Cabernet re-visited

Remember those school reports where the principal noted ‘tries hard’? Your initial enthusiasm is quickly dampened with the realisation that it’s actually a euphemism for ‘despite trying, the results are less than stellar’.

The principal in me often emerges with cabernet, though in this case, a further qualifier seems necessary: ‘tries too hard’. The effort is, of course, by the winemaker rather than the grape. Cabernet sauvignon has the reputation of being a sternly built variety, one requiring years to make agreeable drinking. It is also considered an excellent candidate for new oak to help the wine and its fearsome tannins evolve. In theory this makes sense, in practice it doesn’t always produce the desired result.

cabernet grapesIn South Africa cabernet has been particularly troublesome for two main reasons: one, it’s late ripening and even with a tough skin, early winter rains may leave it less than desirably ripe. Leafroll virus too has been a primary cause; despite the introduction of virus-free vines, there’s still old infected material in vineyards and the virus-free (NB not resistant) have in some cases reverted to virus. The clean vines present their own problem with sugar levels escalating to levels where the potential alcohol is 15% plus, but leaving ripeness of skins and pips lagging behind. Some residual sugar may be left for balance but makes for heavy weather of drinking the wine.

Despite these apparent hurdles, there are many great cabernets. Careful site selection, meticulous viticultural attention and a gentle hand in the cellar, blending in other varieties, all contribute to cabernets that may be enjoyed young as well as with a good many years under their belts – or should that be ‘bottles’.

Last week, the third Christian Eedes Cabernet Report, sponsored by Sanlam Private Investments, offered the opportunity to taste the ten best examples as selected by him, together with his colleagues Roland Peens of Wine Cellar and James Pietersen, now also of Wine Cellar. The trio had blind-tasted a hand-picked line up of 60 cabernets (seeded players, local and international award winners and what Eedes calls ‘best in their field if low profile’.)

In his report, which includes a summary and tasting notes on all 60 wines and may be downloaded here, Eedes says of the trio’s findings that ‘winemakers are going in pursuit of fruit and less aggressive tannins ..’ achieving this via opening up the vine canopy, harvesting riper grapes and adjusting acid and pH levels in the cellar.

Pointing out areas that remain problematic, Eedes mentions tannin management; over-extraction of grape tannin and over-oaking, which results in dry oak tannins. I’m 100% behind his cry for ‘More gentleness of touch’.

It was no surprise that eight of the ten cabernets singled out for praise, came from Stellenbosch (Franschhoek and Darling filled the other two spots), which boasts the largest area under cabernet, just on 2809 ha, so good stuff should be coming out of there.
One aspect Eedes didn’t mention is how well winemakers are interpreting very different vintages; among the top ten, 2012, 11, 10 and 09 were represented. No 09 has any business to be anything other than excellent, but 2010 was much more difficult. I’ve yet to get my head around 2011, but 2012 is promising.

I’d agree there’s generally more fruit but some enthusiastic oaking did suggest a sense of ambition that the fruit wasn’t always up to. More disturbing for me was clumsy acidification. There is a world of difference between freshness and the gravelly woooosh of acid, either too much or added at the wrong time. I’m afraid that wooosh was evident in at least four of those ten.

Waterford cabernet labelGenuine freshness may also derive from fine, ripe tannins, a positive I discerned in my two favourite wines. Waterford’s aesthetic is one of elegance and restraint both of which are evident in the 2011 (R175); its freshness and dry finish provide digestibility. Despite the sleek lines, there’s no shortage of flavour with more to develop, I’d guess beyond the judges’ suggested 2018. Thelema 2010 (R185) is more muscular but beautifully proportioned, a fine example of contained power. Fruit seems to be more of the dark berry type with far less of the characteristic mint (this is the standard bottling). Thelema’s track record ensures a long future. These are two really great wines, the producers deserving of their second consecutive appearance in the top ten.

Rickety Bridge cabernetBoth Rickety Bridge Paulina’s Reserve 2011 (R195) and Knorhoek Knorhoek Pantere CabernetPantère 2011 (R130) offer satisfaction in their honesty and character; their price tags too aren’t unwarrantedly large, a claim that may also be made for Waterford and Thelema. Rickety Bridge and Knorhoek, crafted with that ‘gentle touch’, has brought out the best in them and which over-ambition would have destroyed, The former, flying the Franschhoek flag, has the distinction of being in the top ten for all three years since the event began, so Stellenbosch doesn’t completely rule the cabernet roost.

My own report for these four at least, reads ‘tries hard with admirable success’.

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