonte are a large producer who specialise in a broad variety of styles, with some excellent Pinot Noir in Casablanca, yet their forte remains their Bordeaux blends. The warmer, drier region of Maipo south of Santiago is particularly celebrated for their full, luscious Cabernet Sauvignon and it’s here that Veramonte produce their 100% Cabernet Sauvignon bottling.

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is often quite full-throttle stuff, and this wine is very much so! Practically leaping out of the glass, this is the sort of wine you’d love to get in a blind tasting. Strong notes of cassis, ripe black berries, menthol, dark chocolate and sweet oak influences; not particularly subtle but quite attractive (to me, at least!). This powerful nature extends to the palate with lots of ripe tannins integrating well with the pronounced fruit flavours, supported by refreshing acidity. The oak sticks out a little here and it’s very much a ‘crowd pleasing’ sort of style, but it’s a clear and obvious example of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and should leave no-one indifferent. 88Pts.

Andeluna Pasionado ‘Cuatro Cepas’ 201341% Malbec, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot from Gualtallary Valley, Mendoza. The wine is aged for 18 months in new French (85%) and American (15%) oak before bottling. 15% ABV.

Across to the other side of the Andes now, to Argentina, and specifically to see how Cabernet Sauvignon integrates itself when it isn’t the majority in a blend. Cabernet Sauvignon is the 3rd most planted red grape in Argentina, after the mighty Malbec and the often-forgotten Bonarda. Due to the high temperatures in much of Mendoza, Cabernet Sauvignon has a tendency towards over-ripeness and jammy flavours, so the best examples (like most varieties here) come from the high-altitude plantings, in this case from the Uco Valley. Andeluna is a good example of the sort of foreign investment that has typified many of the new estates in Argentina; initially opened by a wealthy North American hiring an expert team, including at one time, Michel Rolland. A ’boutique’ winery, I believe is the preferred phrase!

The wine itself is dark and brooding; no surprise considering Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon make up almost 70% of the blend! There’s a lovely mix of aromas here, with the ripe, red fruit of the Malbec mingling nicely with the rich, blackcurrant of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Graphite, cloves, toast and green bell pepper give this more than a nod to Bordeaux, supported on the palate by firm, slightly dry tannins and solid structure. There’s plenty of fruit, well integrated oak and a strong flavour intensity, with no unpleasant warmth despite the mighty 15% ABV. A lovely bottle of wine. 91Pts.

Xanadu Cabernet Sauvignon 201190% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot from various sub-regions within Margaret River (30% estate-grown fruit; you’ve got to love the Australians for being so specific!). 14 months maturation in 40% new French oak as varietals, then blended and aged for a further 2 months in older barrels. 14% ABV.

Margaret River is one of the two top quality zones in Australia for Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Coonawarra in Southern Australia. Mitigated by the warm, Indian Ocean and with plenty of free draining, gravelly soils, these are ideal conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon to thrive in, retaining far more varietal character and finesse than their bulkier cousins from McLaren Vale and Barossa. Xanadu is a producer celebrating it’s 40th year in Margaret River and since being acquired by the Rathbone Group in 2005, has further improved its quality with some adjustments to yields, oak regimes and tannin management.

This is very much my sort of Cabernet Sauvignon; a wine with one foot in both camps, and all the better for it. Ripe, dusty black fruits, eucalyptus, toast, vanilla, violets and leather; the joys of catching wines at their mid-point in development. Then on the palate, a high level of soft tannins, refreshing acidity and incredibly well balanced levels of alcohol and extract. There’s restraint on the fruit here, with plenty of interest and some tertiary flavours of leather and earth peeking through, yet the primary, juicy flavours still carry through to a long finish. An impressive wine that’s starting to really hit its stride! 92Pts.

Turley Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013100% Cabernet Sauvignon, grown organically (easier said than done in the US) from Napa Valley. Very little information other than this available, but certainly some oak aging! 15% ABV

California and Cabernet Sauvignon are inextricably linked. Since the success of Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’, Cabernet Sauvignon has been the grape, accounting for a remarkable amount of the most expensive and sought after wines from the area, as well as being the most expensive grape to buy at harvest at any quality level. The warm, Mediterranean climate is ideal for the production of silky, soft wines with huge, ripe tannins and incredibly pronounced flavours. Styles do vary, with many producers seeking cooler climates into the more mountainous areas, yet it has become a benchmark style nonetheless, often with extended hang-times creating a very noticeable, dried fruit character. Turley Vineyards are a top quality, family producer, created in 1993 when Larry Turley sold half his stake in Frog’s Leap winery. They source grapes from across California, with a strong focus on old vine Zinfandel.

