Great Cabernet Sauvignon is not just about the Médoc. We asked five of our experts to champion their favourite region, select five top examples, and argue for it to be crowned king of New World Cabernet

Great Cabernet Sauvignon is not just about the Médoc. We asked five of our experts to champion their favourite region, select five top examples, and argue for it to be crowned king of New World Cabernet

California

Linda Murphy

It’s not difficult to make a strong case for California Cabernet Sauvignon; it just takes some thought in choosing which bottles go into that case.

California Cabernet can’t help but be big and bold; in the warm, dry growing conditions, grapes get intensely ripe, sugar levels accumulate, alcohols rise and acidity falls. It’s simply the hand that Mother Nature deals California winemakers. And while some turn out overripe, port-like, high-octane bottle rockets, others, thankfully, make balanced wines of finesse and intrigue. Those are the Cabs I want in my case.

Two of the best-known examples are the Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet from the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Cabernet from Napa Valley – which performed splendidly at the re-enactments of the 1976 Paris tasting of California and French wines, both as 30-year-old bottlings and new releases.

Over the years, Ridge’s Paul Draper and Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap have followed their palates in producing wines with varietal character, structure, elegance, impeccable balance, crisp acidity and a compatibility with food. They were trend-setters in the 1970s, yet today they refuse to follow the lemmings towards richer, fruitier, higher-alcohol California reds.

The trend is tough to resist; these showy wines get high scores from critics, are immediately accessible and can be a hedonistic pleasure. The trade-off is that they’re difficult to match with food (see p104), and can pack some alcoholic heat and residual sweetness.

Unfortunately, Monte Bello and Cask 23 are extremely difficult to find in the UK, as are many of California’s best examples of Cabernet Sauvignon. US wineries have had a relatively easy time selling everything they make on their own turf, and haven’t bothered to export. Yet with the increasing volume of wine being produced, and competition from lower-priced imports, more wineries will need to open up new markets to remain viable, and UK consumers should benefit.

One well-mannered Cabernet Sauvignon found in the UK is Christian Moueix’s Dominus, from his Napanook Vineyard near Yountville in Napa Valley. The Château Pétrus director has applied his Bordeaux sensibilities to Dominus, giving New World fruit some Old World charm and nuance.

As with Monte Bello and Stag’s Leap, Dominus reminds that California Cabernet can age gracefully. In fact the wine demands that it be cellared for a few years before one should even consider opening it.

Napa Valley remains the undisputed king of US Cabernet country, though for those seeking California Cabernet Sauvignon character at a lower price, look to Sonoma County and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Most Californians are currently selling their 2003s in the US; for wines available in the UK, 2002 is the most common vintage.

Dominus, Cabernet Sauvignon,

Napa Valley 2002 HHHHH

Elegant, restrained profile and cellarworthy structure. Black cherry, cassis, forest floor and spice notes; supple tannins and great length. 2008–23. £42.55–63.83; Btl, VVI, Wts

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley 2002 HHHHH

Waves of succulent, concentrated black fruit flood the palate, with notes of cocoa, vanilla and toasty oak. This Cabernet-based blend is smooth and quite drinkable now, yet should improve for 10 years. £126–140; F&R, FFW

Duckhorn, Cabernet Sauvignon,

Napa Valley 2002 HHHH

Screams ‘California’ with its decadent black cherry and raspberry fruit, plus creamy dark chocolate and cedar. Despite its richness, it has good balance. 2006–10. £50; F&R

Spottswoode, Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, Napa Valley 2001 HHHH

Elegant and keenly balanced, with a spicy complexity, supple mouthfeel and integrated tannins. A very long finish. 2006–16. £40; DDi

Sebastiani, Cabernet Sauvignon,

Sonoma County 2002 HHH

Juicy blackberry and black cherry fruit, cedar and coffee, with rounded tannins; easy to swallow, as is the price. Drink now. £10; Evy

Linda Murphy is the former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Decanter’s new US west coast correspondent.

Her new column appears on p117.

