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Unmasking the Flavours of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, Margaret River, and Bordeaux in a Blind Tasting

Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Margaret River

Ever wondered how Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River, Australia, stacks up against its counterparts from Napa Valley, US, and Bordeaux? 

I recently threw this query to the knowledgeable bunch at Whistler’s Blind – a cool group of trade professionals, all WSET Level 2 in Wines graduates. 

To unravel the mystery, I organized a special wine tasting featuring three Cabernet Sauvignons hailing from these iconic wine regions. In this post, I’ll walk you through the wines we sampled, our approach to the blind tasting, and spill the beans on the results. Let’s uncork the details!

Setting the Stage

As this was a WSET Level 2 in Wines (intermediate), I first set the stage. I told the group that we were tasting 3 Cabernet Sauvginon-based wines.

Then, I even told them where these wines were from. We had one from Napa Valley, United States; one from Margaret River, in Western Australia and one wine from Bordeaux, in France.

Next, we reviewed the different climates (see below) of each of these regions and how we might predict the wines might smell and taste.

Finally, I asked them to identify which one was the wine from Bordeaux. I also told them, I didn’t expect them to be able to tell the difference between the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon because they had similarly warm climates.

Finally, I asked the group to rank the wines in terms of quality. I asked them to make arguments using the WSET BLIC (Balance, Length, Intensity of Flavour/ Indicative of its Type / and Complexity) as to what the quality levels of these wines are.

 

Theoretical Review

This is what we reviewed before tasting the wines…

Climate:

Margaret River – warm, Meditteranean climate with cool moderating influences from having the ocean on three sides of it. Therefore, expect Cabernet Sauvignon to express ripe and perhaps even extra ripe characteristics. Knowing your vintage is not important for this region as the wines reliably ripen year to year.

Napa Valley – warm, Meditteranean climate with cool moderating influences from fogs that come up through the San Pablo Bay. Therefore, expect Cabernet Sauvignon to express ripe and perhaps even extra ripe characteristics. Drought and fires are a problem. Still, knowing your vintage is not so important for this region as the wines reliably ripen year to year.

Bordeaux – moderate, Meditteranean climate. I bought a wine from the ‘Left Bank as those are generally the ones that are made with predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the vinyeards of the ‘Left Bank’ are protected from the rains of the Atlantic Ocean  by a large pine forest, the Landes. But here, vintage matters! Bordeaux cannot ripen wines reliably from year to year.

What to expect from Cabernet Sauvignon:

Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits red fruit characteristics, such as red plums, at the onset of ripeness. However, in warmer climates or when harvested later in the season, these red plums transform into luscious black fruits. Notably, the grape evolves from textbook notes of blackcurrant or cassis to blackberry, blueberry, and, at peak ripeness, succulent black cherries.

Top-tier Cabernet Sauvignon vines often boast subtle hints of mint or a distinctive gravel minerality.

In the case of high-quality Left Bank Bordeaux, one can anticipate the presence of aromas and flavours reminiscent of pencil shavings.

Moreover, Cabernet Sauvignon (and other Bordelais varieties) often show herbaceous notes. The herbaceous undertones of Cabernet Sauvignon may manifest as green pepper, typically indicative of underripeness. (An exception to this norm is a remarkable wine from Bolivia featuring enticing notes of grilled green pepper.) 

As the grape reaches optimal ripeness, the green pepper notes may shift, eventually maturing into nuanced hints of mint, bay leaf, or a general leafiness. Interestingly, the aromatic profile of Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon is notably marked by the distinctive presence of bay leaf.

 
 
 

Having established the context by examining the climate and anticipated flavour profiles associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, we were ready to delve into the tasting experience with the three wines discreetly concealed in brown paper bags.

The forthcoming tasting notes will adhere to the WSET Level 4 Systematic Approach to Tasting. This method evaluates wines on a scale ranging from Poor, Acceptable, Good, Very Good, to Outstanding. For the convenience of our readers who prefer a points-based system, I’ll also include numerical ratings in the assessment.

Let’s get sipping, shall we?

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, Western Australia 2020

As Margaret River’s inaugural winery, Vasse Felix stands as the epitome of excellence in this region – the very reason for my selection! Nestled in the rugged landscape not far from Perth, Margaret River is renowned for its surfing as well as equally celebrated for its wines. With the unveiling of the 2021 vintage, Vasse Felix commemorates a remarkable 50-year legacy in the art of winemaking!


Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 bottle shot
Tasting note

Medium ruby

Primary aromas: Pronounced intensity developing notes of mostly primary and secondary aromas… violets (floral), blackcurrent, blackerries and black cherries (black fruit). The fruit is mostly ripe with a touch of cooked fruit as well (indicating that this is from a warm climate or a place where growers can leave the grapes hanging long into the growing season). Eucalyptus/ mint and bay leaf dried herbs (bay leaf is almost peppery) (herbaceous). There’s also gravel mineral (other).

Secondary aromas: mostly of new oak barrels – vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Tertiary: slight cooked plum + cooked cherries, and earth but most of this wine is fresh.

The wine is dry, with medium + acidity, medium ripe and smooth tannin, high balanced alcohol and full body.

The flavour intensity is pronounced and offers the same notes as above with the mint shining through more on the palate.

The finish is long.

