From the tasting team

Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon shines

By Shanteh Wale

24 Oct, 2023

Shock horror! Cabernet sauvignon is still awesome in Coonawarra, writes Tasting Team member Shanteh Wale.

I recently made the uncomfortable crawl to my underground cellar storage to have a look at what stock I had squirrelled away. I was surprised to find that over 60 per cent of its contents was cabernet sauvignon.

Emerging into the light and taking a fresh breath of air, I began to ponder a few things. Why is cabernet sauvignon dominating my cellar? And why is such a large portion of it from the Coonawarra region?

My love affair with cabernet sauvignon runs deep in my soul, but it's been a slow-burning passion, much like the variety itself, which evolves glacially through the ages. My particular fondness for Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon might seem like a mystery, but upon closer inspection, it became clear that it has much to do with the wisdom I've gained over time.

Shanteh WaleShanteh Wale.

It's true that a few years back, my cellar contained a lot more pinot noir and riesling, so I've consumed more of those two varieties than I thought. No surprises there. But is that the sole reason cabernet sauvignon is the last one standing? After further consideration, I realised it was a bit more strategic than that.

Like many of my Generation Y peers, I grew up with iconic bottles of Wynns and Woodstock gracing the tables of my baby boomer parents. My first tastes of red wine were sturdy, solid sips of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. On special occasions, my father would artfully extract a crumbling cork of Cullen, St Hugo, or Redman, making a ritual out of savouring its aroma and flavour.

In the many years since, like countless Australians, I felt the urge to explore far-off lands, escaping our humble continent to experience the wines of Europe and other culturally diverse destinations. I was drawn to the hard-to-pronounce varieties, indigenous grapes, and the obscure. However, it wasn't until my years as a wine show judge that I re-examined the delights of the familiar on home soil. And boy, was I in awe.

Nick ZemaNick Zema.

Cabernet sauvignon accounted for 14.2 per cent of Australia's total grape crush in the national vintage survey of 2022, with a total of 24,682 hectares planted to the variety in this country. The demand for the king of reds is still thriving, yet the decision of where to source the variety is a subject of great debate.

It's a testament to the strength of our climate and landscape that, in today's Australian market, you can choose from over 60 Geographical Indications that grow the good stuff.

Of course, I've always known that moderate climates like Margaret River and Coonawarra are ideal for the variety's success. However, in recent years, the consistently reliable prices of Coonawarra wines have led me to collect more of this South Australian staple than any other.

I could also attribute it to the wealth of experience that estates like Wynns, Riddoch, Zema, and Redman, to name a few, possess. Nick Zema, who just celebrated 40 years in the business, says that "experience is invaluable, but equally important is being open to new ideas or practices that will help improve fruit and wine quality."

Kate GoodmanKate Goodman.

This mindset of embracing change, while honouring their past, is prevalent in the region and it's heartening to see. This was hallmarked by the recent accolade for Penley Estate and its talented winemaker, Kate Goodman, winning Winemaker of the Year at the latest Halliday Wine Companion Awards. So, I know my money is in good hands in the region when I am making purchases that will do justice to long-term drinking enjoyment. 

I suppose my changing palate and the fact these days one glass, okay two glasses, is of adequate sufficiency and that may be another factor in the desire for those tannin-rich, textural reds of calibre. What was once an argument for lighter, more quaffable wines doesn't ring as true to me in the present. I once would be heard saying: “But you can only have one glass.” Today, I am more likely to say: “You will be satisfied sipping on a single glass.” 

But it's more than that. It's also about the dependable depth of black-berried fruit flavours that accompany each sip of Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon. 

While these days, each producer has a distinct approach to oak regimes, acceptable monoterpene levels, and final alcohol content, there's that distinct 'scent-imental' quality that brings forth those early memories of wine. These precious foundational memories make up the core of my love for wine.

So it’s with a growing appreciation for the many generations before me, and their taste in wine, coupled with the knowledge that time is on cabernet sauvignon’s side, that I can savour a cellar full of Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon and know that I have a future of truly exceptional wine experiences ahead of me.