Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz: the not-so-odd couple

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By The Glass

Any hardcore old world wine lover will never imagine Bordeaux’s quintessential grape varietal Cabernet Sauvignon would be blended or mixed with Rhone Valley’s top varietal, Syrah, or, as the Australians’ renamed it, Shiraz. However, as proven by Australia’s wine success with Shiraz Cabernet (dropping the “Sauvignon”) or Cabernet Shiraz blends (whichever of the two varietal is higher in percentage in the blend takes the earlier billing), this seemingly unorthodox marriage is actually not only a wine that is here to stay, but one that has been much sought after.

THE FRENCH ORIGIN
Even though the Australians championed the Cabernet Syrah blended wines, the first influential person known to have experimented with this blend was none other than famous French agronomist and viticulturist Dr. Jules Guyot (1807-1872).

People in the wine industry, especially the ones involved in vineyard management and grape-growing, will be very familiar with the Guyot name, as this is the same Dr. Guyot who created what is known as cane-pruning or his eponymous “Guyot system” of vine-training for better development of the foliage and grape quality. In fact, just February this year, I attended a hands-on pruning lesson on the “Guyot system” by Dr. Edoardo Monticelli right in Alba, Piedmont. Apparently, during the mid-19th century Dr. Guyot already had the idea of mixing Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah together in the Provence region. But sadly, the strong French appellation laws on keeping certain authorized grape varietals to certain wine regions pretty much stopped this Cabernet Syrah blend from evolving further, that is, until the innovative Australian wine people came along and made it a huge commercial success.

THE AUSTRALIANS AND PENFOLDS LED THE WAY
While Yalumba, and other century-old Australian family wineries were already blending Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon and exporting this wine in the late 19th century under the “claret” name, the biggest mover and influencer of this blend may have been Penfolds, care of their winemaker extraordinaire Max Schubert.

Schubert was the chief winemaker of the winery from 1948 to 1975. He created Australia’s most prestigious wine, Penfolds Grange, in 1951, but it was in the 1953 vintage that Max Schubert added Cabernet Sauvignon to a previous 100% Shiraz wine. This addition of Cabernet Sauvignon, ranging from as low as 1% to as high as 14%, would be a Grange calling card, at least from 1953 till the late 1990s with exception of the 1963 vintage which was made with 100% Shiraz (according to the book Penfolds The Reward of Patience by Andrew Caillard).

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In 1960 Schubert released his first closer-parity Cabernet and Shiraz blend, which would be known as the Bin 389. Bin 389 brought Penfolds to the forefront of this Cabernet Shiraz evolution. The success of Bin 389 ushered in similar versions by several Australian wineries, including the biggest brands from Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass, to Hardys, Lindeman’s, and Yalumba, and from different wine regions. Fast forward to today when Shiraz Cabernet is probably Australia’s best known signature wine in the world.

If Australia was like a traditional Old World wine powerhouse similar to France, Italy, or Spain, and hounded by the appellation and grape varietal laws and restrictions, this harmonious union of Cabernet and Syrah may not have happened.

How times have changed! Note that one of France’s largest wine exporters is JP Chenet, and JP Chenet is famous not only for their unique deformed-looking wine bottle, but also for their best selling wine, a Cabernet Syrah blend, which they launched in 1991 when the Australians were already having success with this blend. And look at Tuscany too… some of the so-called “Super Tuscans” from Bolgheri also use the Cabernet and Syrah blend. The list of adaptors of this blend goes from Chile and South Africa, to Spain and other wine producing countries.

MULTI-BLENDING AND THE PENFOLDS HOUSE STYLE
Aside from being one of the pioneers of multi-varietal blending, Penfolds also prides itself on multi-regional blending. While a vast majority of the most expensive wines in the world are either single region, like the Grand Cru Classe wines of Bordeaux, or single vineyard like the “Grand Cru” and “Premier Cru” Burgundy wines, or similar to fellow Aussie icon Henschke Hill of Grace, Penfolds has taken a different approach with its premium wine range.

It is quite clear that Penfolds has huge resources, including vast vineyard holdings and long-term contracts with growers of top vineyards, so that they can easily, if they wanted to, craft single-vineyard and, even easier, make single-region wines. Yet the winery opted not to do this for many of its most prestigious wines. Instead, its top-of-the-line Grange Bin 95, Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, and its most premium white wine, the Yattarna Bin 144 Chardonnay, are all blended multi-regionally. The multi-region concept ensures that Penfolds gets to pick the best vineyards from the different wine regions, mostly within South Australia, that is suited for the style of each of its top bin wines. This is how Penfolds get to achieve consistency in its most cherished wines vintage after vintage. These are more winemaker-driven wines, or what Penfolds is calling its House Style, rather than what the French espoused as terroir-driven wines — and the resulting wines really speak for themselves.

PENFOLDS RANGE OF CABERNET SHIRAZ WINES
The Grange may have hinted at a good Cabernet synergy with Shiraz with a small percentage added to this predominantly Shiraz wine, but it was the Bin 389 that pushed forward with the more prominent and equitable union of the cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes. Now on its 60th anniversary, Bin 389 is still by far the winery’s most commercially successful Cabernet Shiraz blend. Bin 389 is known as “Baby Grange” or the “Grange Second Wine” because of its long shared heritage and consistent quality reputation with the Grange, and for its price being just a fraction of that of its big brother.

The Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, with Cabernet taking the first billing, has more Cabernet (55-60%) than Shiraz (35-40%). For the almost inverse version — 60% Shiraz to 40% Cabernet Sauvignon — there is the Bin 8 Shiraz Cabernet. Bin 8 was launched in 2003. And there is another one, Max’s Shiraz Cabernet, a tribute wine in honor of the one and only Max Schubert, which was introduced just in 2013. The Max’s wine comes in a special “shelf-screaming” red shrink-wrapped bottle that seems targeted at the huge Chinese market.

Customary Tasting Notes

• Max’s Shiraz Cabernet 2018: 64% Shiraz/36% Cabernet Sauvignon blend from multi-regions; “black berries, cinnamon, allspice, ‘sibot’ Chinese herbs, leafy, silky texture, fresh acids, soft tannins and creamy finish”; Average Retail Price: P1,200/bottle

• Penfolds Bin 8 Shiraz Cabernet 2017: 54% Cabernet Sauvignon/46% Shiraz; Average Retail Price: P2,100

• Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2017: 60% Shiraz/40% Cabernet Sauvignon; Average Retail Price: P3,900.00/bottle

I did not include my tasting notes on either Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz or Bin 8 Shiraz Cabernet because the samples I got had bottle leaks and cork stain when opened. While both wines still tasted good, I felt from both the wine’s color and nose that these were not in their prime state for a young 2017 vintage currently available in the local market. As of this writing, I have yet to receive the replacement bottles, so tasting notes to follow soon.

The Australians have paved the way for a strange mix of Bordeaux and Rhone grapes with their successful Cabernet Shiraz, even though it is still cringe worthy to see the Bordelais drink one in a party. I am sold on the Shiraz Cabernet blend, but can we slow down on other crazy mixes like a Semillon-Chardonnay?!

The author is the only Filipino member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy, and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at protegeinc@yahoo.com or contact him via Twitter at www.twitter.com/sherwinlao.

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