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Drilling into Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon with a Viognier guru

Louisa Rose, head of winemaking at Yalumba, where she has worked since graduating as dux from Roseworthy in 1992

Mention the name Louisa Rose in any wine circle and the grape variety Viognier won’t be far behind. Yalumba, where she is chief winemaker and has worked since graduating from Roseworthy in 1993, was the first to plant Viognier commercially in Australia back in 1980, but it was Louisa who put Australian Viognier on the global wine map and established Yalumba as a world class producer of this difficult but ultimately rewarding white variety. She was the first to understand how long you have to leave Viognier to ripen to deliver flavour in Australia.

There’s no question she deserves all the recognition she gets for her work with Viognier, but perhaps sometimes it’s in danger of overshadowing her achievements with Yalumba’s other wines in the last three decades. You only have to think of Yalumba’s flagship red wines – wines such as The Octavius, The Signature and The Menzies and the exceptional The Tri Centenary made from 820 Grenache bush vines planted in 1889. With that in mind, it was good to catch up with her virtually recently to taste Yalumba’s Coonawarra Cabernets and hear her thoughts on Cabernet Sauvignon more generally – and it gives me the opportunity to write about a grape variety that has had too little coverage on this website.

Louisa started by saying how welcome it was to talk about Cabernet, because usually at Yalumba when they’re talking about it it’s either as a blender with Shiraz or in the context of their family of top echelon wines. Across Australia, Cabernet is the third most most planted grape variety, but mostly it’s blended, as it is elsewhere in the world, not least in Bordeaux and Napa Valley. But Australia does have two significant regions, Margaret River and Coonawarra, which, as Louisa puts it, produce “beautiful, seamless Cabernet that doesn’t have to be blended with another variety”.

"I always think of my mother telling me to 'sit up straight and not to slouch’ when I think of Cabernet Sauvignon"

“When you find a region where it doesn’t need blending, perhaps that’s something really special,” she says, adding that she considers Coonawarra “is up there as one of the great Cabernet regions of the world”.

What is special about Cabernet Sauvignon? “I always think of my mother telling me to sit up straight and not to slouch’ when I think of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a beautiful, linear variety with beautiful, long tannins. They don’t have to be hard tannins; they don’t have to be green or bitter, but a great Cabernet has to have tannins… [and] a seamless structure”.

In terms of the differences between the two regions, she sees Coonawarra Cabernet as defined a bit more by its structure and in terms of flavour as having more of a mulberry, herbaceous and ripe mint profile. This mintiness, she believes, is more to the effect of Coonwarra’s cool climate than its distinctive terrarossa soils (more of which in a moment).

Margaret River’s Cabernet Sauvignons, coming from a slightly warmer, more maritime region surrounded on three sides by water, tend to be slightly plusher, rounder, softer and more approachable. Coonawarra, thousands and thousands of kilometres away, is influenced by the Southern Ocean like Margaret River, but not by the warmer influence of the Indian Ocean.

Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, has a long history of planting and buying Cabernet. It may go back to 1849 when Samuel Smith founded the company. Certainly Yalumba was buying Cabernet in the Eden Valley in the 1860s and 1870s and the connection with Coonawarra goes back at least to the 1920s, when the family was swapping and purchasing wines from the Redman family.

The difference then was that Yalumba’s Cabernet was used in blends, mostly with Barossa Shiraz. It wasn’t until 1986 that the company released its first 100% Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, The Menzies. It was made with grapes from a vineyard which Yalumba went on to buy in 1993, naming it The Menzies Estate Vineyard. Since then they’ve done a lot of development in the vineyard, replacing old unproductive vines and using modern, precision viticultural techniques to measure soils, work out the best layout and best clonal materials.

"All Yalumba's wines are fermented with wild yeasts and are vegan-friendly"

Today, they make three wines from the vineyard: The Menzies itself, The Cigar and a newer wine, Sanctum, a more modern take on the classic Coonawarra style.

The four Cabernet Sauvignons we tasted were two consecutive but contrasting vintages of the flagship The Menzies, 2014 and 2015, The Cigar 2017 and the Y Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2018. The Y Series Cab is a South Australia blend, but predominantly from Wrattonbully, where Yalumba bought farming land in the early 1990s (as did some other producers) and planted Cabernet Sauvignon. They were attracted by the geological similarities to Coonawarra, a cigar-shaped region defined by its fertile terrarossa soils over limestone – a terroir that Cabernet Sauvignon loves, but which, by the early 1990s was pretty well fully planted.

Wrattonbully, as the new wine region was later named, has similar terrarossa soils over limestone (it's part of the Limestone Coast region) but with a little more organic matter and a little less clay than Coonawarra and it has a similar climate: a little warmer overall (although cooler at night), but near enough for it to suit Cabernet Sauvignon to a tee, like Coonawarra.

