A Truly Great Grape

Caber­net sau­vi­gnon is used to make a va­ri­ety of wines across the globe. Yet its ver­sa­til­ity shouldn’t de­tract from its power, writes James Suck­ling

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

y fel­low wine taster and James­suck­ling.com con­tribut­ing editor, Nick Stock, told me that “caber­net sau­vi­gnon is the most ver­sa­tile red wine grape in the world” af­ter the Cape Men­telle In­ter­na­tional Caber­net Tast­ing in Mar­garet River, Aus­tralia. I’d tend to agree.

Cre­at­ing many of the great­est wines in the world to­day, the for­mi­da­ble grape can make reds that can age for cen­turies, too— over the years I have been lucky enough to taste a num­ber of early 1800s Bordeaux that were still en­joy­able, with com­plex aro­mas and flavours.

So I was ex­cited to be part of the Cape Men­telle Caber­net Chal­lenge in Mar­garet River, a blind tast­ing of some of the best 2012 cabs in the world, in­clud­ing first growths from Bordeaux, top es­tates of Aus­tralia and revered Su­per Tus­can reds of Italy.

The 2012 vin­tages in the tast­ing in­cluded a broad va­ri­ety of Aus­tralian winer­ies—leeuwin Es­tate, Wood­lands, Cullen, Moss Wood, Vasse Felix Heytes­bury, Cape Men­telle, Deep Woods Re­serve, Mount Mary Quin­tet, Wynns John Riddoch, Pen­folds Bin 707 and Houghton Jack Mann. In ad­di­tion, Cal­i­for­nia was rep­re­sented by Far Niente Es­tate and Château Mon­te­lena, while France show­cased Cos d’es­tour­nel, Léoville Las Cases, Lafite Roth­schild and La Mis­sion Haut-brion. Italy shone through with Or­nel­laia and Tenute San Guido Sas­si­caia.

Wines at the chal­lenge were served blind and mixed up, so you couldn’t tell which one was from which coun­try, re­gion or win­ery. I found all of them very dis­tinc­tive, es­pe­cially many of the Aus­tralian cabs, which seemed to have a minty, fresh herb un­der­tone, al­most oys­ter shell-like in flavour. The Bordeaux seemed slightly more aus­tere in tex­ture with firm tan­nins, while the Cal­i­for­nian and Tus­can cabs were more fruity and lus­cious.

My top pick of the tast­ing was the La Mis­sion Haut-brion—i scored it 97 points. I pre­ferred it for its su­perb struc­ture and com­plex­ity; it had so much amaz­ing to­bacco and herb char­ac­ter, with ripe fruit and earth. It was also won­der­fully struc­tured, with very pol­ished tan­nins. This shouldn’t come as a sur­prise, as it’s one of the great wine pro­duc­ers of Bordeaux. My se­cond choice, Or­nel­laia, fol­lowed very closely at 96.5 points. It was op­u­lent and flam­boy­ant, with loads of ripe cur­rant and spicy pep­per char­ac­ter, yet it was struc­tured and firm—what a great wine to drink and cel­lar.

It was hard to gauge ex­actly what the other tasters’ (pri­mar­ily Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers and wine mer­chants) favourites were, but I think they liked the lo­cal op­tions in­clud­ing the Cape Men­telle and the Houghton Jack Mann. Among the Aus­tralian cabs, I pre­ferred the for­mer for its bal­ance and fi­nesse.

One of the main lessons I took away from the tast­ing is how mul­ti­fac­eted caber­net sau­vi­gnon is as a grape. De­spite the mis­con­cep­tion that all caber­net tastes the same, the grape is an ex­cel­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tor of unique soils and cli­mates. For ex­am­ple, the mar­itime in­flu­ence of Mar­garet River cer­tainly came out in the caber­nets from the re­gion; they all seemed to have a dis­tinc­tive oys­ter shell, stone and fresh herb un­der­tone to the black­cur­rant and berry char­ac­ter. By com­par­i­son, the warmer coastal area of Italy’s Bol­gheri was much fruitier, with lots of ripe cur­rant flavours and tex­tured tan­nins.

In the end, the Cape Men­telle tast­ing helped fur­ther my ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the caber­net sau­vi­gnon grape—not only for its ver­sa­til­ity, but for its unique­ness when grown in the right vine­yard ar­eas.

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