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Cabernet Sauvignon: paying tribute to the king

Cabernet Sauvignon is often overshadowed by headline-grabbing obscure varieties. However, Santa Rita Estates, which like so many rely on the popular grape for its flagship labels, took the time to give it some attention.

The tasting

1. Cullen Diana Madeline 2011
2. Carmen Gold Reserve 2010
3. Ridge Monte Bello 2011
4. Santa Rita Casa Real 2010
5. Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
6. Château Pontet-Canet 2011
7. Sassicaia 2011
8. Santa Rita Casa Real 2012
9. Santa Rita Casa Real 2001

It’s all too easy to focus on the unusual. Whether it’s obscure grapes or novel winemaking techniques, such is the urge to comment on the new and different, niche developments end up taking centre stage. While there’s nothing wrong with this, there can be an adverse impact on all that’s established and traditional in the world of wine: it gets side-lined. But a masterclass in London last month, hosted by Chile’s Santa Rita Estates (SRE), set out to change that. Although the company is a pioneer of new vineyard development using a wide range of grapes, not forgetting a leader in viticultural research, SRE chose to focus on the world’s most planted red grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chile’s classic fine wine from the variety, Casa Real. This Santa Rita flagship wine comes from its 50 year-old Carneros Viejo vineyard in the Alta Jahuel sub-region of Maipo.

Leading the event, which comprised a blind tasting of the world’s most revered Cabernet-based wines, was Brian Croser, the hugely respected Australian winemaker, and, since 2009, consultant to SRE. Focusing on the history of Cabernet Sauvignon, he began by reminding attendees, who included leading figures in the UK on- and off-trade, why this grape is so sought-after, and how a current search for the unconventional can distract one from the variety’s inherent attributes. “Today there is a lot of innovation around alternative varieties, or new fermentation vessels, which get the consumer involved, but the downside is that the traditional varieties and winemaking practices tend to get a little bit ignored,” said Croser, “so it is great to remind oneself why Cabernet Sauvignon is such a noble variety”.

From good stock

As part of this, he considered the grape’s parentage, pointing out that Cabernet Sauvignon is a child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc that appeared in Bordeaux in the late 17th or early 18th century. Because the grandfather of Sauvignon Blanc is Pinot Noir, he stressed that Cabernet Sauvignon – “as Pinot Noir’s great-grandson” – is a grape that brings together Bordeaux and Burgundy.

In terms of global scope, Croser added that Cabernet Sauvignon is “the most planted grape in the world with around 28,000 hectares” producing 176 million cases of wine annually. And this is rising: “7% of Cabernet plantings are in China, and they are growing,” according to Croser, who also noted that 19% of Cabernet vineyards are in France, 14% in Chile, 12% in the US, followed by the powerful Asian nation.

Notably, in both China and Chile Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety. “China has 12 times as much Cabernet as all the other varieties, and Chile has 5.5 times as much.”

Croser also briefly mentioned the “green gene” in the grape. “Being the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon inherited the green gene from both sides,” he explained. “Its propensity to retain methoxypyrazine is greater than Merlot and Cabernet Franc but not as strong as Carmenere” – Chile’s other key red grape.

Turning to Chilean Cabernet’s character, Croser said it produced distinctive results in the country, and “nearly always a glass staining vibrant colour; fresh aromas of spicy, slightly briary Cabernet fruit, along with an exotic edge of mulberry and cassis; it has a slightly wild special character.” Then, quoting Wines of Chile, he said, “Cabernet Sauvignon is Chile’s star grape, the king of all reds”.

Natural habitat

Before finishing his presentation, Croser considered Cabernet’s ideal conditions, surmising that the grape produces its best results when rainfall is low and soils are free-draining, hence the excellent Cabernets from dry vintages in the gravels of the Médoc or Pessac-Léognan.Looking across the world, he mentioned Bordeaux, Napa, Bolgheri, the Santa Cruz Mountains, parts of Washington State, Penedès, Maipo in Chile and Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia as sources of the world’s greatest Cabs.

As for its preferred climate, he said that Cabernet could be grown in places from warm to hot, or Bordeaux to South Africa, but liked “areas close to the sea with a low diurnal temperature range – although there are great exceptions, such as Maipo and Washington State.”

However, when it came to a detailed analysis of Cabernet in Chile, he turned to Andrés Ilabaca, Santa Rita’s chief winemaker, who joined Croser on the panel.

Ilabaca also stressed Cabernet’s importance to Chile. “Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most important variety in Chile, and we have over 42,000 hectares of the grape,” he said. And in Chile, the grape gives a distinctive wine due to the country’s unique environment. Key to much of Chilean wine’s character is the country’s extreme geography, formed by the collision of the Continental and Nazca plates. From this, two mountain ranges were formed, firstly the coastal range, and millions of years later, the Andes. Such tectonic activity “is very important to the county’s climate and soils,” Ilabaca stated. In particular, he mentioned winds from the high Andes that cool the vines at night, “creating a huge difference in temperature between day and night,” and consequently, he explained, slowing the ripening process.

