Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, Far From Ordinary

Cabernet Sauvignon tag on trellising post in Vasse Felix vines (1)

Recently I was in touch with our friends Down Under and came across some wines worthy of mention.  The wines are Cabernet Sauvignon.  I say “wines” especially because they are all quite different, each reflecting their individual terroir and producer.  Wine fans should definitely give them a go, if they haven’t already done so.

I hope this report helps to elucidate how enlightening it is to take note of the nuances, individual personality, and character of each and every wine.  The attention and dedication of the individual producer can make significant contributions to the wine and its rendition of the grape and the terroir from which it sources.

Cabernet Sauvignon is no newcomer to Australia.  Initially imported by James Busby, it has been growing there a good long while, for nearly two centuries.  Over time Australian winemakers have achieved striking results with the grape and its wine.

Virginia Willcock, Chief Winemaker at Vasse Felix (1)

To provide insight into Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, and for context with comparison, Wine Australia recently conducted a comparative tasting of a selection of five international benchmark wines concurrent with seven Australian wines.  The tastings, evaluations, and commentary for every wine was made by an international panel of distinguished experts:  Mary Gorman-McAdams MW, John Szabo MS, and Oz Clarke OBE.  Mark Davidson moderated the comparison.

Oz Clarke is no stranger to me.  It seems that weekly I use his (and Margaret Rand’s) exceptional book, Grapes and Wine, in researching grape varietals.  The backgrounds of all the panelists are impressive.  In addition to receiving the panel’s information and insight along with Mr. Davidson’s excellent moderation, it was a treat and privilege to listen to their discourse.

Whether as a single varietal wine or as taking the major role in classic blends, Cabernet Sauvignon plays an important part in Australia’s wine heritage.  Globally, Cabernet now dominates plantings accounting for nearly 7% of the planet’s vineyard area, indicating the continuing popularity for this grape.  Try Australian Cabernet Sauvignon you will surely discover what makes it far from ordinary.

In this message and summary you will first find the BIO of each of the panelists, next highlights of the four Australian wine areas that produced these wines, a list of the seven Australian wines, and the five international benchmark wines.  Since this is an interactive comparison and not a point-by-point review, I will only mention a few comments from the panel about some of the Australian wines, which will be followed by further remarks summarizing Australian Cabernet Sauvignon.  Lastly, are technical specifications on all of the Australian wines including bottle shots followed by climatic data and site specifics regarding the terroir of the four Australian wine areas in this article.

The Panelists Performing the Tasting and Review
John Szabo, MS.
John is the first Canadian to earn the MS (Master Sommelier), and also holds the Wine & Spirits Education Trust Diploma with honors.  He is a partner and principal critic for, a contributor to CellArt for unique luxury wine cellars, is co-host of the podcast Wine Thieves, and author of the book Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW
Wine judge, educator, conference speaker, and business strategist.  She is a Director at the International Wine Center (WSET), NYC, former North American Market Adviser on the Bordeaux Wine Council, served on the Institute of Masters of Wine Global Education team, and was elected to the IMW Council in 2020.

Oz Clarke, OBE
Former head Chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, Oz also acted, sang, punted, and wine tasted his way through Oxford University.  He authored numerous books, won all major wine writing prizes, is an Officier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, and had an affiliation with BBC Food and Drink.

Mark Davidson, Moderator
During his 15 years as a sommelier Mark was named Sommelier of the Year at the Vancouver Wine Festival, also winning the Spirited Industry Professional award.  He developed curriculum and taught classes in major US cities while acting as Department Head and Instructor with the International Sommelier Guild, and was an annual judge at the Texsom International Wine Awards as well as at other events.

Sarah Crowe, Winemaker, General Manager at Yarra Yering, the Yarra Valley (1)

The Seven Australian Wines Evaluated
Wynns ‘Black Label’ Coonawarra 2015

Balnaves of Coonawarra ‘The Tally’ Coonawarra 2015

Yarra Yering ‘Dry Red Wine No. 1’ Yarra Valley 2015

Mount Mary ‘Quintet’ Yarra Valley 2015

Cullen Wines ‘Diana Madeline’ Margaret River 2015.

