Clare Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: pitting top examples against international benchmarks

The Clare Valley is a north-south running valley some 30 km long and 10 km wide, 130 km north of Adelaide and northwest of the Barossa. Altitude is a factor here, and it ranges from 250 m-608 m, helping to moderate the climate.

The Grosset Gaia vineyard at dusk, from my visit in September 2004

Being a bit further north than the Barossa, and a bit more inland, climate has a touch of continental influence. It’s pretty warm if you look at the temperature charts (mean summer temperature is 30 °C, but there’s some discussion about whether these figures accurately reflect what’s happening, because this is a region that excels at Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, and the wines don’t taste like they come from a hot climate.

One feature of the summer is a large diurnal temperature variation of 13-15 °C, which could be contributing to the sense of freshness many of the wines display. Average annual rainfall is 500 mm-600 mm (with 25% falling during the growing season), and this is enough to dry grow vines in some sites.

Wendouree’s old vines

This was a tasting of some of the top Clare Valley expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, which represents 22.5% of the region’s plantings at 1136 hectares, making it the second most planted grape variety behind Shiraz and ahead of Riesling. It was a tasting in two parts. It began with some current releases, and then came the even more interesting bit: a blind tasting of four top Clare Valley Cabernets, tasted in a pair where it was vintage matched with a leading example from either California or Napa. I’ve left my notes and scores here exactly as written. The Clare examples were in the peer group of these wines, but each time it was quite clear to me which was the Clare Valley wine.

Sighted tasting:

Pauletts Cab Cabernet Merlot 2019 Clare Valley, Australia
14.5% alcohol. From vineyards in Watervale and Polish Hill River. Machine harvested, but not crushed, Dry grown. Lovely floral aromatics with blackcurrant and a touch of cedar. The palate is ripe and fresh with some bright blackcurrant as well as hints of olive and black cherry. There’s a touch of mint, too. This is juicy and fine with the acidity really noticeable on the finish, perhaps sticking out a little. A bargain. 92/100 (UK retail £11.50, agent Ellis of Richmond)

Knappstein Enterprise Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 Clare Valley, Australia
14.5% alcohol. This vineyard was planted in 1969, at the northern end of the valley with red loam soils. Elevation 478 m. (More technically: C horizon – white calcrete (limestone), B horizon or subsoil – darker brown and more loamy soil, A horizon or topsoil – brown loamy to sandy soil.)  52 year old vines. Fermented on skins for 10 days. Pressed to tank to complete malo-lactic fermentation then 14-16 months in French oak, 20% new. Ripe, concentrated blackcurrant fruit with lovely texture and intensity. It’s rich, floral and expressive with bright berries, cherries and blackcurrant, with some structure and bright acidity. There’s a richness and generosity here: a big wine, but shows balance. 94/100 (RRP £29 seeking representation)

Pikes The Hill Block Cabernet 2019 Clare Valley, Australia
13.5% alcohol. From estate vineyards in Polish Hill River with red brown clay loams and slate sub soil, 35 year old vines. Clones SA125 and CW44. Spends 14 months in French barrique, 11% new. Wild yeast ferment. This is supple, fresh and floral with an elegance to the red cherry and blackcurrant fruit. It’s supple and juicy with a hint of mint adding freshness to the vibrant, slightly dusty fruit. There’s a real juiciness here, and some restraint. There could be a bright future ahead for this wine, which really impresses. 94/100 (UK RRP £41.99, agent Enotria and Coe)

Mount Horrocks Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Clare Valley, Australia
14% alcohol. Planted 2008 in Watervale on red soil on limestone, organic and now biodynamic. Clone CAS169. Low yielding site. Whole berry ferment, 35% new oak. Lovely supple blackcurrant fruit with some raspberry and cherry. It’s really bright and focused with some elegance and good acidity. This is very fine with pure blackcurrant fruit. Shows real elegance allied to ripeness. 94/100 (UK retail £33.99, agent Liberty Wine)