Chile

Peter Richards

The winner is… Chile. Thus ran the headline after a blind tasting in Berlin in 2004 which put top Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds up against some of the most renowned names from Bordeaux and Tuscany. The results were eye-opening: Chilean wines took first and second places, ahead of the likes of Châteaux Lafite, Margaux and Latour as well as Solaia and Sassicaia.

It marked a milestone in the history of Chilean wine. Here, finally, was proof that Chile could compete at the highest level, and when up against the best could not just hold its own, but steal the show.

Chile excels at making Cabernet, and has perhaps the most right of any wine nation to claim that it is making the best Cabernet Sauvignon outside Bordeaux.

It has a long history with Cabernet – the first vines were brought over in the mid-19th century. And old-vine Cabernet can be found all around the country, such as the 40-year-old vineyard in Alto Jahuel (Maipo) used for Santa Rita’s Casa Real Reserva Especial. Or Miguel Torres’ Manso de Velasco, sourced from vines believed to be around 100 years old – winemaker Fernando Almeda says they look ‘like sculptures’.

Chilean Cabernet also lays claim to be one of the only truly authentic Bordeaux-style wines around, as phylloxera never arrived. This makes it the one nation not obliged to plant its vines wholesale on rootstocks. As a result, the only way to appreciate what real Bordeaux from ungrafted Cabernet vines may have tasted like is to drink Chilean.

The real clincher, though, is Chile’s inimitable combination of climate, soils and winemaking talent. From the well-drained gravels of the Andean Piedmont in the east come some of Chile’s finest, most aristocratic Cabernets: subtle, spicy and complex. Central Valley blends combine fruit from different areas for well-rounded, silky smooth styles that consistently offer some of the best-value Cabernet in the world.

For those who favour the fresher, spicier style of Cabernet, Chile’s westerly coastal reaches deliver the goods. Alternatively, for a riper style, head to a warmer area like Colchagua. Up-and-coming areas like Maule are also starting to demonstrate real potential and complexity.

Almaviva, Puente Alto, Maipo 2001 HHHHH

Complex blend of ripe dark fruit, yeasty and savoury notes and dried herbs. The palate is smooth, layered, complex and elegant, with flavours of peppery cassis and oriental spice. Up to 2010. £39.25; C&B, CDW, Div, Evy

Erasmo, La Reserva de Caliboro,

Maule 2001 HHHH

Roasted peppers, steeped fruit and leather notes come together in a brooding, intense wine with complexity. 2007–11. £19.99; Ivi

Adobe, Cabernet Sauvignon,

Colchagua 2004 HHH

Good dark fruit character on the nose, with a full but balanced palate. Drink now. £6.50, VRo

Casillero del Diablo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Valley 2004 HHH

Top-notch commercial Chilean Cabernet: cassis and caramel on the nose with a moreish, silky-smooth palate. Drink now. £5.49–5.99; widely available, Msn, Odd, Tes

Tesco Finest, Kulapelli Cabernet Sauvignon-Carmenère, Maipo 2004 HHH

Peppery berry-fruit aromas with an expressive refreshing palate. Drink now. £7.99; Tes

South Africa

Lynne Sherriff MW

Where would you find the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world? In fact, how would one define the world’s best Cabernet? I am always a little suspicious when I hear anything defined as ‘the world’s best’. I am very decadent in both my choice of perfume (a perfumier godfather ensures that I am always trying new smells, which is great fun) and also in the choice of my wines. I would hate to drink the same wine every day.

Jancis Robinson MW has often said that South Africa perches with one foot in the Old World and one foot in the New. This is what makes Cabernet in this country so interesting for me. It produces many styles, from a lean, Twiggy-style wine to a

full-bodied Muhammad Ali-style wine, with many combinations in between. South Africa has faced some challenges in the vineyards over the past 20 years, including problems with virus-infected vine material, which often led to the wines from this variety being criticised as overly tannic, green and dry on the finish. Most of these problems have been eliminated, with an increase in Cabernet plantings, so that this variety now accounts for 15% of the approximately 100,000 hectares planted in the country.

