Cabernet Sauvignon Masters 2014: The results

An impressive lineup of judges convened for the Global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters to put 200 wines through their paces in June.

Untitled3 Having recently cemented its title as king of the grapes with the news that it has overtaken Spanish white variety Airén as the world’s most widely planted grape, no serious wine competition would be complete that didn’t put Cabernet Sauvignon under the microscope. According to a recent study form the University of Adelaide, since 1990, Cabernet Sauvignon has more than doubled its share of hectares under vine, though many may argue its heartland remains on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, where some of the world’s most highly prized wines are crafted from the grape, which is used to form the backbone of Bordeaux blends. However, this thick-skinned variety can thrive in an array of terroirs around the world, and can be found flourishing everywhere from Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia to the Napa Valley in California and Chile’s Maipo Valley.

The 17th century lovechild of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is appreciated by grape growers for its naturally low-yielding, late-ripening nature and ability to add structure, colour and power to blends. In addition, the grape’s naturally high acidity and tannic structure mean wines made from Cabernet can be built to last. Given that it is planted in a plethora of pockets around the world, there is no cookie-cutter signature style for Cabernet, though many boast notes of blackcurrant, mint, eucalyptus, bell pepper and cedar, with cherry and olive notes present in cooler-climate Cabernets, and warmer Cabs often veering towards the jammier end of the flavour spectrum.

Building on from the success of both the Chardonnay Masters and the Pinot Noir Masters, around 200 wines from nine countries were submitted to our inaugural Cabernet Sauvignon Masters, with judging taking place on 8 May at Elysée restaurant in central London. Served blind and assessed without prejudice about their country of origin, the wines were arranged according to their price band as well as style, from low price to high, and unoaked to oaked, in order to make the competition as fair as possible. Judged by a stellar panel of Masters of Wine, including Sebastian Payne MW of The Wine Society, Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros & Rudd and Justin Knock MW of Encirc, the wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning more than 90 points were given a gold, those more than 85 points a silver, and those more than 80 points a bronze.

New order

The majority of entries for our Cabernet Sauvignon Masters came from the New World, with just one wine from Bordeaux taking part in the competition. While two-thirds of the wines were single-varietal Cabernet, the remainder were blends crafted from at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon. During the tasting, the judges looked for balance, fine tannic structure, a bright fruit profile and a complex character, as well as a long finish.

So how did the wines fare? Of the 200 wines that entered, 141 were medal-winners, with 83 walking away with a bronze, 41 awarded silver, 14 impressing enough for a gold and just three scooping the top accolade of a Master medal. “Cabernet is one of the great grapes of the world and you can see why it’s planted everywhere as it delivers on many different levels. We haven’t had too many howlers, thankfully,” quipped Payne. “Caberent Sauvignon proved that it is able to deliver value for money. Producers across the world are stepping up their game and the hit rate in the competition was very good,” added Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association.

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(L-R): Patrick Schmitt, editor of the drinks business, Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association, Vanessa Cinti of Cut at 45 Park Lane, Sebastian Payne MW of The Wine Society, Rebecca Palmer of Corney & Barrow, Mark Savage MW of Savage Selection, Lucy Shaw, deputy editor of the drinks business, Justin Knock MW of Encirc and Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros & Rudd.

In terms of individual countries, judges praised Chile for its ability to deliver reliable and consistently high-quality Cabernet at an affordable price point. “You can find fantastic value in Chile, which has a lot to recommend it,” said Payne. “The consistency of the Chilean Cabs was a big surprise for me – the wines offered dark fruit and a creamy texture,” commented Vanessa Cinti, head sommelier of Wolfgang Puck’s debut London restaurant Cut at 45 Park Lane.

While the US put in a consistent performance, it was Australia, and most notably Coonawarra, that got our judges’ pulses racing, with the inherent elegance of the wines from the Southern Australian region setting them apart. Australia also led the way in the gold medal tally, scooping five golds and a Master for Katnook Founder’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. “Both Australia and Argentina are doing a very good job with Cabernet Sauvignon and are offering decent-quality examples for under £10. You can see the evolution the countries have undergone in recent years. The Australian wines were lovely and fresh with herbal and menthol notes,” said Cinti.

