Special Feature: Australia

Remembering Cabernet, from Coonawarra, Margaret River and the Yarra Valley

By John Szabo MS

Cabernet sauvignon is deeply embedded in the Australian wine industry and is an integral part of the country’s wine heritage. It’s probably not well-known that some of the oldest (the oldest?) continuously-producing cabernet vines in the world are planted in South Australia – Penfolds’ Barossa Valley property known as Kalimna Block 42, to be specific. Those vines, according to the company, were planted in 1888, now in their 133rd year – a remarkable feat for any vine, anywhere. In the intervening years, many other regions – Coonawarra, Margaret River, Yarra Valley, to name a few – were discovered to be particularly well-suited to producing cabernet both as a stand-alone varietal wine and in blends, particularly the somewhat unique Aussie cab-shiraz blend, but also in more traditional Bordeaux style blends.

It’s easy enough to be jaded by cabernet, ubiquitous as it is. After all, it’s the world’s most planted red variety, occupying some 7% of the global vineyard. This inevitably means that it’s planted in plenty of unsuitable locations, and stretched into cheap commercial bottlings just about everywhere – the bad surely outweighs the good. If you’ve fallen out of love with the grape, I don’t blame you.

But I was reminded of just how exceptional cabernet can also be, and also about Australia’s rich heritage with the variety, during a global comparative tasting of top Australian cabernets and similar calibre wines from around the world. The purpose of the event, organized by wine Australia, was to contextualize and benchmark top Aussie cabernets with similarly-priced examples from Bordeaux, Stellenbosch, Napa Valley, Tuscany and Chile, before delving deeper into the key regions and producers that have also firmly established Australia as a world top producer of the variety.

Mark Davidson of Wine Australia leads the Global Cabernet Seminar with attendees from North America, Europe and Asia

Watch the replay of the seminar (note: you’ll be asked to register on the Big Marker website – it’s free but an email is required)

Along with co-panelists, the erudite, New York Based Mary Gorman-McAdams MW, and the legendary London-based raconteur Oz Clark, I had the privilege of tasting and presenting an extraordinary range of Australian cabernets:

  • Wynns ‘Black Label’ Coonawarra 2015
  • Balnaves of Coonawarra ‘The Tally’ Coonawarra 2015
  • Yarra Yering ‘Dry Red Wine No. 1’ Yarra Valley 2015
  • Mount Mary ‘Quintet’ Yarra Valley 2015
  • Cullen Wines ‘Diana Madeline’ Margaret River 2015
  • Vasse Felix ‘Tom Cullity’ Margaret River 2015
  • Henschke ‘Cyril Henschke’ Eden Valley 2015


As presented by Oz Clark, cabernet has been in Coonawarra for over a century now, since Scottish emigré John Riddoch planted 140 acres at the Coonawarra Fruit Colony. The region’s first wine was made in 1895. The two examples shown from Coonawarra nicely book-ended the stylistic range of this cool, south Australian region of unremarkable topography, but remarkable soil (much like Bordeaux) – the famed terra rossa – a small, cigar-shaped patch of iron-rich red clays over white limestone. From the upright, classic and stately Wynns to the richer, more boisterous Balnaves, both carry a gentle touch of mint – a Coonawarra cabernet signature – alongside a twang of limestone freshness and salinity.

Margaret River

As presented by Mary Gorman-McAdams, the history of Cabernet in Margaret river is somewhat shorter, but it has quickly risen to prominence as one of Australia’s premier cabernet regions. The grape was first brought to this idyllic, pristine peninsula three hours south of Perth by Dr Thomas Brendan Cullity in 1967, founder of Vasse Felix. Brendan, and around the same time, Diane and Kevin Cullen, had been inspired by Dr John Gladstones’ 1965 research paper titled ‘The climate and soils of southwestern Australia in relation to vine growing’, which was closely followed by his 1966 paper titled ‘Soil and climate of the Margaret River – Busselton area; their suitability for wine grape production’, where he identified the Margaret River region as having similar characteristics to some of the best wine regions in the world (read: Bordeaux). The Cullen’s first plantings in 1966 failed, but their vineyard was firmly established in 1971. Both of these extraordinary cabernets show the influence of the heavily maritime-moderated climate, where not mint, but an unmistakeable herbal streak runs through fine, firm tannins and natural freshness.

