I grew up in a time and place where “wine” meant Bordeaux. Sure as Champagne set the stage for a celebratory meal, Cabernet Sauvignon was the majestic protagonist brooding in the decanter, waiting to steal the show. It smelt at once of pretty things and the world of men: flowers, redcurrants, blackcurrants, dad’s cigar box and leather brogues. It filled your whole head.
Cabernet is not by any stretch an appropriate yuletide beverage in Australia. And yet some internal seasonal sensor set this particular pom yearning for it. Throughout the festive season it’s vital to know there are no chinks in your hosting armour; you need the right bottle at hand at any given moment. But we had no Cabernet of acceptable calibre and maturity hanging around.
That was when it dawned on me: in a year of wine, I’d heard sommeliers, winemakers, journalists and friends gush over just about every grape under the sun bar one: Cabernet.
At first glance it appears odd that this should be the case. Global plantings have doubled since the 1990s to make Cabernet Sauvignon the planet’s most popular grape. It makes some of the world’s most expensive, revered and long-lived wines. So why’s it getting so thoroughly dissed by people whose job it is to love and share wine?
In a world where cult rules, ubiquity is uncool. Cab’s rise to top spot on earth’s vineyard prompted Time magazine to brand it “the Coca-Cola of viticulture”. “Cabernet is conformist,” young Sydney sommelier Julia Sewell tells me. “Buying Cabernet is buying into the commercialist aspect of wine.” Another young somm, Leanne Altmann of Cutler & Co in Melbourne, wonders if overfamiliarity has left drinkers unconvinced of the grape’s capacity to surprise. “The cool kids will drink Cabernet – if it’s Franc,” she jokes.
My fellow Cab-loving pom Dan Coward, currently a vintage cellar hand at Shaw + Smith, thinks it’s possible that Cabernet has rested on its laurels for too long. That means trading on its Bordeaux image, when for many Bordeaux is “boring and alienating”. “Cabernet Sauvignon’s not communicating itself well at the moment, so people are drawn to more seductive targets,” he says.
And there are plenty of those around. Cab’s world domination makes any grape exotic in comparison. And that’s before you go busting wine stylin’ moves. Other grapes get the full Kama Sutra thrown at them; Cabernet is strictly missionary.
And then there’s the perception of Cabernet drinkers as older people who “know what they like” – which is probably to have sex with the lights off and their clothes on. The herd of rude, red-faced old men who elbowed their way through a recent public tasting of Coonawarra wines did little to dispel this myth.
But Cab doesn’t just lack hipster drinkers; where are the with-it winemakers when you need them? Probably with their head in a vat of whole-bunchy Syrah or skin-contact Savagnin. Wherever, they’re certainly not standing on their soapbox for contemporary claret.
If Chinese millionaires and imposing Châteaux lend Bordeaux an air of aloofness, Cabernet in Australia may suffer from a different kind of inaccessibility. Coward points out that Coonawarra and Margaret River, Australia’s finest regions for the variety – and the ones hell-bent on championing it – are also bloody miles from anywhere. The cellar doors of the country’s Chardonnay and Pinot havens – think Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania – are abuzz with trendsetting daytrippers. There’s brilliant Cab tucked into the valleys of Eden, Clare and Yarra, of course, but it’s often overlooked.
And then there’s one other theory, perhaps one that could only have come from someone who’s slowly discovering he should have stayed in the Cabernet closet. But here goes: maybe they’ve forgotten that there’s nothing quite like great Cabernet because they haven’t had one in a while. And by “great” I don’t mean Bordeaux and I don’t mean expensive. I mean a good producer and region, good bottle age and an auspicious time and place – think food, company, even weather.
Looking at that, yes, it’s a demanding old bugger. In the age of “smashable” wines, that’s not going to win it many friends. “I guess it appeals to my head,” says Altmann. “But despite the delicious Cabernets I’ve been lucky to try, it isn’t a variety that appeals to my heart. I want a glass of Burgundy in my hand.”
But Coward’s still with me, lustily reminiscing about a “luxurious” 2001 Cabernet he and his wife recently enjoyed with lunch. The perfume, depth, complexity, length and chameleon-like quality in the glass: how could one not covet it?
“All retro habits eventually become cool again. I just don’t think it’s Cabernet’s time at the moment,” says Coward.
No, but that time will come; it has to. It’s taking over the world, or hadn’t you heard?
Contributors’ Cabs To Try:
Oakridge Local Vineyard Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Yarra Valley $35 “Crunchy, bright, and oh-so-gluggable.”
Bellwether Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Coonawarra $49 at Cloudwine in Melbourne. “Classically-styled, drinking so well now but built for the long haul.”
Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Clare Valley $20 “Good luncheon-claret style.”
Wantirna Estate Amelia Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2011 Yarra Valley $70 from Prince Wine Store, Melbourne. Cooler-climate beauty.
Man O’ War Ironclad Merlot Cabernets 2009 Waiheke Island, NZ $45 from Vinaffairs “I was once told by a very happy diner that it was like running with wolves through a pine forest.”
Yeringberg 2010, Yarra Valley $75 from Prince Wine Store. Bordeaux blend from historic Victorian winery.
Tim Adams Cabernet Malbec 2008 Clare Valley $24 Regional style released with bottle age; perfumed, approachable, delicious.
Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Margaret River $90 at Cloudwine Profound Western Australian classic.