Cabernet sauvignon is used to make a variety of wines across the globe. Yet its versatility shouldn’t detract from its power, writes James Suckling.

My fellow wine taster and contributing editor Nick Stock told me that “cabernet sauvignon is the most versatile red wine grape in the world” after the Cape Mentelle International Cabernet Tasting in Margaret River, Australia. I’d tend to agree. 

Creating many of the greatest wines in the world today, the formidable grape can make reds that can age for centuries, too—over the years I have been lucky enough to taste a number of early 1800s Bordeaux that were still enjoyable, with complex aromas and flavours.

So I was excited to be part of the Cape Mentelle Cabernet Challenge in Margaret River, a blind tasting of some of the best 2012 cabs in the world, including first growths from Bordeaux, top estates of Australia and revered Super Tuscan reds of Italy.

The 2012 vintages in the tasting included a broad variety of Australian wineries—Leeuwin Estate, Woodlands, Cullen, Moss Wood, Vasse Felix Heytesbury, Cape Mentelle, Deep Woods Reserve, Mount Mary Quintet, Wynns John Riddoch, Penfolds Bin 707 and Houghton Jack Mann. In addition, California was represented by Far Niente Estate and Château Montelena, while France showcased Cos d’Estournel, Léoville Las Cases, Lafite Rothschild and La Mission Haut-Brion. Italy shone through with Ornellaia and Tenute San Guido Sassicaia.

Wines at the challenge were served blind and mixed up, so you couldn’t tell which one was from which country, region or winery. I found all of them very distinctive, especially many of the Australian cabs, which seemed to have a minty, fresh herb undertone, almost oyster shell-like in flavour. The Bordeaux seemed slightly more austere in texture with firm tannins, while the Californian and Tuscan cabs were more fruity and luscious.

My top pick of the tasting was the La Mission Haut-Brion—I scored it 97 points. I preferred it for its superb structure and complexity; it had so much amazing tobacco and herb character, with ripe fruit and earth. It was also wonderfully structured, with very polished tannins. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as it’s one of the great wine producers of Bordeaux.

My second choice, Ornellaia, followed very closely at 96.5 points. It was opulent and flamboyant, with loads of ripe currant and spicy pepper character, yet it was structured and firm—what a great wine to drink and cellar.

It was hard to gauge exactly what the other tasters’ (primarily Australian winemakers and wine merchants) favourites were, but I think they liked the local options including the Cape Mentelle and the Houghton Jack Mann. Among the Australian cabs, I preferred the former for its balance and finesse.

One of the main lessons I took away from the tasting is how multifaceted cabernet sauvignon is as a grape. Despite the misconception that all cabernet tastes the same, the grape is an excellent communicator of unique soils and climates. For example, the maritime influence of Margaret River certainly came out in the cabernets from the region; they all seemed to have a distinctive oyster shell, stone and fresh herb undertone to the blackcurrant and berry character. By comparison, the warmer coastal area of Italy’s Bolgheri was much fruitier, with lots of ripe currant flavours and textured tannins.

In the end, the Cape Mentelle tasting helped further my appreciation of the cabernet sauvignon grape—not only for its versatility, but for its uniqueness when grown in the right vineyard areas.

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