Wakefield St Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Clare Valley, Australia
14.5% alcohol. Complex aromatics with spice and mint, as well as olive and sweet blackcurrant fruit. Fresh, vivid, spicy and intense with some tar and herb, as well as vibrant blackcurrant fruit. There’s some warmth and richness here: a very forward style, but still well balanced. 93/100

Blind wines

Jim Barry Benbournie 2016 Clare Valley, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Countour planted, alluvial sand over clay. 30% new oak. Wonderfully aromatic nose with sweet, spicy, minty blackcurrant fruit. The palate is fresh and complex with grippy tannins, a touch of spicy oak, and a little minty freshness. Lovely structure here, and real intensity of blackcurrant fruit. There’s a real wall of tannin: this is still quite primary. But there’s enough fruit here to cope with it, and it should age very well. There’s some sweetness and spiciness here: so impressive. Clare Valley? 96/100

Inglenook Rubicon 2019 Rutherford, Napa Valley, California
14% alcohol. Refined, savoury, slightly gravelly nose with ripe blackcurrant fruit, as well as some red cherry. Has a slight savouriness, and there’s a bit of oak, but it’s well integrated and adds a slight creaminess to the texture. Quite polished, in a ripe Bordeaux style with nice balance and weight. Stylish, refined and ageworthy. 95/100

Kilikanoon Tregea Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Clare Valley, Australia
Intensely fragrant spicy blackcurrant fruit on the nose. There’s some sweetness here: it’s very berryish. But there’s also a distinctive dusty spiciness. The palate is intense, vivid, spicy and fresh with a touch of tar. The blackcurrant fruit has a distinct sweetness and it’s beginning to mellow with age, but there’s also a nice sweet spicy edge. This is really serious, and developing very nicely. I think it’s Clare. 96/100

Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Napa Valley, California
13.9% alcohol. Sweetly aromatic with some herbal, spicy notes in the mix. There’s a touch of tar and vinyl here as well as blackcurrant. The palate has a note of green and some spicy savouriness, as well as sweet blackcurrant fruit and a touch of cherry. It’s grippy, warmly spiced, has some cedar and also some green notes. Combines sweet fruit with some green character. It has drinkability, but I’m not a massive fan: it’s currently unintegrated. 92/100

Grosset Gaia 2014 Clare Valley, Australia
13.7% alcohol. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc. Planted in 1986, certified organic in 2014 but he’s been practicing since 1992. Vibrant blackcurrant nose with a touch of cedar. It’s expressive and spicy with a slight herbal hint. The palate shows dense, sweet black fruits with a robust character, a slight hint of mint, and firm tannins. It finishes slightly hard. Such a focused wine with real density, beginning to show a bit of development but with a long way to go. There’s a bright blackcurrant character that runs through to the finish. I think it’s Clare. 94/100

Léoville-Poyferré 2014 Saint-Julien, Bordeaux
13.5% alcohol. Brooding dark, savoury gravelly edge here with sweet blackcurrant fruit and some savoury spiciness, as well as a hint of tar. The palate is concentrated and quite firm, but shows sophistication. Very textural and developing nicely with well integrated oak supporting the blackcurrant and cherry fruit. Classic, with good structure and potential for development. Tastes like really good Bordeaux. 96/100

Wendouree Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Clare Valley, Australia
13.7% alcohol. Very fine aromatics, with iodine, spice, raspberry and some blackcurrant. It’s amazingly detailed and complex with iron and blood notes as well. It’s detailed, fresh, complex and beguiling, with good acidity and tannin. There’s some herbal detail here with fine grained tannins. A really beautiful wine with amazing precision, developing nicely but with a long future ahead of it. Clare Valley? In which case it has to be Wendouree. 97/100

Ducru-Beaucaillou 2014 Saint-Julien, Bordeaux
13.5% alcohol. 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 100% new oak. Complex spicy blackcurrant fruit nose with lovely spicy elements. This is bold and complex with sweet, ripe black fruit and good structure. This is ripe and rich with lovely depth to the bold blackcurrant fruit, and some fine spicy notes. This has lovely structure: a serious effort. Ripe but balanced with a long future ahead of it. Serious Bordeaux. 96/100

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