Yarra Valley

That left me to present the Yarra Valley, surely not a region that leaps to mind at the mention of cabernet. In fact 70% of the region is planted to pinot noir and chardonnay, the two varieties for which Yarra is best-known, with cabernet accounting for only 7%.  But it was cabernet that first put the Yarra Valley on the world wine map. The vineyard planted by the Ryrie Brothers of Yering Station in 1838, Victoria’s first vineyard, would go on produce the southern hemisphere’s first Grand Prix winner in 1889, a cabernet blend.

About an hour’s drive east/north from Melbourne in the state of Victoria, the Yarra Valley is a green, pastoral, bucolic region that enjoys generous rainfall by Australian standards, up to 1000mm year. The pretty landscape features a range of hills on either side of the Yarra River, like a pair of welcoming, open arms for visitors coming from Melbourne.

Yarra is one of the southernmost appellations on the Australian mainland, exposed to weather patterns originating in the Southern Ocean and Port Philip Bay. This makes it a genuinely cool climate, cooler than Bordeaux but slightly warmer than Burgundy, which explains the potential for the grapes of both of those regions.

Conditions are also influenced by variations in elevation, ranging between 50 and 430m above sea level and, of course, soils, from older, relatively acidic, low fertility and well drained sandy-loam clays in the central and northern part of the valley to the younger more fertile, intensely red volcanic soil of the southern Yarra. All these factors play a significant part in the diversity of the region’s wines.

Plantings surged through the 1860s and 1870s driven largely by Swiss immigrants – there were 400 ha by the dawn of the 20th century – and up until the 1930s, when economic depression saw production cease. This lull lasted until the late 1960s, when interest in winegrowing was renewed, and Yarra has been going strong ever since.

The two key figures in that rebirth were Dr Bailey Carrodus of Yarra Yering, and Dr John Middleton of Mount Mary, still two of the Valley’s, and Australia’s, most revered producers who were featured in this tasting. Carrodus planted Yarra Yering in 1969, and Dr. Middleton in 1971; both had been inspired by travels to France and hoped to re-create the fine and elegant wines they had enjoyed oversees. Another big planting push came in the 1990’s, with the current crop of wine growers looking to emulate the success of these pioneers, and Yarra now counts about 2,500 hectares and 80 wineries.

The sweet spot for cabernet, and where Yarra Yearing and Mount Mary are, is referred to by local winemakers as “Central Yarra”, off the valley floor where frost is a hazard, but not too high to be too cool to ripen cabernet and it’s Bordeaux friends. Soils in this part of the valley are also the oldest, meaning nutrients have been leached, reducing fertility and thus vigour. They also have good water holding capacity, so that neither Yarra Yering nor Mount Mary irrigate with any regularity. In fact, cabernet requires relatively little effort in the vineyard, and rarely needs any acid adjustment in the winery, which is not always the case with pinot noir and chardonnay.

One of the main points of difference between the Yarra Valley, and Coonawarra and Margaret River, is the Yarra’s protracted harvest season. Picking from start to finish, from merlot to petit verdot, can last up to six weeks or longer. This means a long, cool simmer to ripeness for the varieties, while a big diurnal shift from warm days to cool nights helps retain those natural acids. Cabernet is also almost invariably blended with other varieties; rarely does it deliver as much on its own as it does when it’s flanked by complementary grapes. Cabernet can, and does, go it alone in Coonawarra and Margaret River with far greater success (Wynns, for example).

Given the cool climate, cabernet blends of the Yarra, in all but the very warmest vintages, feature a pleasantly leafy-green note, distinct from the mint of Coonawarra and the more herbal notes of Margaret River cabernet. And in a world that has recently rediscovered that cabernet can be a beautifully mid-weight, elegant wine with more finesse than sheer heft, the Yarra Valley’s cabernets may just yet re-capture a more global audience. A sip of either Mount Mary or Yarra Yerring will convince.   

So, if you’re feeling a little tired of cabernet, track down any of the wines in this tasting. You may just fall in love all over again. And remember to include Australia and these eminently suitable growing regions on the list of top cabernet sources in the world.

You can also visit the May 29th VINTAGES Release where Australia is featured with a handful of progressive wines from outside the ‘classic’ zones and styles that made Australia’s popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s.

John Szabo, MS