Red wine

Australian Cabernet and Shiraz: telling them apart

I used constantly to confuse these two major Australian varieties until I focussed obsessively on structure and texture of the wines. Although there are innumerable different styles of each in this huge country, I have found the following general tips helpful to think about when trying to distinguish between the two.

  • Texture: Australian Shiraz has a plush texture. It’s velvety smooth, and on the mid palate almost feels like you’re surfing a wave of fruit. By contrast, Cabernet texture is grainier, both in terms of tannins and in terms of fruit.

  • Tannins: You don’t often hear it said, but Syrah as a variety has some of the finest quality tannins out there, texturally. Australian examples are great exemplars: there’s a velvety texture to the tannins which underscores the velvety quality to the fruit. Cabernet meanwhile is far more fine grained and very slightly woody.

  • Shape of the wine on the palate: Cabernet from Australia (as everywhere else) is typically linear and directional - it’s really going somewhere. Shiraz is round and full with a focus on the tongue rather than the edges of the mouth (as with Cabernet). This contributes to the effect that you’re sinking into a big cushion of fruit when you’re tasting Shiraz.

  • Other features: Cabernet is still often made as a medium bodied variety across Australia, and especially in Western Australia. Of course there are bigger scale examples in south eastern Australia, but increasingly, these are becoming the exception. Shiraz, by contrast, remains a full bodied variety in most regions of Australia, unless very conscious winemaking decisions have been taken to the contrary. Cabernet can be gently leafy (not herbaceous), especially from Western Australia, while many Shiraz still have the classic blueberry pie notes. Eucalyptus can be found in almost any red variety in Australia so does not help you.

A few thoughts on Brunello subzones

Presenting the new 2014 Brunello vintage in New York this week gave me the opportunity to stop and ponder how best to think about the different subzones of Montalcino.

For a long time Montalcino has resisted having their wines understood in terms of subzones, not only because they did not want to create a hierarchy of better or lesser sites, but because, in very practical terms, many of the older wineries still have vineyards in very different parts of the appellation. In difficult years like 2014, this is a blessing for blending purposes, rather than having to rely on a single site.

But, many small new estates are popping up which are reliant on single sites. For that reason, it makes sense to at least try and understand the characters of the different subzones. This work has been nobly undertaken by Kerin O’Keefe and Walter Speller, among others. The notes below are cribbed from Kerin O’Keefe’s wonderful Brunello book and confirmed by my tastings this week.

  • Montalcino South: immediately around the town to the south. This is the most historic part of the appellation and contains many leading producers. High altitude (up to 500m), thin soils, big diurnal shifts ensures slow ripening. Elegant, complex, mid-weight, perfumed wines. [Leading producers: Biondi-Santi, Conti Costanti, Barbi, Brunelli, Salicutti, Cerbaiona]

  • Montalcino North: down the northern slopes away from the town. Cooler region at slightly lower altitudes than those in Montalcino South (although there are a huge variety of altitudes and sites in this large area). Generally a more earthy style and often with considerable tannic structure (e.g. from around Canalicchio). Includes the top single site in Montalcino, Montosoli. From here the wines combine elegance and power. [Fuligni, Marroneto, Canalicchio (di Sopra), Le Chiuse, Il Paradiso di Manfredi, Pertimali Livio Sassetti, Capanna, Altesino, Val di Suga]

  • Tavernelle: south and west of the town at 300-350m with good diurnal variation. Rocky soils. Easier ripening than further upslope. Classic styles of Brunello are found here. [Case Basse-Soldera, Santa Restituta (Gaja), Caprili]

  • Camigliano: further west than Tavernelle.  Rather a low lying area, down as low as 130m.  Warmer and drier than higher up, ensuring good ripeness.  Lower acid, higher alcohol wines approachable upon release.  Includes CastelGiaconda which is second largest producer. [CastelGiaconda, Pian delle Vigne]

  • Castelnuovo dell’Abate: south east of town, around the abbey of Sant’Antimo.  200-450m, vineyards facing south and west - excellent growing conditions.  Cooler than Sant’Angelo to the west.  Wines are earthy, elegant, powerful but graceful, although this region is starting to warm and risks becoming too hot at lower altitudes.

