In the world of Cabernet Sauvignon, conventional wisdom gives us two broad-stroke models: the old world (that would be Bordeaux) and the new (where Napa Valley sets the bar). The former is generally understood to lean to the savory side, with layers of flint and minerality, while the latter reflects California sun with ripe fruit and plump alcohol levels. In blind tastings staged for introductory sommelier students, the challenge is often “Don’t overthink it. Quick—is the wine about earth, or is it about fruit?”
Obviously, that’s too simplistic for Bordeaux and Napa, yet the models persist. Virginia Willcock is the chief winemaker for Vasse Felix, the founding winery in Australia’s Margaret River region, and she sees it differently: “Cabernet doesn’t have to be Bordeaux or Napa. It just has to be the most beautiful expression of a place,” she argues. And more and more, places that aren’t Bordeaux or Napa Valley are producing Cabernets and blends that are unique across a range of climates and soils and that are uniquely beautiful.
Australia is just such a place. Once a producer of reds that—it must be said—were somewhat uniformly über-ripe and high in alcohol, the country has been vigorously dusting off nuance in the last 10 to 15 years. Winemakers have found sweet spots in cooler regions where Cabernet does not have to be a monster, where the cool ocean and forest influences allow elegant wines to emerge—wines with longevity. The spotlight, especially, is on Coonawarra, Yarra Valley, and Margaret River, where the Cabs are claiming gorgeous middle ground—medium-bodied with moderate alcohol and soft tannins. No cookie cutters are employed here; these are wines full of individuality and veracity, for lack of a better word. Wines of place. And they reveal an Australia that’s in an exciting phase in the world of wine.