There are four of us at Contentious Character and, in some ways, we’re like a blended family ourselves. The two couples bring their own special qualities to the blend. And, unfortunately, also some traits we’re not quite so proud of but it keeps things interesting here at our vineyard in the Canberra region.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a happy blended family of grapes - but it happened all by itself. Back in the 1600s, the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc had a dangerous liaison in Bordeaux and produced a child. If someone had not thoughtfully taken a cutting, the blend would have disappeared altogether. And what a shame that would've been; a world without the 'king of grapes'.
Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the most loved and popular red variety in the world (merlot drinkers might like to contest that).
The beginnings of cabsav in Australian wine
Cabernet Sauvignon first graced Australian soil in the 19th century with the oldest surviving vineyard being the Penfolds Block 42 in the Barossa, planted in 1885.
It is known affectionately in Australia as 'cabsav', even though cabsav sounds like a taxi with GPS or a dish with red sausages. The important thing is that we all know what we mean by it; it’s a 'big, full-bodied bold red'.
The characteristics and profile of Cabernet Sauvignon
You may have heard of the Cabernet 'donut'. This refers to cabsav hitting the front of the palate with its fruit flavours before skipping to a lingering medium acidity and tannin on the back of the palate.
Here are some other words to describe cabsav (besdies "big, full-bodied bold red") at your next wine tasting so you can flaunt your oenophile knowledge:
COLOUR: typically darker and deeper than a Merlot
FRUIT: Black cherry, black currant and blackberry
OTHER: Black pepper, cedar, licorice, tobacco, vanilla
OAK: Loves 9-18 months in French oak.
ACIDITY: Medium, can linger on the tongue
BLENDS: It blends well with Bordeaux wines Italian Supertuscans
And in fact, the style of Cabernet Sauvignon depends on how ripe the grapes are at harvest:
- Unripe grapes are high in pyrazines, so they taste more like green capsicum and vegetation (and actually, cool-climate wineries like those in the Canberra region are known to produce cabsavs with this profile)
- Ripe grapes are fruity with blackcurrants and black cherries and when overripe, can taste jammy
“What does cabsav go with?”
Many people will say that cabsav begs to be paired with food, because it is heavier wine. If you’re sharing our view from here in the Canberra region, we think it pairs well with our woodfired mushroom pizza (add tomato sauce for a REALLY good time). Cabernet Sauvignon also goes with a juicy marinated ribeye steak.
This is because cabsavs are generally quite complex wines so they go well with foods that are high in fats and that 'umami' flavour which roughly translates to a 'pleasant savoury flavour' (hence why mushrooms and red meat are our go-to's).
Which wine regions are known for their Cabernet Sauvignon?
This happily blended family is the world's most widely planted grape. This is likely due to its strong, hardy nature, thanks to its thick skin and the fact it ripens later in the vintage to avoid frost and rot. It is an adaptable grape that even grows well in a desert (though we'd never call the Canberra region that!).
Look for cabsav from South America, Lebanon, Long Island, New York and Chile. When it comes to Australian wine, you can find complex and subtle cabsav in the Coonawarra, Margaret River, Hilltops in NSW and, of course, Canberra (specifically in the rolling hills of Wamboin).
The most expensive cabsav would have set you back a cool half-a-million US dollars at auction. It’s a Screaming Eagle 1992 from the famous Napa Valley. One wine connoisseur described it as “exceptionally impressive”, and we are sure he meant the wine...
One contentious character was actually served cabsav at his inauguration. We’re talking about none other than Donald Trump. He was fortunate enough to be poured the Delicato Black Stallion 2012 Limited Release (again from the Napa Valley). But it was wasted on him: Donald Trump, like George Bush, is teetotal.
Unlike Trump, Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety that can age gracefully for many decades.
At Contentious Character, we’ve taken our blended family a little further. We blend our cabsav with Merlot (and evenwith a hint of Shiraz) and our latest release makes for quite the sumptuous drink. So the next time you're in the Canberra region, come out to the rolling hills of Wamboin and enjoy a tasting at our cellar door (wine tasting menu here).
As we publish this, Christmas is next month. *Jaw drop*. It feels like we literally just took down the tree but then again, it also feels like we're stuck in March so who really cares! What we should care about are the Christmas parties. More than any year before, we all need a Christmas party that'll get us feeling jolly and that'll warm our hearts and stomachs. Well, look no further. We're ready to have you.
A fellow vigneron and old friend of mine, who happens to be French, once arrogantly said to me, ‘Wine Awards are like haemorrhoids, sooner or later everyone gets one’.
I never thought much of it until we signed the papers to buy Lambert Vineyards and launched Contentious Character. Since then I’ve noticed many wineries cover their bottles in stickers pronouncing they’ve won this or that gold, silver or bronze.