Two things common to all Yalumba’s wines are that they’re fermented with wild yeasts from the vineyards and are vegan-friendly. It’s not that the family or the team are all vegan or even vegetarian, but they believe they make “more interesting, more textured and more delicious wines” when they don’t use things such as egg white and milk proteins “that strip out flavours”. I was caught out by, and impressed by, the quite substantial crystalline deposit in the 2018 Y Series Cabernet (see photo), a wine that sells at £9–10. It’s a wine I would have been happy to keep another four or five years. Even were it not her own wine Louisa probably wouldn’t have been caught out by the deposit. She loves decanting wines: “any wine, white, red, young old. I love the way it brings them to life. I think it makes a subtle difference.”

For the Coonwarra wines specifically, she says they work really hard to make them ageworthy but also delicious when young. On this showing, as well as wines I’ve tasted previously, they succeed.


An impressive display of sediment from Yalumba's great value entry-level Cabernet

Yalumba The Y Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, South Australia

This unoaked Cabernet is easily as impressive in its own class as Yalumba’s top wines are in theirs. It’s about 80% Wrattonbully fruit with 20% from other regions (mainly from Barossa) “to round out the mid palate”.

Attractive plum and blackberry, herb and leafy freshness and a deeper dark-chocolate note on the nose. The palate is generous and smooth, but well defined, focused and deftly structured with a refreshing herbaceous streak. I wasn’t planning to drink it after tasting, but it was delicious, so we did – with slow-baked lamb shank flavoured with anchovy, garlic, rosemary, coriander, fennel and cumin seeds and sumac. Very good value.

£8.99, Roberts & Speight; £9.99, Richardsons of Whitehaven; £60 for 6, Vinvm

The Cigar takes its name from the cigar-shaped strip of terra rossa soil for which Coonawarra is famed

Yalumba The Cigar 2017, Coonawarra

This is Cabernet from the Menzies vineyard, with just a smidgen of Menzies Malbec (a few percent), and includes some of the younger plantings as well as older. Louisa describes it as a traditional style, with a relatively cool fermentation and ageing for 16 months in French oak barriques and hogsheads with a little Hungarian oak to give some spicy backbone to the tannins. It has a slightly less new oak than The Menzies and is designed to be a little more approachable, a little less complex with a bit more purity of fruit and is released a bit earlier than the Menzies. 2017 was a cool, dry and then wet vintage, harvested after Easter, largely before the rain.

Initial aromas of chocolate, mint, vanilla and crisp cassis fruit quickly give way to floral aromas, especially iris, blackcurrant leaf and a touch of black pepper. The palate is intense with a seam of spiciness, fine, firm tannins. The overall effect is satisfyingly soft and at the same time linear with a degree of elegant restraint. It went well with venison haunch steak (marinated with olive oil, tawny port, juniper, pink peppercorns and rosemary and deglazed with a smidgen of port, redcurrant jelly and creme fraiche).

£19.48 (mix six), £25.99 (single) for the 2016, Majestic; £24.95, Hennings Wine; £25, auswinesonline

2014 and 2015 The Menzies: consecutive but contrasting vintages and a change of label for Yalumba's top Cabernet Sauvignon

Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Coonawarra

The Menzies is aged in French oak hogsheads and barriques with a little American oak, around a third new oak altogether. 2014 was a difficult season with “a terrible spring” that reduced crops. It then warmed up, resulting in a very long season. Picking didn’t finish until the first week of May, but Louisa emphasises that with Cabernet it’s not the temperatures that count but having a good long time to ripen the tannins.

On the nose: violets, plums and black fruit, together with some tangy red cherry, graphite, currant leaf and hint of mint. The palate is supple and elegant and shows a bit more evolution than the nose, with sweet tobacco spice, dark chocolate, cool leafy freshness and fine, dry tannins. There’s a savoury coolness to this 2014 that is immensely appealing. Good with lamb almost any way except hot curry, with meat generally and with puy lentil or cheesy vegetable dishes.

£35, winedirect; £36.05, Vinvm

Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Coonawarra

From a more benign year than 2014 – not as cool but not positively hot either. This has slightly less of the cool currant leaf and mint, but it's still there giving freshness. The fruit is very pure and focused but a little riper and more succulent than in the 2014, with black cherry as well as blackcurrant. Spice and chocolate notes here, too, but the overall effect is a little sweeter in tone. Beautifully smooth, linear tannins and there's an energising, sustained saline note. Superb wine.

£33.99 (mix six), £37.99 (single), Majestic


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