The Great Australian Red Wine: Cabernet-Shiraz

Posted on Feb 23, 2022


barossa valley wine

A beautiful old shiraz vine.

This month the #WorldWineTravel group is discussing South Australian Reds. During an AdVINEture to Adelaide in 2019, we tasted several wines and a particular blend stood out for us: Cabernet-Shiraz.

Shiraz is Australia’s most planted viniferous grape variety and if popularity or reputation has anything to do with quality, it is also Australia’s best. But is that general truism really as accurate as many would think? Time perhaps to have a look at Cabernet-Shiraz, the blend that by certain rights might be more deserving of the Greatest Australian Red Wine title.

The Parts

Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon have similarities and they have differences as well.

barosssa valley australia

Shiraz vineyards in the Barossa Valley.

Shiraz tends to be the fruitier of the two, structured but generally less tannic, fleshy and full, showing black and blue fruits with plenty of black pepper notes and smokiness too. Cabernet Sauvignon is not as dark in colour and shows black cherry fruit and currant flavours with big tannin leading to a firm structure. The grapes look different as well. Shiraz grapes and leaves are larger than Cabernet Sauvignon and the grapes are slightly darker in colour.

Both Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown successfully in Australia, and they are the number one and number two most planted varieties respectively. On their own, each is capable of becoming a delicious wine, and in more than a few cases, a world class wine. So then why blend them?

The Whole

The answer is that sometimes the sum of the parts can be exceeded by the whole they create.

Cabernet sauvignon grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes early in the growing season.

You might be thinking: “Really? Aren’t both Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon big wines? Don’t you blend together wines with differing qualities, to fill in with one variety what another lacks? Wouldn’t blending two dark, tannic wines together just create a super beast?”. Though all are good questions, the answer will probably surprise you.

Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes described as the “doughnut wine” for having a hole in the middle. An aggressive attack can sometimes be followed by a mid-palate that lacks presence. This is often remedied by blending Merlot in whose soft, plush characteristics can fill out the wine. In very warm years (increasingly the case due to climate change), Shiraz can ferment to high alcohol levels and take on a size that is simply too big for many palates. Blending the two often arrives at a happy medium where the finished wine has balanced proportions; good, full body (without going over the top) matched by adequate structure (but not too firm) as well as the additional complexity that having more than one variety brings to a blend.

Look at the Record

South Australia has produced many world-class wines and it will probably come as a surprise to learn just how much of a role Cabernet-Shiraz has played in developing that reputation.

The most iconic Australian wine would be Penfolds Grange.

2005 Chablis

1991 Penfolds Grange

Grange was the brainchild of then-winemaker Max Shubert. In 1951, having toured various wineries in Europe, Shubert returned to Australia determined to make a wine of his own that could stand on the world stage next to the best wines he tasted in Europe. Grange was created through a decade of experiments and the final result that went commercial in 1960 was a blend of predominately Shiraz with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. To this day Grange continues to have small amounts of Cab in the blend. Shubert made many other outstanding wines during his tenure at Penfolds. Even more awarded than Grange, and purportedly Shubert’s own favourite wine, was his 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A. Medals from wine competitions are a huge part of Australian wine culture, being roughly the equivalent of the American obsession with wine scores. Penfolds submitted its main blend, the 1962 Bin 60, a Shiraz-dominant blend with lesser portions of Cabernet Sauvignon into a major competition. It also submitted the experimental 1962 Bin 60A, which reversed the proportions and was Cabernet-dominant. The 60A swept the competition becoming Penfolds winningest wine ever.

Famed Australian wine writers Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer wanted to recognize and celebrate the blend they feel is the flagbearer of Australian wine. In 2006, they created The Great Australian Red as a competition to judge the top Australian blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. The prestige of this award and the level of competition is a testament to the quality of the Cabernet-Shiraz concept.

South Australia

2003 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Sauvignon

There are many great Cabernet-Shiraz blends coming out of South Australia. Some of the more notable wines include Yalumba Caley (careful! This sells for $350!); Glaetzer Godolphin; Penfolds Bin 389; Jacob’s Creek Johann; Yalumba The Signature; Wolf Blass Black Label; and Pepperjack Certified Shiraz-Cabernet. What the style shares as a signature is rich, dark fruit supported by moderate tannin structure that is quite drinkable right out of the gate yet capable of lasting 15 years or longer. Power and richness from the Shiraz combine with structure and elegance from the Cabernet to create a wine that is balanced, approachable and one that most tasters will find delicious.

