Celebrating Cabernet Sauvignon: tasting 10 benchmarks from around the wine world blind

Since 1982, Western Australian winery Cape Mentelle has held an International Cabernet Tasting at the winery. Founder David Hohnen began this event with a view to helping him make better wines, and see just how he was doing. There’s a lot of wisdom in this, because back in 1982 it was still early days for the Margaret River wine region, although the pioneering wineries knew they were onto something. The 40th version of this tasting took place last month (October 2022), and included 20 different Cabernet Sauvignon wines including seven from Margaret River. Attended by 200 guests, including paying consumers, it wasn’t something that could be transported to London. But a smaller tasting, restricted to select members of the press and trade, could be held, and so here we had this celebration of the world’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon Blends, held for 20 people at Berry Brothers & Rudd. Sometimes it can be hard getting the A listers out of bed for events – there are lots of them in London – but apparently this tasting had an almost universal positive RSVP!

Cape Mentelle made a stir when its 1983 and 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon won back to back Jimmy Watson trophies. David Hohnen had established the winery in 1970, and was one of the pioneers of the Margaret River region. In 1985, he went onto to establish Cloudy Bay in New Zealand’s Marlborough region.

All the wines were from the 2017 vintage. The tasting was single blind – we knew which wines were included but not the order – and the idea was that we weren’t doing a competitive tasting (although, of course, it’s almost impossible not to have a sort of ‘shoot out’ element to this sort of exercise), but rather do some benchmarking.

There were 10 wines, from 6 countries, and 7 regions.

The regions, and their vintage assessments, as described by Stefan Neumann who co-hosted the tasting:

  • Bordeaux – challenging (frost-plagued, then dry, volume down 40%, earlier drinking)
  • Tuscany – good (a hot vintage, 3 degrees higher than normal)
  • Napa – challenging (a fire vintage, with heat spikes, but many picked before the fires, although access to wineries was a challenge for many)
  • Franschhoek – good (a really nicely regarded vintage)
  • Maipo Valley – good (very cold with lots of frost, then very hot, and an early vintage)
  • Margaret River – good (cool and late, which isn’t bad here)
  • Yarra Valley – challenging

‘The aim for this tasting was to celebrate the great variety of Cabernet Sauvignon,’ says Charlotte Gordon of Moët-Hennessy who co-hosted with Stefan. ‘It’s a learning experience to celebrate this variety.’


Notes and scores as written when the identity of the wine wasn’t known. Some preface to these results is in order. First, blind tasting isn’t the final word on a wine. It’s a useful exercise, and an interesting one, but the best way to taste is blind, then reveal, then taste again. But in this case the format meant making a decision blind, and then this is what I’m sharing here. The Boekenhoutskloof was a disappointment, because I’ve really liked this wine in the past: but I can’t argue with my note here because this was my clear impression today. I was so impressed with Spottswoode, a winery that is now very much on my radar. And the Mount Mary was a relative disappointment, but I think this is a hard wine to taste blind like this, and it is also less than 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. And the Cape Mentelle: this was my lowest-scoring wine here, which surprised me, and I think it was because it was a definite outlier with a strong cineole (eucalypt) character. I have a bottle of this which I’ve subsequently tasted sighted, in order to give a more considered opinion, because this isn’t a wine that you’d give 89 points to! This does also raise the question of how fair it is to pre-pour a relatively small sample of wine and then leave it sitting in the glass for the best part of an hour before the wines are tasted, something that is often done in tastings like these for logistical reasons. And I re-emphasize: blind verdicts are not the final word. Take all of these wines and taste them sighted and it’s likely the extra understanding this brings will help produce a more robust verdict. After all, no consumers drink blind.

