Wine: Cabernet fever

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01 August 2012

A new generation of West Australian winemakers is unmasking cabernet as the shining star of Margaret River.

What we did in the past was just bull****!” says young winemaker Larry Cherubino. “We could get away with good oak barrels, bombastic winemaking and lots of acid and tannin, but now we are focusing on the nuances of cabernet sauvignon.”

Cherubino is one of a generation in Margaret River applying a fanatical attention to detail in crafting the region’s most famous variety, and with the sort of refinement once practised by only a handful of its most famous estates.

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“I think we lost our way with cabernet there for a while,” he says. “The wines got too heavy. But we’re coming into a whole new world of elegance; getting back to clean, pure expressions of claret.”

For Virginia Willcock, who crafts Vasse Felix wines from the oldest vines in the region, it’s all about returning to the flavours of the vineyard, capturing the earthy, gravelly
characters and textures for which Margaret River’s finest soils are renowned. The secret? Winemakers who spend more time in the vineyard than in the winery.

“Great wine is grown, not made,” says Xanadu winemaker Glenn Goodall, who has transformed the estate in recent years by homing in on tiny batches of fruit. He harvests every little section of each vineyard at the perfect moment of ripeness rather than picking an entire paddock at once. “Differential harvesting is a lot of hard work and there are plenty of pins going into the winemaker voodoo doll at vintage time,” he says. But the payoff is more even ripeness and precise fruit character.

“Cabernet got a fair belting in the early 2000s and there was barely a tasting note without ‘green’ in it,” says Willcock. She admits Vasse Felix once pumped water and fertilisers onto the vines, while now they simply let the soils express themselves.

Winemaker Rob Mann has taken attention to detail to new extremes at Cape Mentelle, installing an optical berry-sorting line in which a high-speed camera rejects every particle of foreign matter and every grape that doesn’t meet precise criteria of size, colour or shape. Fruit from healthier, more balanced vineyards sorted in this way has produced more elegant and expressive wines, which achieve ripe fruit characters at lower alcohol levels.

Such refined fruit doesn’t call for a whacking with oak staves, which allows winemakers to diminish the influence of new oak. Mann has evolved the Cape Mentelle cabernet style from three-quarters new oak to less than half in recent years. “We want the wine to smell of the vineyard, not of an oak forest,” he says. Cherubino has no fears about the longevity of this style – some of Western Australia’s great old cabernets were made with no oak at all. Moreover, the longer a wine ages the less important the influence of oak becomes.

As Margaret River’s keenest wine minds continue their quest to refine cabernet, other varieties take on a smaller focus. Cape Mentelle has been at the forefront of experimenting with different varieties, but Mann admits he has pulled out more than he has planted. Bordeaux varieties are his focus. He will keep making other varieties, particularly chardonnay, shiraz and zinfandel, but raises the question, will Margaret River really be famous for chardonnay in 50 years’ time? “We have the potential to be world-famous for cabernet – that’s what Margaret River can do better than anywhere else in Australia.”

After an unbroken string of six outstandingly good vintages, he may be on the money. But the revolution of Margaret River’s new generation has really only just begun. Mann suggests there’s still much work to be done in the vineyard. “We are making very good cabernets now, but in 10 or 15 years, they could be twice as good.”

Vasse Felix
Heytesbury Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot Malbec 2009, $90
Even in tiny percentages, cabernet’s partners of petit verdot and malbec refine many of Margaret River’s finest wines. Virginia Willcock has conjured an immaculately composed blend of lifted poise, controlled focus, understated complexity and sheer, unbridled joy. This is a wine that screams out for at least a decade to uncoil.

Xanadu
Stevens Road Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, $65
Margaret River cabernet at its most distinctive captures both structure
and flavour nuances akin to gravel, wet slate, graphite and high-cocoa dark chocolate. Preserving such vineyard and regional character ahead of fruit, oak, alcohol and tannin is the Holy Grail of winemaking, and Glenn Goodall has achieved it here with articulate finesse.

Cape Mentelle
Wilyabrup Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc 2009, $49
Hailing from the vintage of the decade, Rob Mann’s flawless blending skills are on display as the velvety texture of merlot is lifted with the violet fragrance of cabernet franc, structured with the backbone of cabernet sauvignon.

Cherubino
Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, $75
Larry Cherubino cares more for the engineering of the chassis than the horsepower of this wine, crafting a streamlined cabernet with tremendous structure. The gravelly tannins propel its restrained and savoury fruit forward with considerable energy.


Source Qantas The Australian Way August 2012

Tyson Stelzer

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