Also modifying the climate is the Pacific Ocean’s cold Humboldt Current which flows from the south along Chile’s 4,000km coastline. This brings cool coastal conditions and fog, but little rainfall, which is concentrated in the winter, allowing viticulturists a long, dry growing season. “Bordeaux has a lot of rain during the growing season, but we don’t have any,” commented Ilabaca. “However, that does mean we have to use irrigation.”

As for Chile’s best places for Cabernet, Ilabaca picked out the Alto Maipo – and sub regions Alto Jahuel (the source of Casa Real), Pirque and Puente Alto, along with Aconcagua and Cachapoal. Such areas are united by similar terroirs. “They all have certain things in common: they are all at the foothills of the Andes, at 500-600m above sea level, and they all have soils which have alluvial origins, so from the rivers, meaning there is always a rocky subsoil which ensures good drainage and allows for deep root development,” explained Ilabaca.

He then drew a few comparisons with Bordeaux. Acknowledging that Chile’s heat summation is higher than Bordeaux, he said that this compensated for Chile’s lower night-time temperatures, which reduce respiration and prolong ripening. “The Andes means that diurnal range is roughly 17 degrees Celsius – which is huge,” he stressed.

Succeeding on Stress

In particular, Ilabaca shared a theory on why Cabernet is both so well suited to Bordeaux and the Chilean regions mentioned above. Both places have a similar average relative humidity (the amount of moisture in the air compared to what the air can hold at that temperature), despite their different climates. Although the relative humidity in Bordeaux is constant and high, in Chile, there is a big difference between night and day. While the high humidity during the day in the Médoc hinders the movement of water through the plant, Chile’s low humidity causes the stomata to close to prevent excessive water loss. “So in both cases, there is stress.” Summing up, Ilabaca explained, “Cabernet Sauvignon seems to succeed on stress. They are two different types of stress, one is too wet, and the other is too dry, but in each case, they are good for the vine: they allow the variety to achieve good ripening to produce an age-worthy wine, but with a different character that reflects the different terroirs.”

Brian Croser and Andrés Ilabaca

Taste test

Now it was time to taste. The wines were pre-poured, and attendees were invited to sample the wines – you can see the list on page 55. After around 15 minutes those present were asked for their views on each wine, not just where they believed it might be from, but also what they thought of it. Among the wines, two shone. One was the Ridge Monte Bello. Interestingly, the attendees noted the particularly fine “French oak” in this wine, which prompted Croser to discuss oak type and character, before revealing that this wine is aged in 100% American oak, most of it new. The audience appeared amazed, and was obviously going to leave the tasting with an altered view of this wood source. As Croser explained, with the right cooper, the results with American oak can be just as good as French barriques. The other wine that stood out was the Casa Real, above all from the 2012 vintage.

One attendee, Henry Matson of Farr Vintners, without knowing the source of the wine, commented, “For me, wine eight was the most enjoyable, the most exuberate, the most hedonistic, and scored the highest of the day – and the others were all very good wines… I wanted to drink it, it was a very pleasurable wine.”

Wine consultant Philip Goodband MW nodded, before adding, “it stains the glass, there is so much extract in this wine, and it has the balance, the length, the acidity, and tannins which give a very firm structure, but it is soft and ripe too. It’s a wine with lovely balance, and a wine to enjoy today.”

Having discussed this wine, it was then revealed that this was Santa Rita’s Casa Real, and that the winemaker, Cecilia Torres, was sitting at the back of the room, having also tasted the wines blind. Looking pleased by the remarks, she said that 2012 was a hot vintage, but one that had produced a wine with great potential – a Casa Real that would need time to age in the bottle.

It had been an educational event, and a revealing tasting, which had confirmed not only the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Chile’s ability to craft fine wines from this grape – and, with Santa Rita’s Casa Real, a product that can easily take on the global competition, and win.

Facts and figures: the wines’ key statistics

Wine Region Latitude Distance to the ocean (km) Growing degree days (°C) Diurnal range (°C) Altitude (metres above sea level) (mm) Annual rainfall (mm)
Château Pontet Canet 2011 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France 44° 49′ 32 1,485 11.4 25 834
Santa Rita Casa Real 2010 Alto Jahuel, Chile 33° 42′ 90.6 1,673 17.6 527 310
Carmen Gold Reserve 2010 Alto Jahuel, Chile
Ridge Monte Bello 2011 Santa Cruz, US 36° 58′ 25 1,411 9.1 150 650
Cullen Diana Madeline 2010 Margaret River, Australia 33° 58′ 6.71 1,648 11.2 88 1080
Jordan 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa 33° 55′ 14.2 1,945 9.1 200 650
Sassicaia 2011 Bolgheri, Italy 43° 34′ 12.2 1,712 9.4 112 863


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