Château Calon Ségur 2017 Saint Estephe, Bordeaux
13.2% alcohol. 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. Strong blackcurrant aromatics with some spice and hints of menthol. Drying with some spicy hints. The palate is concentrated and dry with grainy tannins, and some well resolved blackcurrant fruit, with hints of dried herbs and a pleasant, layered finish. Nice mix of the fruity and the savoury, showing some restraint. Stylish: has quite a warm climate feel to it, but made with restraint and harmony in mind. Beginning to dry a little. 93/100

Château Montelena ‘The Montelena’ 2017 Napa Valley, California
14% alcohol. Highly aromatic with sweet blackcurrant and cherry fruit on the nose. Has some floral elements and also a bit of savoury spiciness. On the palate there’s sweet fruit and some flesh, with a red berry character to the fore and some lushness. Fruity, supple and nicely weighted, this is quite generous and open. Warm climate in style. 93/100

Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Franschhoek, South Africa
14.8% alcohol. 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc. Some meat and Bovril notes on the nose alongside ripe, sweet berry fruits. Slightly porty, with lots of ripeness. The palate is very ripe, lush and inviting with forward, sweet cherry and berry fruits. Modern, forward, lush and easy, this is a warm-climate Cabernet picked fairly late, it seems. Some people will love it: for me this is too ripe, but it is tasty and easy to drink. 90/100

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley, California
13.7% alcohol. 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. Beautiful definition and balance here. Refined aromatics of spicy blackcurrant fruit with some black cherries, and fine dried herb characters. In the mouth this is concentrated, nicely structured, and has some spicy complexity sitting under the dense blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. A lovely expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, complete and fine. 96/100

Mount Mary Quintet 2017 Yarra Valley, Australia
13% alcohol. 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot. 61% new oak. This has a very aromatic nose of blackcurrant pastille with some spicy hints and a touch of green. The palate is fresh with bright blackcurrant fruit as well as some green traces and a nice spicy underpinning. There’s an innate freshness and balance here, but perhaps lacking a little complexity, with the emphasis on the blackcurrant pastille character. 92/100

Château Pichon-Longueville 2017 Pauillac, Bordeaux
13.2% alcohol. 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot. Aromatic with some savoury spicy notes mixed in with sweet blackcurrant fruit. Shows restraint and focus. The palate is vivid with nice sweet blackcurrant fruit, a touch of sweet plum, and then some savoury, spicy structure with a bit of wood in the mix. Very classic in style, and will soon be at its peak. 94/100

Château Leoville-Barton 2017 Saint-Julien, Bordeaux
13% alcohol. 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot. Intriguing nose with some leather, dried herbs and cedar as well as taut blackcurrant fruit. Concentrated, structured palate with a lot of power: the ripe fruit isn’t too ripe, but shows intensity that meshes well with the firm tannins. Youthful and unfurled, this is a dense, impactful wine with a long future ahead of it. Tastes somewhere between old and new world with a real sense of restraint, and has a very tannic finish. 95/100

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Margaret River, Western Australia
14.5% alcohol. 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot. Slightly shy on the nose, but has an impactful palate with fresh red berry fruits as well as notes of mint, medicine, iodine and wood spice. Has a sense of freshness but the minty character is quite assertive, and the medicinal notes are a distraction, not a complexing factor. Tastes quite forced. 89/100

Note made tasted sighted, later the same day, because I was concerned this wasn’t a fair reflection of this wine, which I rated highly just a few months ago. And I think a false positive is much better than a false negative, because as tasters we are fallible, and if I get it wrong and make a negative comment about a wine, then I’m unfairly potentially damaging their business:

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Margaret River, Western Australia
Cork-sealed which is unusual for Australian wines. Firm, taut nose of restrained red and black fruits with some spice. The palate is firm and quite dense with sweet blackcurrant fruit as well as some fresh, spicy red berry notes. There’s some dusty tannin here and a bit of spicy wood, and it finishes with a hint of mint and iodine. There’s nice poise and balance, and it shows Cabernet through a very attractive Western Australian lens, already showing nice development. 94/100

Ornellaia 2017 Tuscany, Italy
15% alcohol. 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc. This has a lot of appeal: it’s fresh, with sweet cherry and blackcurrant fruit, and a hint of redcurrant too. Shows some flesh and a sweet core of fruit, hinting at warm-climate origins. Has some structure, but no real complexity, although it’s nice to drink. 92/100

Santa Rita Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Maipo, Chile
14% alcohol. Spicy, exotic, savoury woody nose with some sweet black fruits. The palate is quite stylish with a cedar and dried herb edge to the concentrated blackcurrant and red berry fruit, with some wood spice in the mix. Has a brightness as well as a sweet fruit core, as well as firm tannins. An ambitious wine showing a warm climate tamed well in the wine. Has some wild spiciness. 94/100

See also: Clare Valley Cabernet, pitting top examples against international benchmarks