And then the emails started coming in with invitations; invitations to enter international shows, national shows, state shows, city shows like the Sydney Royal Wine show, regional shows, small vigneron shows, cool climate shows, fortified wine shows, gender shows like the Australian Wine Women of the Year and the Young Gun of Wine awards and varietal shows like the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. In fact, there are over 100 shows in Australia alone.
HOW THE AUSSIES SCORE
The Australian system of medals and trophies awards wines out of 20 points. Only one trophy a year is awarded, making it a real winner. But medals are not like the Olympic gold, silver, bronze system. They are more like school grading; any wine that scores over the baseline earns a gold, silver or bronze medal. A bronze medal on a bottle of wine doesn't mean it's the third best wine in its category; it just means the judges found it drinkable.
Classes are another thing. Shows can have hundreds of classes. Is a trophy for 'best shiraz under $10' class worth more than a gold medal in the 'best shiraz under $25' class? A double gold is when all judges agree the wine deserves a gold medal and the increasingly prevalent blue-gold medal indicates they judged the wine with food. This, to me, is the superior way to judge a wine!
It's important to keep in mind thought ath just because a bottle has no medal, trophy or points doesn’t mean anything except it was never entered into a show. Judges at big shows taste hundreds of wines a day, so their palette could be muddied. 'Wine fatigue' means bigger, bolder wines are likely to win the top prizes so if you're a fan of softer, more elegant wine, medal winners might not suit your taste anyway.
HOW THE YANKS DO IT
Here's how to interpret it:
- Scores of 95 to 100 are highly recommended wines — 98 is fantastic
- 99 and 100 are rare, but occasionally awarded to particularly good vintages
- Anything above 90 is still classed as outstanding
- 85 to 89 is very good
- 80 to 84 creates your baseline for a good wine, which you’ll reach for again
- 75 to 79 is the condescending 'drinkable' category
- Everything below is generally not recommended.
While some wineries will put their scores out of 100 on the bottle, they most likely won't bother unless it's over 90. This may be a better indicator of a recommended wine than the medal system.
With all this in mind, Contentious Character chose a select group of medal and point-based awards to enter as a starting point for our award journey. James Halliday Wine Companion was the first to pass judgement on four of our wines.
With the scores below, we’re feeling chuffed enough to make a fuss like all the others. The detailed notes are available in the 2020 and 2021 Halliday Wine Companion.
- 90 for our 2018 Pinot Gris
- 90 for our 2019 Pinot Grigio
- 90 for our 2019 Rose
- 92 for our 2016 Riesling
- 92 for 2017 Chardonnay
- 93 for our 2016 Shiraz
- 94 for our 2017 Riesling
Some of our Founders Museum wines (as far back as the 2001 vintage) also won awards back in their heyday. And I’ve noted with interest some awarded wines are still drinking exceptionally well so perhaps there is something in the awards business after all.
Is that a little itch I feel down around my bottom?
One of the wonderful things about wine is their evocative French names. Pinot is a variant of pineau, which means these grapes are tightly packed like a pine cone and noir, of course, describes their black-blue berries.
The most famous pinot noirs come from Burgundy in east-central France. Pinot noir prefers a cool climate, because too much heat makes the grapes ripen too quickly and lose their full flavour and aroma.
You may be surprised to know that parts of Canberra provide the perfect cool climate for these tantalising grapes. (Madeline Triffon once called Pinot Noir “sex in a glass”.)
Canberra has a continental climate where there is a big difference between the coldest and hottest months. Like Burgundy, Canberra has high temperatures in midsummer and plenty of sunshine, while the autumns are long and cool. Even cold snaps in February or March help give these grapes an enviable balance of acid and sugar and plenty of time to develop their delightful flavours.
You may have enjoyed pinot noir from other cool regions of Australia. Mornington Peninsula, Tamania, Gippsland and Bellarine Peninsula (home to the By Farr label) are a few. New Zealand also has the terroir or “sense of place” for pinot noir – that magic blend of climate, soil, aspect and je ne sais quoi. Across the ocean, northern Italians, cooler Californians, Chileans and Argentines also play host to the blushing blue pinot.
How will I know?
What are the special characteristics of a pinot noir?
- Look for a pale, translucent colour
- Taste cranberry, cherry and raspberry with others like mushroom, wet leaves or caramel
- Place in French Oak barrels
- Age for 2 to 18 years, depending on style
- Serve cool to touch.
Many people ask if they can cellar their favourite wines. In fact, many wines that can be aged come from lofty vineyards and cool climates like Canberra. Pinot noir ages well and develops game, truffle and earthy characters (a bit like us).
Should you wish to buy the most expensive pinot noir, you can spend $15,000 for a 30-year-old from Burgundy, the 1985 Richebourg Brand Cru. If your needs are a tad more humble, you could choose a Te Wahi Pinot Noir, Central Otago, 2014 for $65.
Luckily for you, we have a Contentious Character Pinot Noir, Canberra cool climate, vintage 2006 for $33. You may want to enjoy it with a whole salmon or a richer meat, like venison or duck. Or you could just put it away for a day when you’re pining.