|It's suave, it's rich, it's dark, delicious and damn it tastes good. And as Campbell Mattinson explains, when cabernet is good, it may very well be king.
If Gregory Peck were a grape, he would be cabernet sauvignon. Noble, suave, immensely charming and massively ageworthy - cabernet is the stallion of style that raises the standard for all around it. In fact, that's just it with cabernet sauvignon; it's the noblest of the noble grapes, the prince against which all kinds of manners and flavours and desires are compared. Spend the night with shiraz and it'll try to rip your knickers off; chardonnay will beg them off; champagne giggle them off, and pinot - well, it could do anything, though it'd probably try to goddamn lick them off - but with cabernet, quite simply, you'd never quite remember what happened to them. A date with a great bottle of cabernet sauvignon is like a bedroom rendezvous with royalty.
It always has been the backbone of the great wines of Bordeaux (though usually blended with cabernet franc, malbec, merlot and petit verdot), cabernet sauvignon comes very close to what you might imagine deep, dark red wine to taste like if you'd never tasted wine - it's classic red wine, full of rich, roundly voluptuous, sweet-yet-fine blackcurrant and squishy little blackberry flavours; it stains the glass purple; it's alcoholic without being excessively so; and when it's very good, it can sit in new oak barrels for a considerable amount of time and just soak up the tight, mouth-puckering, savoury elements of that (usually French) oak without ever becoming excessively "oaky" in flavour. In short, it can be the perfect red wine.
That's when it's at its best. The whole oak thing can, like with most grapes, easily get out of hand, and when it's not sufficiently ripe, it can develop excessive capsicum and tinned asparagus (even tomato/tomato leaf) flavours; similarly when it's overripe, it can lose its cabernet hallmarks and taste more like shiraz; like blackberry jam; like port; like chocolatey fruit scorched to within an inch of its life.
But then, cabernet also ages so well - if the common misconception is that all wines improve with age, cabernet does it's best to accommodate you; it'll keep longer than most other grape varieties at comparable prices (barring, notably, riesling). When it ages, it mellows and softens and develops luscious, sweet-savoury tobacco and leather flavours that are about as moorish as sex (but then, aging royalty always has too much sex on its mind).
In Australia, the way we price cabernet is interesting - shiraz is our baby, and we produce it both cheaply and horrendously expensively. We treat cabernet differently. Not much of it can be found at the cheaper end of the scale, and again not much of it at the super-premium end - but in the middle, in the $20 - $30 bracket ... well, cabernet is virtually impossible to beat; it's the master of the mid $20s. When it does come cheapish though it can be soft and extremely gluggable, as Tollana, Ingoldy, Leasingham and Brown Brothers regularly display.
The reason you don't find much cheap cabernet is that it's a little more finicky to grow than, say, shiraz - cabernet is one of the last of the grapes to ripen in the vineyard each season, so it needs plenty of sun - but at the same time, not too much. This is why regions that grow cabernet well are exalted throughout the world - and fought over like mad. The Coonawarra region in South Australia is the perfect example: there's been a war raging for years over what soil can actually be called Coonawarra, and what actually can't.
And Coonawarra, really, is where it's at for cabernet sauvignon in Australia. Bowen, Brand's, Balnaves, Rymill, Wynns, Zema, Lindemans, Orlando St Hugo, Petaluma, Punter's Corner - and many, many more. It is simply one of the great cabernet regions of the world. It is remarkably consistent from year to year. And its wines are affordable.
Not that WA, particularly down Margaret River way, is far behind it - actually, plenty of people reckon it produces Australia's best cabernet (though you'll have to pay for it). Cullen, Vasse Felix, Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle, Howard Park and Brookland Valley all produce superb examples that are worth seeking out - beautifully sweet-berried, fine, rich, supple and suave wines (as someone once said to me, "they'll finesse you, then screw you").
Frequently neglected in the cabernet debate is the Yarra Valley. It produces some of our best versions of this grape (St Huberts, Yarra Yering, Yeringberg, Mt Mary and Wantirna Estate are the stars here). Another commonly overlooked is the Clare Valley (Knappstein, Wendouree, Tim Adams). You'll even find terrific, old-vine examples coming out of the Barossa (Rockford, Turkey Flat, Mamre Brook) and from McLaren Vale (Tatachilla, Chapel Hill and Normans in particular). Victorian cabernet tends to be quite refined, in tune with those blackcurranty trademarks; while the Barossa and McLaren Vale produce more coffeed, super-tasty, roundly rich examples. All are great on their night.
Which all pretty much gives away the sort of food cabernet is best with: we're talking mid-winter, juicy roast beef; roast lamb with rosemary and mint sauce; simple lamb cutlets roasted with lashings of garlic and olive oil and crispy, honey-sweet pumpkin and onion and tomato; we're talking stewed ox-tail with a selection of lightish mushrooms; we're talking slow-cooked food, invariably meat, invariably broad of flavour without being overtly, overpoweringly rich - which is why roast lamb with light gravy and Yorkshire pudding is one of cabernet's classic pairings.
As a parting shot: we cannot talk cabernet without mentioning its classic (and peculiarly Australian) blending with shiraz. Cabernet sauvignon can have a hole in the mid palate - which means that it's rich and gorgeous when you first suck it into your mouth, and likewise as it slips away, but can be lacking in-between. Hence blending it with other mid-palate beauties like merlot and shiraz. As anyone who has tasted the 1991 Wynns Centenary Shiraz-Cabernet, or has followed Penfolds Bin 389, or the bargain Metala Shiraz-Cabernet, or Majella's Malleea knows full well - this pairing is quite magnificent, and possibly the best we have to offer the world. Instead of moving away from this blend, we should be moving to make it our signature.
Though cabernet sauvignon is of course, as its own variety, one of the very few royal gems of the world that has not been tarnished. While it exists, wine grapes will never be republican.