Margaret River Western Australia Harvest 2012 Winemaker Update #2

Brendan Carr This week, we bring back our fearless NightRiders leader and the Assistant Winemaker for Xanadu Wines, Brendan Carr, for the second installment of, “As the Grape Turns.”

Picture this…

Miss Blanc sits back in one of the dusty well-worn stools at the local dive bar. She’s new to town and a little out of her comfort zone as she quietly surveys the down-and-outers whilst sipping on her warm cocktail. It’s that sort of stale-beer smelling, smoke-hazed, sticky-floored bar with old punk rock crackling through the juke box. Old signed records and posters are strewn across the walls. This bar wears its history proudly. The gruff, tat-clad, nose-pierced owner, is joined by bums and poets, thieves and once celebrities… Blanc has seen enough, she places her half-finished drink back on the dusty counter and grabs her bag to leave. Until she feels a warm hand on her shoulder.

‘You look a little lonely there, can I buy you a drink?’ the deep voice as cool as ice.

She turns around, stares into the eyes of this handsome mystery man, her breath gets caught in her throat, her pupils start to dilate, and instantly she begins to turn red.

‘Ah, who, who are you?’ she stutters out.

‘The name’s Franc. Cabernet Franc. And you my dear?’ he replied.

‘Sauvignon’ she blushes, ‘Sauvignon Blanc’.

I’ll stop there before this starts to sound like a tacky Mills and Boon novel. But let me just say this. Nine months later from that fateful night, the wine stork dropped a wicker basket onto the front steps of a (now famous) Bordeaux Chateau. Inside, bound in a thick soil blanket, lay none other than little baby Cabernet Sauvignon.

But this is when the story takes a twist. Little Cabernet was abandoned you see. Unfortunately never knowing his true parents he was left to grow for himself (yes, yes, Cabernet is a boy!). However, he thrived with his new ‘foster famille’, quickly becoming friends with the two brothers Merlot and Malbec and their little sister Petit Verdot. Yet the soils of Bordeaux weren’t deep enough to contain this vigorous go-getter. Before long, Cabernet had wrapped his tendrils across the rest of Europe and then to the New World. Then back in the late 60’s, most likely with long leaves, clad in tie dye and driving a Kombi, Cabernet decided to put down his roots here in Margaret River, Western Australia.

Yet still the mystery remained. The world’s most widely planted, recognised and popular red wine grape variety, grown the world over from Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley to Canada’s Okanagan Valley and yet no one really knew where it came from.

How could this be?

But like any illegitimate child, there is always suspicion, innuendo and rumour to their real parents. Little Cabernet Sauvignon’s folks were long whispered to be Mr Franc and Miss Blanc. This was from both the similarity of the names and the fact that like any child, Cabernet shared similar traits with both Mum and Dad — such as the suave blackcurrant, cassis and pencil box aromas of Mr Franc and the often innocent greenness of Mrs Blanc.

Suspicion was finally confirmed when Cabernet Sauvignon’s birth certificate was discovered in 1996. With the use of DNA typing it was determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was in fact the offspring of Mr Franc and Miss Blanc and the night of passion in question occurred sometime in the 17th century. This unfortunately discounts my ‘dive bar’ pick up story, unless Louis XIV was tending the bar perhaps…

So there you have it. Now you know. So what?

Well over this vintage, I have had somewhat of a personal revelation, an epiphany of sorts.

One of the usual questions that I am most frequently asked as someone in the wine industry is, ‘What is your favourite varietal, or favourite wine?’ Now the usual answer is that I don’t have favourites… I love all wines and grape varietals. Variety is the spice of life I say, when they are well made and you can enjoy the unique grape expression, blah, blah, blah. Yawn.

But now my view has somewhat changed. Before joining the Xanadu team I was away for some time, chasing the harvests around the globe. It was only at the very end of my journey, sifting through a bottleshop in Budapest that I decided to buy a wine from home. A Cabernet Sauvignon from one of our esteemed neighbours (there was no Xanadu on the shelf, I promise!).

Tasting it, it was like I discovered this grape for the first time again. I was instantly transported back home, with all those comforting homely smells. That hallmark Margaret River Cabernet aroma of eucalypt felt like walking through a tall forest of gum trees. It really was that distinctive. Personally, I love it, but this is my home and I’ll confess I’m pretty biased, plenty of people out there find it over the top, overtly green, leafy, capsicumy, or whatever you want to call it.

I embrace the criticism. It is in fact what makes Cabernet Sauvignon so great. Because of the amazing variety within the variety. It can adapt to a diverse range of soil types, from the famous gravels of its home in Bordeaux to the unique Terra Rossa soil of Coonawarra. And yet, while it is extremely adaptable, it always retains that intimate ‘Cab’ character. It will always be big and bold, yet in its finest examples, it is nuanced by the area in which is grown and the style in which it is made.

Let me pause on that point, ‘the style in which it is made’.

For those unaware, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape itself is very small, with a really thick skin. Because of these simple elements Cabernet Sauvignon can be inscrutably tannic. This tannic nature of Cabernet Sauvignon is an important winemaking consideration for us here at Xanadu. The amount of time the fermenting juice is left on these power packed skins and seeds has a dramatic influence on the structure and flavour of the final wine.

Traditionally in Bordeaux, the maceration period was around three to four weeks, which supposedly gave the winemaking staff enough time to close down the estate after harvest to take a hunting holiday. Oh so French. The results of these long maceration periods are very tannic wines that often require years of aging. However some producers, particularly in the new world, wished to make a Cabernet Sauvignon more approachable and fruit forward. To do so, they drastically reduced the maceration time to as a little as a few days.

Here at Xanadu our hard working team is unfortunately too busy to be hunting for our next Boeuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin dish. However when it comes to our Cabernet Sauvignon we employ the best from both worlds so to speak. We press some batches off the skins after one week. In this instance, when the juice is still slightly sweet, we find this captures the wonderful ripe blackcurrant and blueberry characters of the grape. True fruit expression in its purest form. Yummy stuff.

Yet, to compliment this we also leave some batches to macerate on the skins for anywhere up to one month. Actually, we still have some batches on skins as we speak. Like the best Bordeaux, I find this extra time on skins gives the wine a lovely structure, with plush, persistent, velvety-fine tannins, that beg you to bury it at the back of the wine-rack for your next milestone.

Personally I think by employing both techniques, we end up with a lovely balanced wine. More than drinkable after a few years, yet willing to offer so much more for the patient among us. Here at Xanadu we couldn’t be happier with our batches of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Amazing looking stuff that is certainly worth clearing some space in you cellar for (if you can resist the temptation to open it!).

So there you have it, a brief ‘this is your life’ history of little Cabernet Sauvignon from conception to consumption. Admittedly, Margaret River has only seen 40 odd vintages of our favourite grape orphan, nevertheless with a unprecedented run of vintages as brilliant as 07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11 and now ’12, I can’t help feeling we are creating a little slice of our own history.

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