In 1831, colonist James Busby (pictured) left Sydney Town for Europe. He encountered a major zap moment upon arriving in the village of Tain, on the Rhone at the foot of the Hermitage hill, the sacred source of shiraz.
“The greatest part of the finest growth”, he wrote of that shiraz, “are sent to Bourdeaux (sic) to mix with the first growths of Claret”. He smuggled this intelligence to Australia with the appropriate vine cuttings: shiraz from the Rhone, and the Bordeaux reds: cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot. If he also brought merlot, he classified it as melarot, or perhaps merlé d’Espagne.
So Australia had these varieties from its earliest colonial era, and determinedly copied the recipes Busby, and others, pinched from the Old World. Bordeaux had long been the source of the Englishman’s beloved claret, which the Poms struggled to emulate in Australia, for their own tables as much as to topple France from its position as Britain’s major wine supplier, just as they stole tea from China, to plant in their Indian and Ceylonese colonies.
As Bacchus, or whoever manages things agricultural currently reminds us, Australia is a very difficult farm to run. Soon those early winesmiths were deserting the thinner-skinned merlot and malbec, as they were susceptible to hail, moulds and rot. The tougher, thicker-skinned cabernet and shiraz varieties were much easier to grow and blend.
Wine fashions are frustrating in their fickle cycles. When I dropped rock to write wine in the late ’seventies, the new fad was to release reds of a single variety. While this helped us learn the characteristics of the individual types, it also led to a dumb fashion which has almost outlasted lipstick.
Before they added shiraz for its soft strength, the Bordelaise blended their clarets to achieve the most alluring perfume, the most seductive, complex flavours, and the most satisfactory aftertaste. This includes the rude exhalation which we all ignore: that vital combination of the wine’s aroma with the smell of one’s body - and blood, through the thin wet lung tissue - and the food we’ve been ingesting. If this exhalation is pleasurable, we want to keep doing it. The more pleasure, the more we pay.
In the last few weeks I have attended intense cabernet sauvignon tastings on Kangaroo Island, at Clare, and in McLaren Vale. My verdict? I don’t much like it.
Apart from being terribly easy to grow, cabernet almost makes itself. It’s much more difficult to make a good consommé than it is to make a sound, recognisable cabernet. Its thick blue skins, huge pips, and meagre pulp renders a wine which is very deep and attractive of colour, stacked with dry preserving tannins, and exuding a quickly-recognisable perfume, which can all too easily be described as ripe capsicum – roasted ripe capsicum is even better - and blackcurrant. It also contains varying levels of the natural predator deterrent, methoxypyrazine, which is the prominent aroma of many grasses, mints, and tomato leaves. If the grape is fully ripe, and its seed is ready to germinate, this verdant grassy edge diminishes as the berry replaces its sour acid with alluring sugar, and turns blue, to attract those warm little bellies it so recently deterred, and suddenly employ them as incubators.
Given the laziness/greed/ignorance of many growers, and their tendency to over-irrigate, over-crop, and grow stupidly profuse leaf canopies, most of our cabernet is low on the alluring blackcurrant, and the capsicum rarely smells ripe, let alone roasted. We get aromas like weeds, reeds, piss-on-the-nettles, green tea, bay leaf, tomato leaf and whatnot. Deterrents, see? Baygon.
What we have forgotten is that when we filched our vines and recipes from France, their highly evolved system of blending varieties had a vital gastronomic purpose. We rarely bother now to add the beautiful violets and blueberries of cabernet franc, the fleshy, mushroomy, mossy earth and tar of merlot, or the alluring blue-black fruits, deep florals, and polished gunmetal of malbec.
We’re even forgetting how to bolster cabernet with the soulful mulberry and earthy prune of the softer, simpler, stronger shiraz.
Judiciously assembled by a good nose on the blender’s bench, these varieties fill the yawning hole in the middle of most cabernet, and add a whole rainbow of wickedly alluring, tantalising perfumes to its bouquet. The blender can alter the flavour, and tweak the texture, the alcohol, viscosity, acid and tannin, to build a much more gorgeous creature than the thick-skinned, weedy, pippy, zitty cabsav punk which is lazily ceasing to become an attractor.
This is our fault: like dogs, cabernet has succeeded, through its evolution, to train us to breed it. But wine-addicted humans propagate and grow cabernet over such vast areas now that it no longer requires its pips to sprout, so it clocks off before the job’s finished. We should show it a thing or two..