Vasse Felix ‘Tom Cullity’ Margaret River 2015

Henschke ‘Cyril Henschke’ Eden Valley 2015

Wine Areas sourcing the Australian Wines Tasted and Discussed

Coonawarra on the Limestone Coast, South Australia (1)

Coonawarra is an important wine region on the Limestone Coast in South Australia.  Scottish settler John Riddoch first planted vines there in the 19th century.  Its distinguishing feature is the thin narrow strip of red Terra Cotta soil 1km wide and 12km long overlying a thick layer of soft limestone that yields the finest Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.

Red Terra Cotta soil of Coonawarra at Wynns Coonawarra Estate (1)

The soil provides excellent drainage along with nutrient-holding ability, and some might say a “Wow factor”.  The mild maritime climate from the neighboring (60km) Southern Ocean is moderated by the chilly west winds, and particularly the Bonnie Current upwelling (Great South Australian Coastal Upwelling System) which is a big factor in the latter part of harvest stretching the growing season.  Another differentiating feature of Coonawarra is one of the highest water tables for any wine area.  The water’s source is Australia’s Great Artesian Basin, the largest in existence, underlying over 20% of the entire continent.

Vines in the Yarra Valley at Mount Mary Vineyards in Victoria (1)

Yarra Valley
The Yarra Valley, a historical producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, is the region surrounding the Yarra River in Victoria near Melbourne.  Its first estate, also the first in Victoria, was planted to grapes in 1838.  In this cool climate region with Mediterranean aspects lying between 50m and 400m in altitude, paying attention to the right spot and temperature is important.  The soils are complex and varied with plentiful grey earth, limestone, areas of granite near Yarra Glen, and red soils in the Upper Yarra.  Today, over 80 wineries are located in the Yarra.

Yarra Valley landscape (1)

Prue and Stephen Henschke, at their family-owned winery in Eden Valley, South Australia (1)

Eden Valley
A cool climate wine region north of Adelaide in South Australia near the Barrosa, Eden Valley is situated on raised terraces within the Mount Lofty Ranges.  The elevation of the vineyards, 380-500 m on exposed slopes contribute to the cool climate thus providing a long growing season and physiological ripeness.  The first vines were planted in Eden Valley in 1847.  Traditional growing practices remain, having been augmented by contemporary methods.  Forty wineries dot the region today among patches of gum trees, rolling farm lands, and craggy landscapes.

Vineyards in Margaret River, Western Australia (1)

Margaret River
Margaret River is the most recently developed wine area in Australia.  It lies on a peninsula 10 km long by 25km wide on the coast in Western Australia.  John Gladstones was the first to officially assess the area as having potential for Cabernet Sauvignon due to its gravelly soil and mild maritime clime resembling Bordeaux.  Cabernet Sauvignon was first planted there in 1967 by the Vase Felix winery.

The International Benchmark Wines
As a frame of reference, these six international benchmark wines were tasted along with the Australian wines.

Vilafonte Series C 2018, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Kanonkop Estate Wine 2015, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Viña Don Melchor 2017, Puente Alto Vineyard, Chilie

Chateau Montelena Napa Valley 2016 Estate Bottling, Napa Valley, USA

Isole e Olena Toscana Collezione Privata 2015, Tuscany, Italy

Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron 2015, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France

Comments on Specific Wines
Following are a few comments made by the panel regarding some of the Australian wines.  This exercise is not a point-by-point review of each wine per se, but rather an interactive comparison with the international benchmark wines.  The panel clearly indicated that they found great satisfaction with the Australian wines, and found them to be commensurate with the international benchmarks.

Sue Hodder, Senior Winemaker at Wynns Coonawarra Estate (1)

Wynns ‘Black Label’ Coonawarra 2015.  Showing great!  The acid holds the wine together, not so much the tannin, and the age adds to the mint and black currant.

Yarra Yering ‘Dry Red Wine No. 1’ Yarra Valley 2015.  A modern style of less intensity, but it still keeps that strand.

Cullen Wines ‘Diana Madeline’ Margaret River 2015.  The distinct texture shows 30 years of work, and the biodynamic and organic practices.

Vasse Felix ‘Tom Cullity’ Margaret River 2015.  Shows a more up-front and palpable style.