Hot on Australia’s heels was Chile, which won four golds, followed by Argentina, which scooped two golds and a Master for Pascual Toso Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, with Spain picking up the third and final Master for Torres’ Mas La Plana 2010, which has been made from a 29-hectare vineyard in the northern Spanish region of Penedès since 1970. South Africa delivered a solid performance, earning two gold and three silver medals, while, somewhat surprisingly given its strong links to Cabernet, the US picked up only one gold medal for Jackson Family Wines Stonestreet Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.

Question of style

A debate arose around oak, with a number of judges lamenting the inability on the part of many producers to handle it properly. “While Cabernet has a natural affinity for oak, a lot of the wines were smothered and it wasn’t used judiciously, meaning the oak owned the wine rather than the other way around,” commented Berry Bros & Rudd’s Walters. Payne of The Wine Society concurred. “At the end of the day, you want to be able to drink the whole bottle, not just one glass, and some of the wines messed around with the oak a little too much and the alcohol levels were too high, but there is a market for those styles of wine,” he said.

Untitled1As to whether Cabernet performs better in a blend or as a solo act, the judges were unanimous on the former. “I’m not certain that Cabernet Sauvignon delivers varietal character under £10. What you tend to get is a lot of structure without the fruit balance. A few of the under-£10 wines worked, but the tannin often smothered the fruit. The blends were more rounded and balanced with better palate weight and structure than the single varietals,” said Walters, to which Payne added: “As a single varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon rarely hits the high spots – it works better in blends. As a grape it does fantastically commercially and is hugely successful; the trick is to keep the freshness locked in.” Cinti, meanwhile, was more forgiving of the single varietals. “Some of them worked well – I think there is a space for them in the market. When made well, Cabernet can more than hold its own as a single-varietal wine,” she said.

Cabernet Sauvignon Masters 2016: Results

We round up the medal-winning wines from this year’s Drinks Business Global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters, with New World examples impressing judges with their consistent quality, even at entry level.

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As we noted in last year’s report, such are the powerful traits of Cabernet Sauvignon, wherever it’s grown, and however it’s handled, the grape displays a pleasing sameness. In essence, it’s a grape of resilience and reliability. So, unlike Pinot Noir, another grape in our Global Masters series, Cabernet Sauvignon offers regularity in personality, which is derived from its dense tannins, and juicy blackcurrant flavours, along with its subtle and refreshing leafy lift, as well as lingering coffee and cedar characters. It’s a bit like ex-pat Brits drinking tea and playing cricket: Cabernet behaves the same way wherever you find it. But what about quality? Here too, Cabernet offers consistency, although the high points are only attainted in certain places. As this year’s competition confirmed, the great sites for Cabernet are Chile’s Maipo and Colchagua Valleys, North America’s Sonoma County along with its Napa and Columbia Valleys, and Australia’s Coonawarra and Margaret River regions. Of course, Bordeaux is the home of this noble grape, and the benchmark Cabernet-based wines, but the Masters competition was primarily a New World tasting, simply because it is focused on unblended examples, which one rarely finds in Europe. Nevertheless, there were notable Cabs from the Old World, surprises even.

The judges

Patrick Schmitt MW
David Round MW
Keith Isaacs MW
Richard Bampfield MW
Patricia Stefanowicz MW
Clement Robert MS

Two Gold medal-winners in particular highlighted the value of this type of competition – tasting the wines blind without knowledge of source country does allow lesser-known regions to shine. Consequently, among this year’s top scorers were wines from Turkey’s Thrace and Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha. Furthermore, a theme noted last year, and continuing in 2016’s tasting was the quality of Cabernet from Argentina, a country far more famous for its Malbecs, but crafting beautiful wines from Cabernet too. If, however, one were to select a single country where the Cabernets were consistently good across all price points, it would undoubtedly be Chile. Here is a nation that manages to serve up a typically juicy Cabernet character at £10, and, at higher prices, deliver the grape’s potential for making structured, complex, age-worthy reds too.
Cabernet_Sauvignon_2016_eva-photography_IMG_7740-EditLightness of touch

