Plugging the hole in Cabernet
by PHILIP WHITE
Chris Carpenter, the celebrated Jackson Family Estates Cabernet master of the Napa Valley, last week flew in to check the 2012 Cabernet sauvignon wines he’s making from the Hickinbotham Vineyard at Clarendon.
It’s been fascinating to watch a fellow as intelligent, sensitive and, well, fanatical, being confronted with a vineyard so utterly removed from the prized California mountaintops which are his normal currency, but he seems quietly assured that his new Australian babies will be fine once they’ve taught him a thing or two.
With some local winemakers, we attended a tasting of some of the best new and forthcoming Cabernets of McLaren Vale in the cellars of The Victory. While these were all admirably sound versions of the variety, and a few were really something, Chris remarked that many suffered what Strayan plonk patois calls “the donut”. This is the infamous hole in the middle of the Cabernet palate: unless the viticulture and location is spot on, the wine can be all pretty florals and blackcurrants and whatnot to sniff, and dry and tannic at the other end, but in the middle of the flavour, where we need some smooth plumpness, there’s a yawning, astringent gap.
Which led me to consult one of the single biggest influences on Australia’s preference for growing Cabernet, Wine-growing In Australia, the 1867 work by that pioneer of McLaren Vale viticulture and founder of Tintara, Alexander C. Kelly M.D.
“The Cabernet withstands both drought and heat well,” he wrote, “soils dry and warm suit it admirably; it flourishes in a light sand better than any other, but its wine is not so full-bodied as when grown in a stronger soil; it thrives above all in the graves (gravelly soils).”
And then, as a footnote, he adds “This vine is principally suited to a ferruginous [irony] soil; it is almost the only one in which it prospers.”
Publishing this recommendation in a new colony made principally of irony sands baking beneath a hot sun in strings of infuriating droughts had exactly the influence Kelly sought. Put simply, Cabernet was tough and easy to grow, and it was indeed the great red grape of Bordeaux. But in exchange for these practical advantages, the vigneron would have to put extra work in to blend a wine with no hole in the middle if indeed the vineyard management failed to plug it.
Quoting extensively the great French ampelographer, M. D’Armailhacq, Kelly painstakingly studies the other red varieties of Bordeaux. As we read on, we discover that the Cabernet he first praises he later names Cabernet gros, which he then suggests may tend to crop much higher than the Cabernet sauvignon, but shares its flavour profile, hardy nature and soil preferences. He makes no mention of Cabernet franc, so he could be referring to that high-yielding aromatic cutey, or he may refer to the grape we now call Bastardo. As far as I can ascertain, there has been no Bastardo in Bordeaux at least since the phylloxera plague struck in the later 1800s, whereas Cabernet franc's been there all along.
The next Bordeaux variety he discusses is Carmenere, a late-ripening type which is also drought-resistant. “Its flavour is excellent and better to the taste than that of the Cabernets; he writes, “the wine from it necessarily reproduces these qualities: it is mellow, and at the same time full and strong-bodied. It mixes well with the Cabernets, to which it gives more fullness; it keeps almost as long, and gains much by age.”
In the colder vintages, Bordeaux growers found this variety reluctant to ripen: not much was planted there after the phylloxera tragedy. It grows well in Chile, and now we see some Bordeaux viticulturers showing renewed interest as it seems to suit the new heat.
Kelly then moves on to the “the Merlau or Merlot” which ripens so early it took its name from the merle, the blackbird which eats this variety first. He says it’s more delicate than the Malbec, and “it has not the perfume and the flavour of the Cabernet, nor yet its keeping quality, but it possesses greater softness. Combine with the latter, it gives and agreeableness which it does not possess when made of Cabernet alone; the mixing is therefore advantageous.”
He is not a big fan of Malbec, “as the fruit is wanting in mucosity, so the juice is limpid, and the wine has but little body; it is light and wants fullness.” No plumping of the Cabernet there: more of the same but not so good, eh?
And then Kelly addresses Petit verdot, the Little Green One. Like Carmenere, this type is a very late ripener, and had almost disappeared from Bordeaux until recent climate warming has seen some resurgence of interest.
Unless proper ripeness is achieved, he suggests, “it has a greenness which may injure instead of improving the wine of the grapes with which it is mixed ... nevertheless, when the Verdot is ripe, it possesses so many good qualities that, notwithstanding this drawback … it gives to the wine body, fullness, and vinosity; it has, above all, a very agreeable flavour, so that it unites well with the cabernets, and makes an excellent mixture.”
I cannot recollect Kelly referring specifically to the Bordeaux habit of also using Syrah shipped in from Hermitage to fill the Cabernet hole; perhaps this was discontinued by his time, or merely never admitted to. But this is where the earliest settlers got the idea of blending Cabernet with Shiraz. It was certainly not an Australian invention, but a blend still common and celebrated much by the likes of the top end Wolf Blass reds and spectacular triumphs like Penfolds Bin 620 Coonawarra Shiraz Cabernet 2008, which is briskly selling out at $1000 a bottle.
It seems pertinent that these lessons of old be reinforced and relearned by many makers of Australian Cabernet, who are aware that the variety is dead easy to grow, so simply turn their gastronomic brains off at that point.
“It is a notorious fact that modern science has not found its way into the cellar of the vigneron,” Kelly warned, “who follows exactly the same routine that his fathers have pursued for centuries.”
It hasn’t been centuries since the great pioneer took up his pen, but surely sufficient generations of Australian donut Cabernet makers have forgotten his blending instructions, just as their fathers habitually did.
I wonder how long it will be before we see an Australian blend of Bastardo/Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Carmenere and Petit verdot, and whether or not a little limpid Malbec also finds its way in. It can add a pretty perfume, even if it does lack mucosity.
After they’ve slumbered away a year or two their posh French barrels, it’ll be fascinating to see whether Chris Carpenter eventually decides that his first Australian Cabernets need a little tweak of this or that. I’ll keep you posted.