Terroir and the Battle of the Cabs

“Explain what you understand by the word “terroir” and outline how it manifests itself in different wines from around the world.”  This is one of the essay questions our Wine Advisors Hayley, Paula and Al have to prepare as they apply for enrolment on the WSET Diploma course.

Terroir
is a complicated and much-debated concept, but in a very basic sense, this French word (there is no direct English equivalent) denotes specific regional provenance and all the elements that affect quality and style of a wine, such as soil (terre in French), climate, vine growing and winemaking traditions but also local yeast strains and specific clones of grape varieties, to name but a few major elements.

As our three Diploma Musketeers progressed through their reading and thoughts on terroir, the idea surfaced to taste a flight of wines made from the same grape variety but hailing from different corners of the world. Cabernet Sauvignon was chosen as the perfect grape variety for this exercise, partly because it is commercially very successful and planted in many different climates, but also because it has a strong varietal character that can be recognised in most good quality examples, wherever they’re produced, providing a solid basis for comparison.

The only problem with this logic is that Cabernet Sauvignon is almost never bottled as a single varietal. Australian winemakers sometimes refer to it as “the donut grape, it has a hole in the middle”. This alludes to the fact that whilst it has great tannic structure, strong flavour character, good length and great ageing and complexity potential, Cabernet produces very lean wines, all frame with no flesh. This is why it often needs to be blended with a grape varieties that offer a more opulent texture, such as Merlot in Bordeaux (and almost everywhere else), Shiraz in Australia or Carménère (very close to Merlot in style) in Chile. However, even though only two of the wines below are 100% Cabernet (New World producers generally are allowed 15 to 25% of another grape variety in the blend before they have to mention it on the label), it was still the dominant variety in all the blends.

Al very kindly offered to host the evening, and as we devoured the fabulous lasagne prepared by his wife Hannah, we started tasting our way through the wines.

2007 Petaluma red from Coonawarra
The famous Coonawarra “Terra Rossa”, the red top soil in this region of South Australia, is responsible for some of the most recognisable styles of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world (although it can be argued that the limestone subsoil has as big an influence on style). Cabernet only represents about a third of this wine’s blend (the rest is composed of Merlot and Shiraz), however it still proved an excellent example of this region’s style, with its subtle, tell-tale aromas of eucalyptus and black fruit on the nose. The hint of liquorice and black pepper along with the fresh acidity belied the presence of Shiraz, whilst the round, soft and rich palate owed a lot of its texture to Merlot.

2006 Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch
Hailing from Stellenbosch, arguably the home of South African Cabernet, we hoped this wine would show how the conditions in this country affect the style of the wine. Its savoury nose, black fruit and capsicum flavour and herbaceous freshness on the palate were the results of those conditions. A little too full-bodied to be French, but not quite as fruity as an Australian wine, this was typical Stellenbosch Cab.

1998 John Riddoch Cabernet from Coonawara
Its status as Wynn’s flagship wine and one of Australia’s finest made this one of the most exciting wines in the flight, and one of the only two 100% Cabernet wines, so this was eagerly anticipated by all. Al’s excellent tasting note reads “This is still opaque and only just starting to show some development on the rim. The nose is much more evolved though, with incredibly rich almost port-like fruit, black cherry, chocolate, plenty of spice and the merest hint of menthol. The palate is simply massive, with amazing volume, boatloads of rich dark fruit, lovely spiced nuances and a fabulously long finish. For me drinking at its optimum.

*Tasted blind* 2007 Vega Sindoa Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Navarra
The second 100% Cabernet wine was a very tricky wine to have as our first blind tasting, partly because there isn’t a whole lot of Cabernet Sauvignon produced in Spain, partly because one doesn’t see wines from Navarra around too often. The grapes are grown on South-West facing slopes in the foothills of the Pyrenees and the style of the wine proves both that a little altitude brings brightness of fruit, acidity and freshness but also that Cabernet on its own can indeed be a little austere. The precision of the fruit makes this a very good wine to accompany food but drinking it on its own, it could do with a little extra padding. Al had the closest guess as to what the wine might be – he guessed Spain or perhaps Italian from a fairly ripe vintage, which given the bright acidity of this wine was a very logical guess indeed.

*Tasted blind* 1996 Château Meyney, Cru Bourgeois St Estèphe
This wine had me worried. I brought it in to make sure the traditional home of Cabernet was represented, but when I opened it to decant, the aroma could only be described as “funky” and I was quite unsure of the wine’s condition. An hour or so of decanting completely resolved this however, and by the time I poured it, its aroma had developed into a stunning, archetypal left-bank claret nose. The palate was absolutely seamless and rounded, and it showed great complexity. This is very impressive for a 16 year-old Cru Bourgeois (the classification above standard Bordeaux AC but below classed growths), but then again Meyney probably isn’t just any Cru Bourgeois… Hayley won this second blind tasting round by immediately identifying the wine as Bordeaux, which was highly impressive this far into the evening.

1991 Stag’s Leap “Fay”, Napa Valley, California
This was the wine of the evening for me, and had everything one could possible want from a top-class, mature cabernet. In my opinion, this showed why its bigger brother Cask 23 won the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting between top Bordeaux and top Californian Cabs. The beautiful core of cassis fruit was layered with a multitude of savoury, umami and spicy flavours, such as leather, cedar and black truffle. The wonderfully silky texture was only matched by the fabulous length. What a wine!

This was a truly excellent tasting, and all the wines showed very well. It could be argued that we were missing Cabernet Sauvignons from the Languedoc, Italy, Chile and Argentina to name a few countries, and I am sure this will provide a perfect excuse for round two – starting with Sassicaia and Ornellaia?

Ludovic Surina

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