Cabernet is planted in all SA’s growing regions, stretching over an area of 850km and incorporating one of the world’s most diverse and populous floral kingdoms. No wonder the aromatics in this multi-faceted variety range in the Cape from herbal, eucalyptus and mint to forest floor; from red berry fruit to ripe black fruit, incorporating spices such as cumin, clove and cinnamon, with a hint of coffee, mocha and cedarwood also sometimes emerging. One thing is for sure – you won’t encounter boredom here. In the Cape, variety in Cabernet is truly the spice of life.

Thelema, The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 HHHHH

Concentrated flavours of cassis and sweet blackcurrant with underlying mocha and chocolate. The tannins frame the fruit perfectly and one is left with a distinctive mintiness. £19,99; EnW, SAo

Vergelegen, V 2001 HHHHH

Densely layered cassis and plum on the nose with a firm oak framework. The complex, vibrant fruit indicates a long maturation potential. Intense, rich, very long.£47.60–55; ACh, F&R, Pgn, SAo

Boekenhoutskloof, Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 HHHH

Complex aromas of red and black berry fruit with finely chiselled tannins. Marc Kent thinks this is one of his finest wines to date, and the balance between oak and fruit with length shows the wine’s class. £23 (2002): Cdn, Coe, GWW, Han, Jer, Lay, Nsn, Odd, Stk, Swg, Wai

Rustenberg, Peter Barlow 2003 HHHH

This wine is meticulously made. Ripe aromatics of cassis and red berry fruit, contained within a moulded tannin framework. Inspite of bold tannins, the finish is sweet and very long. £24.25; BuW, GGr, L&S, Sec, See, SHJ, Swg

Waterford, Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 HHHH

This is a wine in a more restrained style. Red and black berry fruit augmented with spice, coffee and chocolate. Well-integrated fruit and oak, with a definite minerally finish. £13.95; BBR

Argentina

Anthony Rose

Cabernet Sauvignon and Argentina may not qualify for oxymoronic honours along the lines of ‘airline food’, but it is only be fair to point out that Cabernet is a relative newcomer to a country that has never felt obliged to genuflect at the altar of French grape varieties. Thanks to its influx of Italian and Spanish immigrants and a thriving home market for vino tinto fino, Argentina offers one of the more eclectic New World palettes of grape varieties. Its most important French grape by far is not Cabernet but the altogether lowlier (in France at least) Malbec.

Despite there being some old-vine Cabernet lurking in Mendoza and Cafayate, it wasn’t really until after Nicolás Catena’s conversion on the road to Napa at the start of the 1980s that Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced as a modern variety into Argentina’s vineyards and thinking.

The first serious attention paid to Cabernet beyond Argentina’s peaks followed a blind tasting organised by Catena in London. Similarly to Eduardo Chadwick in Chile (see above) the pioneering Catena invited leading experts to taste his 95% Cabernet, 5% Malbec 1997 Catena Zapata against the best of Bordeaux and California. The Zapata came top, outshoning Latour, Haut-Brion, Opus One and Caymus. Even before the event, the potential for Bordeaux varieties in Argentina’s unique high semi-desert terroir had attracted a host of French investors to try their hand, not least Jacques and François Lurton, Hervé Joyaux of Fabre Montmayou, a bevy of Michel Rolland’s acolytes and, latterly, Pierre Lurton, whose Cheval Blanc/Terrazas joint venture, Cheval des Andes, brings a new distinction to Cabernet blends.

To be fair though, these finely crafted blends are the exception to the more general rule that the potential for making great Cabernet in Argentina has yet to be fully realised. Too often, overipening, overoaking and overconcentrating creates styles that bear the hallmarks of a country trying too hard. Where Argentina really scores is in its ability to make excellent-value, blackcurranty, Cabernet-based reds for everyday drinking.

