To celebrate the release of The Modern Cabernet Sauvignon, the newest addition to our core range, Head of Viticulture and Winemaking, Steve James, chats to Perth-based wine writer, Erin Larkin, about this key Margaret River varietal, its past and more importantly, its future.
STEVE: Of all the varieties we grow, Cabernet Sauvignon is most at home. It’s so naturally balanced and beautiful in our vineyard. Early soil and climate studies conducted in our region often compare our ripening period and gravelly soils with those of Bordeaux. Looking at where Cabernet performs well around the world, it's generally in a warm area, but with a cool edge. Margaret River sits perfectly in that zone with its gravelly soils, warm climate and cool ocean breezes.
While moving to organics has been a gamechanger for us, the other big thing we are starting to see with all the Margaret River Cabernets is that the vines are over 20 years of age. More so than with other varieties, Cabernet with that bit of vine age is essential, giving the wines more density and a lot more transparency in the fruit.
ERIN: It's really interesting listening to you talk about the way it's grown. From an ‘assessment’ perspective, I couldn't agree more that Margaret River is completely suited to the production of Cabernet. Whenever I get the opportunity to compare Margaret River Cabernet with Cabernet grown in warmer climates, the thing that comes up most frequently for me is the elegance, the finesse, the power, the structure, and the fruit saturation that we get here. We get all of those things, not just density of fruit. Not just power. Not just structure. But there's also elegance, there's a lightness to the expression. They're incredibly beautiful wines. I try to drink as much Cabernet as I can from all around the place so that when I say to you, ‘I think Margaret River Cabernet is incredibly special,’ I mean it.
STEVE: The great thing about Margaret River Cabernets is that they display amazing fruit, but they're not just simple fruit-bombs. There are layers of complexity you see in the really good ones – a gravelly, earthy note that comes through from the soil, and the influence of that coastal breeze which builds complexity. In the global context, our Cabernets are serious world-class wines.
ERIN: No question. Nothing gives me more joy than putting up Margaret River Cabernet in a blind scenario against Cabernet from the rest of Australia and internationally.
STEVE: I agree, it’s often quite surprising.
ERIN: I’m not surprised, I’m just continually thrilled!
STEVE: From your perspective how do you think Cabernet has changed in terms of wine style?
ERIN: I see modern Cabernets as being typified by a real succulence and suppleness. They are beautiful to drink now and I think that that's very different to the older style Cabernets which were very muscular and built with tannins and built for the long haul. Not to say that modern Cabernets are not going to last for as long as those old wines, perhaps even longer with the advances in winemaking and the vine age you talk about. But these wines are just so delicious to drink now as well.
STEVE: I agree, the new Cabernet styles that are coming out are delicious to drink now. And I do think they’ll live longer because the fruit is fresher and brighter. In our context, we’re picking probably 7 to 10 days earlier than we used to, going back say 15 years. We made some great wines, but they were quite big, and to be at their best, they probably needed 8 to 10 years in the cellar to really soften out and let the tannins integrate. I think the way we're making the wine and managing the vineyards now is more in tune with our viticulture. We aren’t looking for that big extraction. We're chasing elegance. It also aligns with what we eat now – our tastes have changed and I think the wines need to adjust accordingly.
ERIN: I think we chase nuance, and that's what's happening in both food and wine. You talked about elegance, and I can think of a number of Margaret River producers making Cabernets that are like ‘gateway wines’ into the world of Cabernets, because they’re juicy and they’re fine and they’re elegant, and they’ve got fruit and they’re pretty, but they also have that assertive tannin and the palate shape that Cabernet has.
STEVE: You come back to that succulence and it’s almost like the fruit is alive. It's not chasing too much ripeness. I'm going back to the vineyard here, but you move into what we call ‘dead fruit’ and ‘pruney’ characters and you lose the vibrancy to the wine. With over ripening you also lose that beautiful perfume. We’ve come a long way with Cabernet Sauvignon in the last 10-15 years as a region by chasing elegance over ripeness.
ERIN: On the question of what makes a wine innovative or ‘modern,’ for me as a drinker I guess the most exciting modern wines are the ones that have an extra level – extra layers of flavour and nuance, and spice – all of those things inserted into the expected levels of experience that I'm already getting in that wine.
STEVE: People seem to be gravitating more to medium and lighter body drinkable wines, which makes sense with our food not being as heavy and rich. So it all makes sense.
ERIN: Can I ask you more about The Modern?
STEVE: Absolutely. The ‘18 will be the first vintage of The Modern, released in November 2o2o. There's some of our North Block fruit, which is Houghton clone, but we also wanted to showcase other clones like 125, which is more of that red berry spectrum, and some of our newer Bordeaux clones – for example the 337. We’re looking to use a bit of our new Merlot clone in this too.
Overall, it’s a less extractive style, and spends less time in oak – 14-15 months vs 18-20 months. And a bit less oak – 40% new French oak. In terms of winemaking there’s a little bit of skin contact and whole-berry in the ferment, as we’re looking to build some nice layers, but at the same time very much focusing on that very elegant, almost red berry style which lends itself to drinkability. It’s a cracking wine.
ERIN: Awesome, I can’t wait to try it!
STEVE: I describe it as a ‘serious drink-now’ wine. You could cellar it if you wanted to, but the focus is on being able to drink it straight away. The ’18 was a great year, as good as you get.