The Claret Lover's Guide To New World Cabernet

New world cabernet claret People & Places Articles
  • Friday 16 February 2007

When you worship at the altar of Bordeaux, it’s easy to dismiss the New World’s big, brash style as heresy. Steven Spurrier tries not to…

When you worship at the altar of Bordeaux, it’s easy to dismiss the New World’s big, brash style as heresy. Steven Spurrier tries not to…

Firstly, what is a claret lover? They can be found among the ageing male contributors to Decanter. The classic example, Michael Broadbent, is the Grand Old Man of claret, describing that elegant pair of wines, Lafite and Margaux 1953 as ‘the heavenly twins’, and the monumental Mouton 1945 as ‘a Churchill of a wine’. For Michael, claret is the most refreshing of wines: ‘imagine your lunch of a lamb chop and a glass of claret… the wine cleanses the palate after the meat, leaving you ready for another mouthful of lamb and then another sip of claret… it beats as it sweeps as it cleans.’ For those under 70, this last phrase described the virtues of early vacuum cleaners. It mirrors exactly what claret does. ‘One always comes back to claret,’ says Michael.

Then there is Hugh Johnson, wine’s historian, who above all loves to record the different ages of claret, its young robustness, its adolescence, its emerging maturity, its full flowering and finally its elegant decline – ‘des belles restes’ – the fading of looks, where great beauty remains. Here he is on the Mouton 1945: ‘Napoleonic… a roll of drums with thunder on the horizon… its bottom was almost unfathomable, yet the bite of Cabernet stayed young to the end.’

Then there is me, who is slowly, by increasing purchases from other regions, reducing the claret portion of the cellar from 38% in 2004 to 36% in 2005 to 34% in 2006, but which will go back up in next year’s cellar list – typed up once a year after the Christmas consumption – due to the 2005s, purchased mostly for the grandchildren. Claret is so encouraging in good en primeur years, so easy to buy, so good to look forward to and ultimately so very good to drink that I know it will continue to dominate the cellar.

Secondly, what is claret? The red wine from Bordeaux, of course, but for the claret lover it is much more than this: an address book of well-known names, whose faces (or châteaux) are immediately recognisable, whose background and character, changeable with the years, is well known and well defined, on whom one can rely.

Thirdly, what does the claret lover look for? Good colour, ripe fruit, varietal characteristics, vineyard origin. Yet these can be found in New World Cabernets. Rather he looks for fragrance of bouquet, elegance of flavour, clean, dry, lifted finish that leads to reflection and certainly a second glass. He does not want a wine that is concentrated, jammy, sweet’n’easy, even raisiny, as, to my mind, are many of the Cabernets recommended by my colleagues in the previous pages. My admired Rustenberg Peter Barlow 1999, the best Cabernet Sauvignon (even at over 14%) I had ever tasted from South Africa, had morphed by 2003 into a 15.5% monster. Very impressive, but not a bottle to share for lunch.

Such negative impressions, which made me think it is better to journey into New World Cabernet Sauvignons than to arrive, were changed by a recent Napa Valley tasting. With an overview of 35 Napa versions of Cabernet Sauvignon, either 100% or blended, it became plain that wines from specific regions must be seen in context. The Burgundian agronomist Claude Bourguignon says that a French grape variety planted abroad takes on the accent of that country in its second generation. Most plantings in Napa are still in their first generation, yet they only resemble claret when either the soils and elevation of the vineyard – and more so the inclination of the owner or winemaker – wish this to be so. Thus, my favourites – Cain Five, Beaucanon (owned by St-Emilion’s de Coninck family), Clos du Val, Pahlmeyer, Raymond Cellar, Rubicon, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (of course) and Vineyard 7&8, made by ex-Latour manager Christian de Sommer – all had claret elegance aligned to natural Napa ripeness. Even wines from adjoining vineyards to some of these, Beringer, Mondavi Reserve, Duckhorn and Trefethen, remained staunchly Napa.

Later that day, I tasted 14 Cabernet blends from South Africa, presented by The Cape Winemakers’ Guild. Here again, the Cape style was evident: broad, gamey wines, robust, almost sturdy in profile. My favourite was De Trafford 2004, from Cabernet Franc and Merlot vines planted 5,000 to the hectare at an elevation of 400m, with a fragrance reminiscent of Cheval Blanc, and deep yet refreshing fruit and cleansing tannins. Also to my taste were Warwick and Lourensford 2004, which showed ripeness but not sweetness, and a Pauillac-style Rudera 2004. Of the wines recommended by Lynne Sherriff MW (p34), Vergelegen 2001 and Boekenhoutskloof 2002 fitted firmly into my claret/New World profile.

In South America, Chile has all the advantages of climate and experience with Bordeaux varietals, but the God-given ripeness and point-winning power still largely dominates the quest for complexity. I have attended all three of Eduardo Chadwick’s ‘Berlin Tastings’, where his Seña, Viñedo Chadwick and Don Maximiano Cabernets are matched against Latour, Lafite, Margaux, Sassicaia and Solaia. Each time, with tasters voting for their top three of the 10 wines, Chadwick’s wines have taken three of the top five places, and only in Berlin were they dislodged from first place by Margaux 2000. Showing him my preferences in Tokyo (Latour 2000, Sassicaia 2000, Lafite 2000), he sighed ‘Steven, you are still in the Old World’. Yet during the week I spent in Chile last year, I never yearned for, even thought of claret. In contrast, Argentina is not, in my experience, claret country, although the Norton old-vine Cabernets are serious wines. While Susana Balbo’s and O Fournier’s Malbecs are both in my cellar, they have little to do with the Gironde.

Nor, on the face of its climate, does Australia, yet there are some remarkable Cabernets from Margaret River – Cullens, Moss Wood, Howard Park, Cape Mentelle – and also from Coonawarra – Majella, Parker, Terra Rossa, Balnaves Talley, Wynn’s John Riddock – and those that figured in the Decanter line-up most impressed me.

For me, New Zealand, particularly Hawke’s Bay, remains with Napa the natural home of the claret lover. There is perhaps a reserve, at least a lack of flamboyance, in the wines. Jenny Dobson’s years in France shine through her Te Awa, The Boundary and especially her marvellous 100% Cabernet Franc; CJ Pask shows European roots, Te Mata’s Coleraine is built on deep fruit with a certain severity that needs ageing, and Unison marries elegance and power.

I am content to be a claret lover. I know it is restricting, and many New World Cabernet blends excite and impress me just as much as classed growths, but for the most part it is another world out there. That I can experiment with it, gives me the best of both worlds.

Spurrier's Pick Of The New World

AUSTRALIA: Cullen, Diana Madeleine Cuvée 2002 HHHHH

£34.95; Dll, Har, Lib, P&S

CALIFORNIA: Cain Five 2001 HHHHH £39.36; J&B

NEW ZEALAND: Te Mata Coleraine 2004 HHHHH

£25.99; Arm, BuW, GGr, Hgt, Wmb, You

ARGENTINA: Norton Reserva 2003 HHHH £7.50–8.99; Evy, Sab, Sel, Vnh, Wmb

SOUTH AFRICA: Boekenhoutskloof 2002 HHHH £23; Cdn, Coe, GWW, Han, Jer, Lay, Nsn, Odd, Stk, Swg, Wai

CHILE: Viñedo Chadwick 2002 HHH

£49.99; Evy, Wai, Wmb

For UK stockists see p130

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