Henschke ‘Cyril Henschke’ Eden Valley 2015.  This is an emotional wine.   Feel the energy from this bio-dynamic, sixth generation family run producer.  This wine has passion and richness but is also poised, refined, and is superbly defined.  It possesses depth and density, but also lightness of being and transcends out of the glass.

Cabernet Sauvignon Grape Bunch (4)

Panel summary comments about Australian Cabernet Sauvignon 
These telling statements say it all!  The panel’s remarks reach deep by being concise yet eminently communicative!  The inferral from these comments cannot be missed – far, far from the ordinary!

Oz – Tasting these wines make you glad to be alive!

Mary – Never stop at only saying “Australian Cabernet Sauvignon,” because every place yields distinctively different wine.  In each, you taste the place and of the people who made them.

John – Each wine speaks to its terroir.  If you’re a bit jaded due to the ubiquity of Cabernet Sauvignon, here’s hoping the great variety in these wines allows you to fall in love all over again with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Details of the Australian Terroir
Latitude          Annual Avg Rainl     Mean Jan Temp    Altitude

37º 32′                    605mm                   19.8ºC           50–110m

Yarra Valley
37º 73′                  1,094mm                   18.9ºC           30–400m

Margaret River
33º 96′                     947mm                    20.7ºC           0–150m

Eden Valley
34º 62′                     541mm                    21.4ºC       310–540m

Technical Specifications of the Australian Wines Tasted by the Panel

Wynns ‘Black Label’ Coonawarra 2015                              (1)
Alc./Vol: 13.8%, TA (g/l): 6.4, pH: 3.58
Terra rossa soil, average vine age 44 years, organic practice
Fermenting on skins in open and static fermenters, between 10 and 32 days
Maturation 18 months in French oak barrels, 19% new oak; remainder, older oak and vats.
Harvest: 18 March – 14 April 2015, bottling: January 2017


Balnaves of Coonawarra The Tally Coonawarra 2015           (2)
Alc./Vol 14.0%, TA (g/l): 6.53, pH: 3.47
Clone, Reynella, own roots, planted 1990
Terra rossa soil over limestone
Maturation 18 months in Sylvain and Taransaud, very fine tight grain Château Barriques,
66% new
Lightly fined and filtered before bottling
Harvest: 1 April 2015, Bottling: 8 December 2016

Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine # 1 Yarra Valley 2015              (1)
Alc./Vol 14.0%, TA (g/l): 6.5, pH: 3.57
Soil, Grey silty loam, Vines planted 1969
Maturation, 15 months, French barriques, 40% new
Harvest, 24 March 2015, bottling: 1 June 2016

Mount Mary ‘Quintet’ Yarra Valley 2015               (1)
Alc./Vol 13.3%,TA (g/l) 5, pH: 3.55
Planted 1971, organic practices
Soil, Sandy clay loam
Maturation: 20 months in 225L barriques, 35% new
Harvest: 4–24 march 2015, bottling: 22 November 2016

Cullen Wines Diana Madeline Margaret River 2015       (3)
Alc./Vol 13.0%, TA (g/l): 6.0. pH: 3.5
Clone: Houghton, own roots, vine age 50 years, certified organic and biodynamic
Gravel, granite, sand
Maturation: 17 months
Filtration: no fining, light filtration
Harvest: 24 February – 7 March 2015, bottling: 17 December 2016

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity Margaret River 2015                    (1)
Alc./Vol 14.0%, TA (g/l): 7.0, pH: 3.51
Clone: Houghton, Rootstock original, planted 1967, certified organic
Gravel loam over clay
Maturation French oak barrique, 51% new, 49% 1–3 years old, 16 months
Harvest: Mid-March – early April 2015, bottling: October 2016

Henschke ‘Cyril Henschke’ Eden Valley 2015             (1)
Alc./Vol 14.5%, TA (g/l): 6.4, pH: 3.6
Planted 1989, organic and biodynamic practices
Soil, sandy loam over sandstone bedrock
Maturation: 18 months in French barrique, 20% new
Harvest: 31 March, 14 April 2015, bottling: February 2017

(1) Credit Wine Australia
(2) Credit Balnaves of Coonawarra
(3) Credit Cullen Wines
(4) Credit Commons, Wikimedia, Viala Vermorel

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