However, to move away from the sources of accomplished Cabernet, and looked at the winemaking approaches, it was evident after this year’s tasting that cellar techniques aren’t too heavy handed. While there were instances of slightly harsh tannins from crude extraction techniques, the judges were impressed at the high number of smooth, polished wines in this year’s competition. The other criticism that tends to plague Cabernet-based wines is the use of too much oak. Exposure to young barriques in large quantities can yield a grainy drying sensation on the palate, while smothering Cabernet’s attractive perfume due to the vanillin from the wood. But, for the most part, the wines in this year’s Masters tasting displayed a level of oak that complemented the flavour and structure of the Cabernet, rather than overwhelming the grape. And the best entries were a pleasure to assess, leaving one salivating at the thought of the rare sirloin that would partner them perfectly – although it was just water biscuits for the judges. As the results over the following pages show, Cabernet can yield good wines at lower prices, with a clutch of Silver medals awarded below £10 and one Gold medal too, which was given to an example from Chile’s Casas del Toqui.

Between £10 and £15, Chile once more picked up a Gold, this time for the price-competitive and highly-respected Cabernet specialists from Colchagua Valley, Siegel Family Wines. But even at these lower prices there was a wine from California that took home a Gold. Called The Bridge, the wine is a collaboration between South Africa’s Ken Forrester and America’s Jesse Katz, and uses grapes grown in the Alexander Valley. While, proving that this may be a sweet spot price-wise for good Cabernet from Argentina, there were no fewer than five Silver medals awarded to this single nation between £10-15 (if one includes varietal and blended Cabs) and two from one winery in particular, El Esteco.

Jump in quality

Over £20 though, there was a step change in the quality of Cabernet. Even before we had moved into the £30-plus category we had exceptional examples from Columbia Valley, with the Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet, as well as Miguel Torres’s top wine from Chile, the Manso de Velasco, and Aresti’s Family Collection, also from Chile, and the same region – both of these Cabs were from the Curicó Valley. Within the £20-30 price range there was also a Spanish Cabernet, although it is perhaps no surprise that it achieved a Gold – this was from Marqués de Griñón, a producer that sources its grapes from the prized Dominio de Valdepusa vineyard in Castilla-La Mancha, which, at over 1,000ft, is one of the highest in Spain. In the same price band, but in the blended Cabernet category, was the wonderful Finis Terrae from one of Chile’s oldest wineries, Maipo’s Viña Cousiño Macul. At £30 and above we had yet more great wines from Chile, including perennial high-performer Casa Real from Santa Rita’s oldest Cabernet vineyards in the Alto Maipo, and the Jackson Family’s Hawkeye Mountain from the Alexander Valley. Both of these Cabs received the ultimate accolade of Master.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin. Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining over 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze. The wines were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers on 14 April at the Tramshed in Shoreditch, London. This report only features the medal winners.

Aiming high

Australia also confirmed its ability to craft Cabernets great enough to command high prices, dominating the top medals for wines priced £30-£50. Notably good examples hailed from the Bird in Hand winery, which uses grapes from Adelaide Hills, and Terre à Terre, a project from husband and wife Xavier Bizot and Lucy Croser (daughter of Brian Croser) that takes its Cab exclusively from the Crayères vineyard in Wrattonbully. Wines from both the Barossa and Margaret River also took home Golds in the blended category from producers Château Tanunda and Cape Mentelle, respectively, while we were excited to unearth an equally high-quality example in this category from Turkey – The Chamlija Cab from the country’s Thrace wine region. Finally, over £50, California showed its skill with top-end Cab.

As one might expect, Napa-based Stag’s Leap wine Cellars gained a Gold, which was earned for its Cabernet from the Fay vineyard. In the blends category, Frank Family was gloriously awarded a Master for its Napa Cab called Reserve Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, while, showing the quality potential of Californian Cabernet in Paso Robles too, Justin was given a Gold for its rich and ripe Isosceles. In short, the tasting confirmed the superiority of New World Cab-centric regions such as Napa and Maipo, while highlighting the quality potential in areas less well known for this grape, whether it’s Mendoza, Castilla- La Mancha or, the real surprise this year, Thrace. db

Click through for a full round-up of medal-winning wines…

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