Conclusions: 

Balance: The high alcohol is balanced by the medium + juicy acidity and the concentration of the fruit flavours. 

Length: Long finish on the wine

Intensity of flavours and Indicativeness of its type: This wine has pronounced flavours and aromas that are well defined. It showcases exactly what we expect from a ripe Cabernet Sauvignon of high quality with its blackcurrent/ black cherry fruit profile, mint and bay leaf. Furthermore, I was excited to smell the bay leaf aroma I associate especially with Margaret River which led me to the place where the grapes are grown.

Complexity: I’d say medium+ in complexity. I would like to revisit this wine after some more aeration or time in bottle to see if I can distinguish more notes. 

This wine is at the high end of Very Good quality. 

It is suitable for bottle ageing due to its concentrated fresh fruit flavours and medium + acidity. Cellar for 10-13 years to gain more complexity or longer if you prefer wines that are quite tertiary.

 

96 points and will definitely go up with some ageing.

The historic town of Napa

Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, US 2018

Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley US, 2018 bottle shot
Tasting note

Medium ruby

Primary: Medium intensity developing aromas of slight violets (floral), blackcurrent, blackberries and blueberries (primary fruit) and the fruits are fresh and ripe suggesting that this is from a warm climate or a vintage where grapes can hang long into the season.. There’s also a leafy herbaceous note indicative of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Secondary: Mostly vanillin with some light baking spices from new oak ageing.

The wine is dry, with medium+ acidity and medium+ fine grained tannin. The alcohol is high (again, warm place or vintage) and balanced with medium + body, and medium + flavour intensity.

On the palate the wine finishes with lots of vanilla.

The finish is medium+ but then the vanilla takes over.

This wine is on the high end of Good.

Balance: The alcohol is balanced by the fruit concentration, and body as well as the medium+ refreshing acidity. The only thing that is out of balance is the oak treatment. Instead of finishing with fruit, the wine finishes with vanilla oak which reduces the wine’s length and tells me that this will become a bigger problem as the wine ages. The slightly heavy oak treatment also masks some of the terroir.

Length: The length just reaches into medium+ when it is taken over by oaky vanilla notes where it ends. But this is still a very good length.

Intensity of flavours/ Indicativeness of its type: The wine has medium intensity aromas of well defined flavours. It is certainly indicative of being a Cabernet Sauvignon with its blackcurrant, blackberry fruit aromas and herbaceous leafiness. However, the oak treatment is a little heavy and masks some of the other flavours I think we’d find with less new oak.

Complexity: the wine has some complexity.

This wine is a good wine. The wine could use some time to soften the medium+ tannin and to gain further complexity. However, the slight overuse of new oak treatment limits the number of years this wine could improve in the cellar.

Suitable for some bottle ageing – but best if drunk within 5 years.

 

88 Points

Château Belgrave Grand Cru Classé Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux, France 2018

Château Belgrave is a well-regarded estate in Haut-Médoc. So, it’s in a northern subregion of Bordeaux yet south of the regional appellation of Médoc. I picked this wine because it’s a recommended pour in WSET Level 2 in Wines and costs less money than wines from the greater appellations further south of for example, Margaux and Pauillac.

 

Château Belgrave Haut-Médoc Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux, France 2018, bottle shot
Tasting note

Medium ruby

Primary: Medium intensity developing aromas of blackberry, blueberry (black fruit), a leafy herbaceousness and slight mint.

Secondary: The wine shows light vanilla, cloves, chocolate and nutmeg notes but the notes are subtle suggesting a light-handed use of new oak barrel ageing.

The wine is dry with high acidity, medium+ tannin, medium alcohol (noting that this alcohol is lower than the other 2 wines suggesting that this was from either a cool vintage or cooler region) and medium+body.

It has medium+ flavour intensity and the flavours show slightly less complexity on the palate at the moment.

The wine has a medium+ finish.

Balance – yes

Length – good there too

Intensity of aromas/flavours and indicativeness of its type. The wine has medium intensity aromas which is ok and the flavours are well defined which is good. It is somewhat indicative of its type showing black fruit and a minty, leafy herbaceousness.

Complexity – meh, it has some complexity but not a lot. The fact that there are mint notes adds an exciting element but its lacking in depth or minerality. No pencil shavings, no gravel. This wine is a Good Wine.

I’d like to see more concentration of flavours and more aroma and flavour intensity. I’d also like to see more indicators that tell me that this is Bordeaux.

You can let this wine sit in your cellar for 5-8 years for further development. Maybe the aromas will come out more.

 

86 Points

Summary

Surprisingly, the most affordable wine in our tasting, the Vasse Felix from Margaret River, turned out to be of the highest quality. Perhaps opting for wines from Margaret River might be a smart choice if you’re seeking top-notch Cabernet Sauvignon without breaking the bank!

Conversely, it’s evident that spending more is necessary to secure the finest quality from Napa Valley and Bordeaux. According to the WSET Level 4 Systematic Approach to Tasting, both of these wines only earned a rating of “good,” emphasizing the correlation between price and quality in these renowned wine regions.

Want to learn how to objectively analyze wines?

 

You should sign up to one of my WSET online wine courses,

which will give you the knowledge and tools you need to fully describe wines.

Cheers to that!

Want to learn more about wine? Start here...

Take WSET Level 1 in Wines Online

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followed by exam

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