The vines used for their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, as the name suggests, are their own; planted in 1989. The result is a deep, brooding and very Californian style of Cabernet Sauvignon. Cassis and very ripe, slightly dried black cherries, crushed mint, licorice, chocolate and sweet oak spices make for a captivating nose, but the best is yet to come. Full bodied, silky and mouth-coating on the palate, yet with no excess heat and lots of freshness; this is very, very moreish despite its size. Compared to some Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon I’ve tried in the past, this is very well balanced and approachable. The best wine of the tasting, although I think the Xanadu runs it close! 93Pts.

Wine of the Night: Xanadu Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011! (4/10 votes)

Barcelona Wine Tasting: International Blind Tasting II

Wine Cuentista Barcelona

Every month or two we try to organise a blind tasting in Barcelona, typically focusing on wines from around the world. Last night was our first after the Christmas break and we tasted our way around 6 different, typical wines; 3 whites and 3 reds. It’s not a completely 100% blind experience so for each wine there was a choice of 3, each with tasting notes, with only one being correct. As always, it was a lot of fun and a great way to not only try different wines, but learn a bit about how they’re structured, how they taste and what really defines them in comparison with other wines from around the world. Below is the descriptions that were handed out, as well as the revealing of which wine was which!

Wine 1 is a:

Albariño from Rias Baixas, Spain: The quintessential Spanish white wine, particularly where Paella is involved! Albariño tends to be pale to medium lemon in colour and very aromatic, with notes of ripe citrus fruits, peach, white flowers and often sweet herbs or even a touch of honey. Acidity is high, especially in the leaner expressions to the north, and whilst time spent on lees can add a touch of weight and a savoury character, there’s rarely any oak used.

Chardonnay from Burgundy (Bourgogne Blanc), France: Generic Burgundy can be sourced from anywhere within the region, with the majority of Bourgogne Blanc hailing from the warmer Maconnaise and Cote Chalonnaise. Expensive, new oak is unlikely but older barrels are common, as is malolactic conversion. As a result, expect a wine without overly distinctive flavours, likely hovering around ripe stone fruits, citrus, toast and perhaps a touch of vanilla. Usually soft and slightly buttery on the palate, with a medium length finish.

Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa: Whilst like Loire Chenin this can come in all shapes and sizes, most South African Chenin Blanc tends to be slightly more rounded in style and are mostly dry or off-dry. Colours can vary but due to the warmer climate, aromas and flavours tend towards ripe stone fruits, tropical fruits, honey and a nuttiness with age. Premium examples are also often oak aged, darkening the colour and adding notes of vanilla and sweet spices to the wine.

Conclusion: A nice set of choices to start off with. The wine was the Louis Jadot Bourgogne Blanc, as correctly identified by 4/10, with the other 6 opting for Chenin Blanc from South Africa. It couldn’t be typical Albarino as it’s simply too creamy, aromatically neutral and frankly, obviously oaked. That leaves South African Chenin Blanc vs Chardonnay. Whilst White Burgundy tends towards freshness, it doesn’t have the natural acidity of Chenin Blanc, nor the riper flavours that would come from growing in a warm, Mediterranean climate. A great example of generic White Burgundy; soft, creamy and very ‘correct’. 

Wine 2 is a:

Pinot Gris from Alsace, France: Pinot Gris is one of Alsace’s ‘noble’ grape varieties, produced in a variety of styles. Due to the long, dry growing season this is where full ripeness is most commonly achieved for this grape, resulting in pronounced aromas of ripe stone fruits, tropical fruits, honey and smoke. The wines often have a distinctly oily texture, high levels of alcohol and can occasionlly suffer from low levels of acidity, particularly in warmer years. Can range from dry to sweet, but rarely has any obvious oak character.

Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, Austria: Gruner Veltliner is the most important grape variety in Austria, and is something of a chameleon. From light, peppery and full of fresh fruits to aromatic and distinctly tropical, there’s not much that ‘Gruner’ can’t do. Even in the riper, fuller bodied styles Gruner Veltliner retains high levels of acidity and there’s often a peppery sensation on the palate. Wines from Kamptal tend to be on the fuller bodied side, with occasional botrytis (honey and bitter orange characters).