  • Sant’Angelo: in south and south west of the zone, dominated by large wineries: Poggione, Argiano, Col d’Orcia and Banfi.  Up to 40% of all Brunello comes from here.  More Mediterranean conditions: lower rainfall and hotter temperatures than further north and upslope.  Faster ripening - crop harvested up to two weeks earlier, not helped by climate change.  But higher in the sub zone - around Sant’Angelo in Colle, excellent wines can be made (e.g. Lisini and Il Poggione and Col d’Orcia’s wonderful single vineyard, Poggio al Vento), which show depth and structure but with finesse.  From lower parts, the wines are often darker in color and higher in alcohol.

  • Bosco and Torrenieri: small regions.  Bosco is in far north west of the zone, a cool part; only two wineries [Silvio Nardi and Castiglion del Bosco]; generally less powerful wines.  Torrenieri is in far north east of the zone on clay soils.  Can be very tannic, but wines really improving and much more elegant now.  [SassodiSole, Innocenti].

Malbec: blind tasting tips

Malbec is one of those varieties that can be hard to spot just because it’s yet another full bodied, tannic red.  How do you distinguish it from Cabernet or Shiraz or more powerful styles of Tempranillo?  The good news is that when you know what to look for, Malbec is relatively easy to spot.  

The first thing to say is that while the tips below are valid across different regions of origin for Malbec, if you have a French example from Cahors, you can generally expect a more savory profile than in Argentina. Cahors is one of the most savory of all French reds.

As usual, the most reliable way of identifying Malbec is via its tannic structure.  Malbec is almost always a variety which shows high tannin.  What else can we add?

  • The tannin is powerful, rustic and is often rather coarse

  • Because Malbec is a Bordeaux variety, the tannin is felt around the edge of the mouth

  • More specifically, the tannin is felt on the hinge of the jaw

  • A classic sensation with young Malbec is the ‘lockjaw’ sensation: it’s hard even to open your mouth after swallowing because the tannins glue themselves to the jaw so much

Other noteworthy attributes of Malbec:

  • You expect a wine of this weight and concentration to be black fruited.  But often Malbec is RED fruited, specifically with a raspberry scent

  • In spite of that sweet red fruit on the nose and on the front of the palate, it finishes very dry.  A sweet start with a dry finish is quite unusual and distinctive, especially when the wine is not from Europe

  • There is a distinct dried tobacco note on nose and on finish

Ultimately, Malbec is (was) a Bordeaux variety. That means it’s built on tannins. Focus on that and you’ll improve your chances of spotting it correctly.

Mencia: key identifiers

Mencia is an increasingly common Spanish red variety both at retail and in the on-trade. But most of us are not as familiar with it as we are with more commonly found Spanish reds: Tempranillo from Rioja and Ribera and Garnacha from Priorat. (I always think of these as the ‘big three’ of Spanish red wine, but don’t forget about the Monastrell wines from Jumilla and Yecla. Other Spanish reds may be too obscure for a blind tasting exam).

What is Mencia like? The best way to learn is to taste for yourself, and one classic is the inexpensive J. Palacios Petalos; it’s a benchmark example of Bierzo.

When you’re tasting you might want to consider the following attributes I have consistently noted across different examples of the variety.

  • Medium bodied, moderate alcohol (13-13.5%)

  • Moderate, fresh acidity

  • Juicy red fruit character

  • A spicy or peppery quality to the fruit

  • Moderate levels of chalky tannins

  • Velvety texture - this is a good example of a variety where the texture of the tannins is quite different from the texture of the fruit

  • Put the last two points together and you begin to understand why a common confusion is with Right Bank Bordeaux: a St. Emilion kind of chalkiness and a velvety red fruit character…

  • …but the location of the tannins is different. Rather than being around the edge of the mouth, as you expect in any Bordeaux variety, here they are in the cheeks (just like they are for Tempranillo, incidentally - cheek tannins are a pointer for Spain)

  • You sometimes find that distinctly Spanish note on the finish: torrefaction. That is, a slight roasted or even toffee character to the finish. Very Spanish!