Allister Ashmead

For this article we decided to taste the Cabernet-Shiraz from one of our favourite South Australia wineries: Elderton Wines located in the Barossa Valley. We visited them in 2019 and had a fascinating tour and tasting with owner and winemaker Allister Ashmead. One of our favourites from that tasting was their Cabernet-Shiraz blend, the Ode to Lorraine. Dedicated to the family matriarch Lorraine Ashmead, this wine blew us away, being every bit as good as their higher end Ashmead Cabernet Sauvignon or Command Shiraz and rivalling other Australian wines at 2 and 3 times the price. A terrific example of a delicious wine style that flies largely under the radar.

Tasting Note

2015 Elderton Ode to Lorraine

Barossa Valley wine

2015 Ode to Lorraine

A blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Shiraz and 5% Merlot, Elderton’s Ode to Lorraine is a brilliant balance of both dominant varieties. The nose leans toward Cabernet notes with earth, currant, mint along with a hint of spice that jumped out of the bottle immediately upon opening. The Shiraz characteristics shine in its full-bodied palate revealing juicy blueberry and red fruits. This is a plush, powerful wine but very well-structured showing lots of ageing potential. Super complex with an incredibly long finish, this wine is smooth and approachable now, but is likely going to get even better with a few more years in the cellar.

Excellent+

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To read the other articles related to this month’s topic, please refer to the links below:

  • Gwendolyn Lawrence Alley of Wine Predator is hosting this month and provides an introduction to age worthy Shiraz + an invitation to join the Twitter chat on Saturday February 26th
  • Robin Renken of Crushed Grape Chronicles takes a look at ‘Cabernet from Coonawarra & Fortified Shiraz from McLaren Vale’
  • Jeff Burrows of Food Wine Click! reveals ‘Riverland Surprises in South Australia’
  • Camilla Mann of Culinary Adventures with Cam goes ‘Beyond Shiraz in South Australia with Dagwood Dogs, Rissoles, and a Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon’
  • Wendy Klik of A Day in the Life on a Farm is ‘Visiting South Australia; Home to one of Australia’s Oldest Wineries’
  • Cindy Lowe Rynning of Grape Experiences is exploring ‘Powerful, Prestigious Barossa Valley Shiraz’
  • Linda Whipple of My Full Wine Glass takes a look at Barossa Shiraz from ‘All the Land Around’
  • Terri Steffes of Our Good Life pairs ‘Penfold’s Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet and Busy Day Soup’
  • Nicole Ruiz Hudson of Somm’s Table is ‘Splurging with Penfold’s Bin 389 and Oxtail Stew’
  • Susannah Gold of Avvinare takes us back to her ‘Barossa Valley Memories’

8 Comments

  1. sulamarketing23@gmail.com'

    Great to see Cabernet Sauvignon has been widely popular not just in Australia but across the world. Good work

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  2. nicoleruizhudson@gmail.com'

    I love the take here on exploring the history of the blend itself, and having explored one myself this month, I absolutely see how the two grapes benefit each other. Thanks for sharing a few more options to explore!

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  3. wendyklik1517@gmail.com'

    I haven’t heard of Elderton but I am all for a wonderful big blend so I will look them up.

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  4. lbwhipple@gmail.com'

    This is a convincing argument for the notion that the sum is greater than the parts – especially when one grape makes up for what the other lacks. Wonder if producers in other regions will catch on?

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  5. lwg.mine@gmail.com'

    We’ve had many CS here and from other places that are like what you describe, aggressive but lacking. Penfolds 389 is my ah-ha wine with these two grapes (will tell you the story in person!). Glad to meet Elderton and hope to taste it one day!

    Post a Reply
    • We look forward to hearing it (in person!). We have no doubt you would love Elderton wines and if you can find the Ode to Lorraine, don’t hesitate!

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  6. Robin@crushedgrapechronicles.com'

    What a fascinating region and a great blend. You know I don’t drink much in the way of Cab, so the “hole in the middle” was enlightening to me. A blending of these two grapes makes so much sense!

    Post a Reply
    • We love the blend, best of both wine worlds in our estimation! And if you can find any Elderton wines in your area (not just Ode to Lorraine) we highly recommend!

      Post a Reply

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