May 7, 2018
Wonderful things happen when great varieties collide. Like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
There is a lot of history behind the mix. In order to understand what makes the perfect bottle of Cabernet and Shiraz, it’s important to know a little bit about its origins, why it was once referred to as claret (and why we should no longer call it that), and the reason the combination works so well.
In a nutshell, it’s a bit like a jigsaw. The two just fit.
You may have heard Cabernet referred to as a doughnut wine. This is because it sometimes has a ‘hole’ in its mid-palate. Take a sip. The front of your palate is hit with fruit flavour and the back with lingering flavour and tannin.
This leaves a hollow sensation in the middle of the tongue. Winemakers sometimes blend Cabernet with other grapes to smooth gaps in the flavour profile.
“There’s a view long held in Australian wine circles that the invention of our unique Cabernet and Shiraz wine style is due to the deficiency in the former: the inability of Cabernet to make great wine” our winemaker Kevin ‘KG’ Glastonbury says.
“I think that may have been the case in the 1960s and 1970s when Cabernet was still fairly new and we were picking it around early. The wines were probably lean and a little hollow. But I wouldn’t say that of contemporary Cabernet.”
Barossa is celebrated for Shiraz and the Coonawarra for Cabernet Sauvignon. Shiraz delivers peppery, smoky, spicy, meaty aromas. On the nose, Cabernet Sauvignon has hints of blackberry, cassis, leather, mint and eucalyptus. If it’s made from under-ripe grapes you may also pick up herbaceous and green capsicum notes.
The combination of the two doesn’t fix varietal deficiencies. “It’s a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole,” KG says. “It’s about the marriage of two varieties that creates a whole new wine.”
Many Australians refer to the blend as claret but the term claret actually refers to any red table wine produced in the Bordeaux region.
The term claret or clairet dates back to the 16th century. In medieval France most red wine was the result of short fermentation and limited skin contact. These pale, easily digestible reds were exported from Bordeaux and known as vinum clarum, vin clar or clairet. The British coined the term claret and the rest is history.
Being a popular red wine favoured by French royalty claret rose in popularity with Britain’s upper class.
According to The Economist’s piece Hedonism and Claret, Britain's first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole used navy ships to smuggle his favourite claret from France during the early 1700s. In fact, he is said to have spent over £1,200 (£100,000 or $184,677 today) on his annual wine bill.
Australia eventually ‘borrowed’ the term claret to describe blends of Cabernet and Shiraz, the combination favoured by the Australian wine collective (growers, makers and consumers) for more than two centuries.
Here at Yalumba, we made claret in the 1880s and shipped it to India to be enjoyed by the British Raj.
When our founder Samuel Smith’s third generation grandson Fred Caley Smith – the name sake of our recently released The Caley Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz – visited his relatives in Mussorie, India in 1894, they shared a bottle of Yalumba Claret – one of the winery’s early Cabernet Shiraz blends. When Australian soldiers returned home from World War I, they toasted their victory with it, too.
Australian winemakers and consumers gradually caught on. In 1890, French winemaker Edmund Mazure (credited with also making the first Sparkling Burgundy at Auldana Cellars in Adelaide’s foothills) started his own cellar Romalo and made a fine Cabernet-Shiraz Claret. The blend was also popular at Chateau Reynella in the Southern Vales of Adelaide.
While we do it well, Australia can’t take the credit for the successful marriage between Cabernet and Shiraz.
French scientist Dr Jules Guyot was influential in the blending of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in Provence in the 1860s. While the practice of Hermitaging – adding Northern Rhone Syrah to Bordeaux Cabernet – caught on, it was not for long. Europe’s Appellation system put an end to all that.
On 6 May, 1919 the French Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin ‘appellation d'origine contrôlée’ was passed, and Appellation was born.
This specified the region and commune in which a wine must be made. In particular, it made multi-regional and multi-varietal blending of wine grapes illegal.
Never again would Cabernet from Bordeaux and Syrah from the Rhone come together in the bottle. A sad day for Europe, but a wonderful opportunity for Australia.
Free from the shackles of Appellation, Australian winemakers can mix and match however they please.
“Our very Australian-ness is captured in the pragmatism of so many of Australia’s early wines,” Yalumba’s own fifth-generation proprietor Robert Hill-Smith says.
“When we blended Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz – as we very happily did – we called it claret to describe a dry red with a firm finish. They were lyrical creations that were about the wine, not the rules.”
At Yalumba, we have long pushed the Cabernet Shiraz blend. In 1962 we launched The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, using 100% Barossa grapes. Four years later, former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies announced that the Yalumba 1961 Galway Vintage Reserve Special Claret was “the best red wine” he’d tasted.
The blend continued to garner praise.
In 1974 we created a Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend known as Fine Dry Red 1A (FDR1A). It was praised for its fruit expression, restrained power and viticultural craftsmanship.
The small bottling became a legend in winemaking circles and it accumulated a collection of three trophies and 21 gold medals at some of the most prominent wine shows around the country. Our FDR1A Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz was re-introduced in 2000, its distinctive point of difference being its Eden Valley provenance.
As respect for the blend grew, the name game continued, and in 1994 the EU decided Australia could no longer have some of the oenological freedoms it had come to expect.
The demand was that if Australia wanted to sell wines in Europe it had to be on a level playing field – firstly, it had to come up with its own Appellation-style regional naming system (Geographical Indications as they became known) to prove where the wine came from. Secondly, it could no longer use European names to describe Australian wines.
Ironically claret (and clairet) were never French regional names like Burgundy, Chablis or Champagne. They were, however, deemed “Traditional European Expressions” so their use was banned in the non-French world, along with tawny and vintage port, fino, amontillado and oloroso sherry.
Goodbye Aussie “claret”.
Names aside, we kept drinking the blend. In 2006 UK wine writer and judge Matthew Jukes and Australian wine writer Tyson Stelzer founded The Great Australian Red wine competition. It has since become the only international benchmark of Cabernet Shiraz (or Shiraz Cabernet depending on the dominant percentage) and 100-plus entries every year illustrates the breadth of the style across regions and price points.
More than a decade later, Cabernet Shiraz is again receiving the praise it deserves.
Give it a try. Start with a glass or two of the FDR1A Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz matched with a cheese plate of Époisses and cheddar, follow it up with a beef Wellington and The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz (or Portobello mushroom burgers for vegetarians) and let the good, blended times roll.