Nicolás Catena Zapata, Mendoza 2002 HHHHH

This stylish blend of Cabernet and Malbec, displaying olive and dark cherry aromas,

with rich, intensely flavoured damson and mulberry fruit, is proof that Argentina can produce a real icon. 2007–15.

£37.49–45; Bib, Har

Doña Paula Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon Los Cardos, Mendoza 2005 HHHH

A fine vivid young Cabernet expressing berry fruit aromas with vibrant mulberry and dark cherry tinged with a light oak touch and ripe, juicy fruit. Up to 2009. £7.99 (2004); BWC

Valentin Bianchi Enzo Bianchi,

San Rafael 2002 HHHH

This fine Cabernet shows youthful blackcurrant fruit with damsony fresh acidity and supple-textured tannins and a firm backbone for ageing. Up to 2012. £18.95; GWW, Lib

Bodega Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Mendoza 2003 HHH

Attractive aromas and vigorous cassis fruit quality are finely balanced by intense fruit. Up to 2009. £7.50–8.99; Evy, Sab, Sel, Vnh, Wmb

Trivento, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Mendoza 2005 HHH

Attractively vibrant berry fruit with light veneer of oak and mocha spice and blackcurrant intensity. Up to 2010. £6.99; CTU, Vll

For the standout wines from this month’s Argentinian Cabernet panel tasting, see p91

Australia

Huon Hooke

Cabernet Sauvignon has suddenly become a poor relation in Australia. The rise and rise of Shiraz has pushed it undeservedly into the doldrums. And it’s not as though Australia doesn’t grow and make some very good Cabernet. It’s simply that the noise level of the people who love massive, high-alcohol, syrupy, body-slamming Aussie Shirazes has drowned out everything else.

The smart Aussie wine buyers, who buy red wine to drink as opposed to putting it in their cellar for bragging rights and/or to sell it on for a supposed profit, are now drinking Cabernet. The prices are less likely to be super-heated; nor do you have to beg for the privilege of procuring it.

There is with Cabernet, it has to be said, an issue with the ‘degree of difficulty’. Cabernet has a harder degree of difficulty than Shiraz. I can name more than 20 Australian regions where great Shiraz is grown, but only three or four for Cabernet. It is more erratic: a slightly underripe Cabernet from a lesser season is far less palatable than the equivalent Shiraz.

Two regions stand out in Australia. Coonawarra has the name, and the history. It has been through a very patchy period when Cabernet under-performed, largely because of excessive mechanisation of the vineyards and lack of observation and attention to fine detail. But there are signs of a significant improvement, hand in hand with a return to manual pruning and other vineyard work. Among the best are Balnaves, Wynns, Penley, Petaluma, Majella, and in recent times Leconfield.

While Coonawarra still produces more good Cabernet than any other region, Margaret River has more top Cabernets. Think Moss Wood/Ribbon Vale, Cullen, Cape Mentelle, Vasse Felix, Woodlands and, in recent years, Howard Park.

Balnaves, The Tally Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 HHHHH

The Tally is now one of the greatest Aussie Cabernets: very powerful and beautifully balanced with a winning combination of bell-clear varietal flavour, tannin and structure, and well-judged oak embellishment. Up to 20+ years. £29.99; Evy, Lib, Wbc, You

Moss Wood, Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 HHHHH

Complex, rich, layered wine with more flesh and softness of tannin than is usual in Margaret River. Up to 20 years. £40.10; Jer, Lay

Leconfield, Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 HHHH

Cool-vineyard, leafy, blackcurrant flavours; very fruit-driven, this wine is coming good after a period of rather vegetal, poorly selected vintages. Up to 20 years. £14.95 (2003) EnW, Swg

Voyager Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2002 HHHH

Fresh, fruit-driven, vibrant style with cool-site, crushed leafy, red-berry aromatics and great elegance. Up to 17 years. £13.65; J&B

Woodlands, Rachel Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 HHHH

Fine, tightly structured, powerful and very varietal Cabernet. Up to 15 years.

N/A UK; +61 8 9755 6226

For a full list of UK stockists, see p130.

Written by Various