Friday, August 21, 2020

Identifying Cabernet Sauvignon Across The World

 In a recent tasting, a group of us compared premium Cabernet Sauvignon across France, Italy, Australia and the US. A common view is that old world and new world Cabernet is becoming more difficult to distinguish as warmer climate in Europe makes these wines more 'new world', while efforts to reduce ripeness in Australia and the US makes these wines more 'old world'. As we found out, the Cabernet world is more complicated than this and distinctions remain.

Starting with premium French Cabernet (Bordeaux), the most important issue is that one should not open a bottle less than 10 years old. This is the minimum time for its complexity to unfold and the new oak to integrate. So what is typical? Well, in comparison with the Italian Cabernets (we tasted four very good ones), it is the 'completeness' of the wine. Little expense is spared in the winemaking process. The tannin and oak management are excellent, and all this leads often to a house style. If you have been lucky enough to drink a number of vintages of Mouton and Lafite, you would never mix them up in a blind tasting although they are neighbours. 

In comparison with the 'new world', the main difference is the shape of the wine in the mouth and acidity. Acidity is higher in the French wines, and the wines tend to be more linear. The fruit weight has increased with warmer vintages, but the shape of the wine is still 'old world'.

I do not have great experience with Italian Cabernet, and the tasted wines (San Leonardo, Grattamacco, Ornellaia, Guado Al Tasso)  were quite different from each other. Yet they shared characteristics, too. Overall, they were less polished than the French wines, not always balanced, some showing green character and the famous hole on the mid-palate. They had character. As one participant mentioned: "The Italian wines show the vineyard, the French wines the winery." The Ornellaia is perhaps an outlier, being very elegant, and also very sweet, playing to the American palate. Similar to the French wines, acidity in Italian Cabernet tends to be pronounced and the wines long and linear rather than broad.

We tasted only one Napa Cabernet, but it showed the expected profile. These wines are sweet, ripe, and broad in the mouth, even for 'middle of the road' wines as this one was. The blockbuster wines show extremes on these characteristics plus high alcohol.

How does Australia fit in? The key give away is the subdued acidity in most Cabernet, leading to plush wines. They are not on steroids as Napa, but they tend to be more 'sun-kissed' than the European versions and riper.

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