Cabernet is an unlikely grape to be the most planted premium red variety in the fine wine world. While its versatility has helped to get it cultivated in more places than, say, pinot noir, the kind of wine it yields in its traditional heartland of Bordeaux is not exactly the flavour profile sought by 21st century palates. Grenache once enjoyed a more extensive vineyard, though much of what was produced was high volume, low quality, every day plonk. This partly explains why so much grenache has since been uprooted and replaced with shiraz, a key factor in the worldwide shiraz lake.
This is not to suggest that there isn’t a cabernet lake: while Bordeaux may be home to the greatest cabernet estates in the world, it is also where desperately dull generic red wine is produced in huge volumes for a declining market. There’s more Bordeaux Rouge (made from cabernet and merlot) produced in the vast flat lands around the Gironde and Dordogne than in the entire Western Cape.
For all of the prestige associated with cabernet – it is, after all, the key component in all of the Classed Growths of the Medoc – its status in the world of wine is anything but assured. When the modern Californian industry was just flexing its muscles – 40-50 years ago – cabernet was the red variety of choice. It was the name that meant something on the labels of South African red wine bottles, even before there was a certification system to guarantee that you got what the label promised. It was the cultivar which was used by the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta at Sassicaia and by Piero Antinori at Solaia and Tignanello to revolutionise Tuscan reds.
Cabernet sauvignon is a relatively new grape: a naturally-occurring crossing of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, it seems first to have appeared in the 18th century in France. However, by the time growers in the Medoc came to replant their vineyards after phylloxera just over 100 years later, they recognised that it was key to the production of great claret. This is no doubt why cabernet came to occupy equally strategic positions in South Africa and California.
But that was a different time: punters were more patient when it came to wine-ageing, and tastes were more austere. The greener, more herbal notes which are part of the variety’s intrinsics were more acceptable in young wine, and their transformation over time something understood by a market willing to wait for the bottled wine to evolve. This is no longer the case: California led the fashion for super-ripe cabernet – wines of intense opulence and plushness, generally high in alcohol and not necessarily as food friendly. So when WineMag’s panel conducted its tasting for the annual Prescient Cabernet Report, it came to see Cape cabernet as a variety in transition: no longer a nuanced wine like the classics of the 1960s and 1970s, but not necessarily as certain of itself, and where it might land up.
Still, from among its top wines there are some very fine examples – all in the new style, but several still savoury enough to avoid the “blockbuster” monicker. Of these, the top scoring Neil Ellis Jonkershoek 2014 (not yet released) was certainly my favourite. I also really liked the Le Riche Reserve 2014, the Peter Falke 2013, and the Jordan Long Fuse 2014. In addition, I could happily knock off the Bartinney 2014, Rustenberg’s Peter Barlow 2012, the Waterford 2014, the Warwick Blue Lady 2014 and the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2013.
For wine lovers wishing to track the fortunes of the best South African examples “Stellenbosch Cabernet – The Collection” is a one night Johannesburg event on 22nd June which should bring some focus to this increasingly fraught discussion. Twenty five of the region’s top producers will be showing current releases as well as the much vaunted 2015s and a selection of mature vintages. There are only 150 places: for info www.stellenboschcabernet.wine