Visiting the Mt. Nebo Winery outside Brisbane last November, I puzzled over why the winery laid such a heavy emphasis on the health aspects of drinking their brand of wine. Their wines were made with so much anti-oxidant, good-for-you, health-foody-type stuff that it would seem to be medical malpractice not to drink it!
Well, according to today's article in the SF Chronicle, doctor/vintners have played a crucial role in rejuvenating the Cabernet wines of Australia. So, that's it! They've got a stake! Maybe that also helps explain the puzzling absence of health warnings regarding alcohol in Australia, particularly in comparison to tobacco!
In any event, it's interesting to know many of the top-notch wineries in Australia are near the cool, southern shores....
The best Australian Cabernets are wines of elegance and refinement. They don't squawk for attention like Cinderella's sisters (or like overripe, overoaked wines). If you're a Cab fan -- particularly if you like good Bordeaux -- and you haven't tried one of the best from Oz yet, it's about time.
...Good Aussie Cabs are "like switched-on Bordeaux," says John Rittmaster, wine director and owner of Prima restaurant and wine shop in Walnut Creek. "There's more fruit. There's more energy to the wines. They have a lot more acidity. They also taste identifiably like Cabernet, with more leafy, sage-y character."
Though the country is better known for Shiraz, there's a lot of Cabernet in Australia: more than 71,000 acres, compared to about 77,000 acres in California, according to Wine Australia and the California Agricultural Statistics Service.
... One of the biggest misconceptions about Aussie Cab in this country is where the good ones come from. Sunny, hot Barossa Valley is probably Australia's most famous region because of its big-bodied Shirazes. But unlike California, where relatively hot places like Rutherford are famous for Cab, the best Cabs from Australia come from areas with cool climates.
It's riskier to grow Cabernet grapes in cool areas because they may not get ripe enough. But when they do, they retain their natural acidity, thus leading to wines that are more food-friendly. Cool-climate grapes also don't create as much sugar, so the resulting wines are lower in alcohol.
Looking at a map of Australia, it's easy to spot where the great Cabs come from: the farther south you get, the cooler it tends to be. Margaret River in Western Australia is on the opposite side of the country from Yarra Valley in Victoria. Coonawarra in South Australia is south of Barossa Valley and gets maritime winds that keep the temperature lower.
"The best three regions are Yarra Valley, Coonawarra and Margaret River," says Chuck Hayward, wine buyer for the Jug Shop in San Francisco.... "There wasn't much Cabernet planted anywhere in the country until the early 1970s," says Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, one of Australia's largest and most respected producers.
Cabernet was planted in Yarra Valley as early as the 1850s by people leaving the U.S. Gold Rush, Gago says. Yarra Valley Cab was well respected in the 1880s, and Oliver says some of those wines are still drinking well today. However, viticulture just about died out in the region after World War I. One of the reasons, Gago says, is that Australians in the early part of the 20th century preferred sweet, fortified wines, which are easier to make with very ripe Shiraz from a hot spot like Barossa. Vineyards were ripped out all over Yarra Valley and replaced by cattle and sheep farms.
Replanting in Yarra Valley began in 1969 at both Yarra Yering and Yeringberg. Mount Mary followed in 1971, but the area didn't really take off until the mid-1980s, when Australian Bordeaux aficionados had had a chance to try the wines coming out of Yarra Valley. Cabernet plantings in Margaret River have the same time line: a few in the early '70s, many more in the mid-'80s.
An odd similarity in both Yarra Valley and Margaret River is that medical doctors played a large role in jump-starting the industry. Hayward points out that doctors have money, understand chemistry and also recognize wine's health benefits. Whatever the reason, the doctor-winemakers of Margaret River quickly garnered attention in the eastern cities of Sydney and Melbourne with the Cabernets they began releasing in the mid-'70s.
"Just like in America in the 1970s, when understanding of wine went up by a quantum, Cabernet consumption also went up by a quantum," Gago says. "Many of those vines planted in the early '70s are just hitting their peak now."
...Yet elegant Aussie Cabs are often a better match with food than bigger Napa Cabs.
"They have a zaftigness of texture. When compared to their counterparts in California, they tend to be a little bit rounder," says Evan Goldstein, author of "Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier's Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food" (University of California Press, 2006). "It allows you to do more stews. Things that I would think about with Chardonnay also work with Australian Cabernet, things with richer, creamier sauces. You don't have to think about the tannins as much as you would with a Napa Valley Cab. But you can also find happiness with prime rib or venison."