Chenin Blanc from Savennieres, France: Savennieries is a small appellation in the Loire Valley, producing high quality, dry Chenin Blanc. Often full bodied and reasonably high in alcohol yet with high levels of acidity to keep it in balance. Concentrated flavours, typically of ripe apples, pears, warm straw and beeswax, sometimes with a chalky, mineral finish. Botrytis and new oak flavours are rare.

Conclusion: I thought this one may trip a few people up, but I’m delighted to report that 6/10 correctly guessed this as a Gruner Veltliner! No-one guessed Savennieres, which I thought may lead at least a few down the wrong path, but Pinot Gris accounted for the other 4 votes. Even from riper examples of Gruner Veltliner, there will always be a much higher level of natural acidity than Pinot Gris from Alsace, lower levels of alcohol and rarely residual sugar. This is a terrific single vineyard wine from the famous Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, tying for the favourite wine of the evening!

Wine 3 is a Sauvignon Blanc. Where’s it from?

Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca Valley, Chile: Casablanca Valley is a cool-climate region towards the coast of Chile’s Central Valley, cooled by the fogs drawn in from the Pacific Ocean. Due to the resulting extended ripening period, Sauvignon Blanc from this region tends to be quite full bodied, with medium-to-high levels of alcohol kept in check by good natural acidity. Flavours tend to consist of ripe citrus fruits, apples, some stone fruits and a smoky, herbal flavour.

Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand: The quintessential New World Sauvignon Blanc. Higher in alcohol that most examples from the Loire Valley, with bright, clean aromas and flavours of passion fruit, gooseberries, fresh grass and nettles. Acidity is nearly always high, although this can be diminished by small amounts of residual sugar; not noticeably sweet but creates a softer, smoother texture.

Sauvignon Blanc (Fume Blanc) from Napa Valley, USA: Fume Blanc is a term used in the US wine industry to describe an oaked Sauvignon Blanc; hugely popular on local markets there. Due to the much warmer climate in Napa, these wines will have clear tropical fruit aromas such as pineapple and mango, yet will still have the characteristic gooseberry and nettle character of Sauvignon Blanc. Expect some sweet vanilla and baking spice character from the oak contact.

Conclusion: Another tricky choice. Sauvignon Blanc can vary so much throughout the world and there’s always a consistency in flavours, so it’s all honing in on the details. A Fume Blanc from the USA is likely to have clear and obvious oak, of which there was none on this wine. So why can’t it be a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc? Alcohol levels were higher than typical (14%) and there wasn’t the same intense, pungent aromas you’d expect from this sun-bathed region, with more textural weight from the long, slow ripening season of Casablanca Valley. 4/10 came to the correct conclusion, whilst 4/10 went to New Zealand and 2/10 thought it was a Fume Blanc.

Wine 4 is a:

Gamay from Cru Beaujolais, France: Another pale coloured wine, Gamay wines tend to be restrained on the nose with aromas of fresh red fruits, violets and sometimes very light hints of oak. Alcohol tends to be no higher than 13.5% and tannins are noticeably low, although the fresh acidity makes for a refreshing beverage.

Tempranillo (Joven) from Rioja, Spain: Tempranillo is often thought of as being synonymous with oak of some sort, yet there is an abundance of young, juicy wines being made across northern Spain. Easily confused with Beaujolais as there is often carbonic maceration (fruity, bubblegum flavours result), and a similar pale colour. Fresh red fruits, refreshing acidity and soft tannins make for an eminently quaffable wine.

Dolcetto from Piedmont, Italy: Quite literally ‘little sweet one’ due to the its low acidity and bright fruit flavours, Dolcetto is usually a simple, very quaffable style of wine grown in several appellations in northern Italy. Despite the medium levels of alcohol and acidity, tannins can occasionally be quite prominent and compete with the fruit. These wines are usually best drank young and tend to be simple and refreshing.

