*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 2014 – 55% 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’ 2015 – Cabernet 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 2014 – 100% 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’ 2013 – 41% 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 2011 – 90% 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 2013 – 100% 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)