Conclusion: By far and away the hardest flight of the evening, with very little to choose between the different styles. This was the only wine where no-one came to the right conclusion, opting instead for Tempranillo or Gamay in equal proportions. Flavour profiles are very similar between these wines, with simple red fruits, touches of anis and something sappy and herbal. The clue then is in the structure, in this case the tannins. Dolcetto typically has a medium level of firm, noticeable tannins whereas both Tempranillo Joven and Cru Beaujolais tends towards lower levels of softer, smoother tannins. A difficult one, indeed!

Wine 5 is a:

Grenache from Barossa Valley, Australia: Barossa Valley is the traditional heartland of quality Australian wine production, with some of the oldest vines in the world located here. Grenache thrives in these hot dry conditions, creating full bodied, high alcohol wines with flavours of strawberry jam, white pepper and dried herbs. The alcohol can be noticeably high at times, and the tannins will be soft and smooth. Oak is common although not usually overwhelming, with vanilla and baking spices the give-away.

Amarone della Valpolicella from Veneto, Italy: Amarone is the result of drying high quality Corvina, Rondinella and other grapes prior to fermentation, increasing the natural sugars, acids and flavours in the grapes. The result is a deep ruby, and a very full bodied, concentrated and powerful wine. Alcohol levels will be high, as will the acidity, and there is likely to be noticeable aromas of dried fruits, leather, tobacco and it usually finishes with a bitter twist (hence, Amarone). More modern styles may have noticeable oak characteristics.

Zinfandel from California, USA: Up until quite recently, Zinfandel was considered to the the US’s own grape variety, until we discovered it was identical to grapes in both Puglia and Croatia. Still, it undoubtedly thrives in the warmer, drier climates of California, creating full bodied, highly charged wines. There is often a sense of jamminess to the fruit, which ranges from cranberry to strawberry, noticeable American oak influences contributing caramel, vanilla and sweet spices, and sometimes even a black tea character. Very distinctive.

I inexplicably forgot to take a photo myself, so stealing this from Cellar Tracker!

Conclusion: Then on the other end of the spectrum entirely, Californian Zinfandel! Another tough one, as all wines given are high in alcohol, full bodied and often tends towards over-ripeness. The Amarone is the first choice to eliminate as there isn’t enough of the soft, dried fruit character and the oak tends more towards American, with sweet caramel and vanilla. So, what’s the difference between Barossa Grenache and Zinfandel? The cranberry/boysenberry fruit profile and the almost raisin-like character that these wines take on, along with clearer influences of American oak. This led the majority astray with only 2 persons correctly identifying the wine as Zinfandel. 

Wine 6 is a:

Merlot from Pomerol, France: Merlot really expresses itself most classically as a single variety in the clay soils of Pomerol, on the right bank of Bordeaux. Often there is a mixture of ripeness levels, meaning both ripe red and black fruits, vanilla and spices from new French oak, ripe, grainy tannins and moderate levels of acidity. Alcohol’s can be high in warmer vintages, although tend to be more moderate than New World Merlot.

Barbera from Piedmont, Italy: Barbera can range from a light, delicate wine to something quite powerful and dark. At its best, these wines are deeply coloured and intensely fruity, with notes of black cherries, earth, cocoa and soft spices prominent. Acidities are generally very high, yet tannins are quite low, so additional time spent in barrel is increasingly common.

Tempranillo from Toro, Spain: Tempranillo is at it’s most powerful and rustic in the hot, dry plains of DO Toro. Over the years, the skins of these grapes have become thicker, more tannic and darker; qualities that inevitably pass over into the resulting wines. Ripe, dark fruits, black pepper, vanilla and often notes of dried tobacco are much like their cousins in Ribera del Duero. However, the grippy tannins, powerful alcohol and signature spicy note are key here; far more rustic than their polished neighbours!

Conclusion: We’ll finish with something a little closer to home, correctly identified by 8/10 for the most successfully identified wine of the evening. Darkly coloured, powerful, alcoholic, chunky tannins… it’s definitely Toro! The level of tannin is a clear indicator that it can’t be a Barbera from Italy, with its typically low level of tannins, and it doesn’t have the softness of fruit or structure to reasonably be a Merlot based wine; even the more structured Pomerol wines would have a gentler, more finely grained tannic base. 

A fun ,albeit difficult, evening of blind tasting! There will be another on the 8th February, with details released on the 1st on our Maestrazgo Wine Club page, so do be sure to check it out. It’s a great way to learn a little bit about your own palate, the process of tasting and have a great evening with a lovely group of people! See you at the next one.

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