About 1994, a wine lover asked me to name the best Cabernet in the Napa Valley. His query followed an article I had written about diverse sub-regional Napa styles, pointing out the differences from one area to another.
For decades, Napa Valley has been the best place in the United States to make Cabernet, though the more its producers diverge from the style I grew up with, the less excited I am about it.
To me, bigger is not automatically better. What’s better is for a Cabernet to smell and taste like a Cabernet, not bacon-flavored jam.
The wine lover’s query of decades ago came back to me this week. I was in Napa and tasted two sensational Cabs that are now available there. These wines have been available for several years, and the most recent vintages are exceptional.
But I immediately saw the irony, because both wines are from Australia(!) and available largely from an import company that has been based in Napa for 30 years.
Old Bridge Cellars has a license permitting it to sell directly to consumers. And in its superb portfolio are the two Cabernets – 2016 Cullen ($109) and 2014 Leeuwin ($60). More about them later.
I’ve had a long relationship with Old Bridge Cellars, and have known its vice president, Gavin Speight, for decades. This week, I saw that Old Bridge Cellars continues to offer many great Australia wines.
Americans who are unaware of the overall excellence of Australian wines may not be aware that the Aussie wine industry is roughly a century older than is the U.S. fine wine industry – and arguably more technologically advanced.
Not only did the Australians have a huge head start on making fine wine (they started in the 1820s; California’s first fine wine ventures started 60 years later), but there was no Prohibition Down Under.
The United States’ bold experiment banning all alcohol devastated fine wine development from 1919 to when Robert Mondavi opened his Oakville project in 1966.
Moreover, wine in Australia is taxed heavily at home and much of that tax revenue goes back to the industry to conduct vital research into quality. Also, Australia’s top fine-wine university, Roseworthy, not only leads the world in many aspects of wine education, but is also home to one of the world’s greatest sensory evaluation programs, of which Speight is a graduate.
The two Cabernets mentioned above are both from Western Australia. The Cullen was made by brilliant winemaker Vanya Cullen, and is considered by some to be the finest Cabernet in Australia today. The other wine, from one of the top producers in the nation, already is showing lovely secondary flavors from the fact that it is more than five years old.
Both wines exhibit traces of the dried herbs, tea, and “dusty sage” that once was unexpected part of Napa Valley’s best red wines, but those aromatics have long since disappeared in most of California. Winemakers here mostly have chosen to pursue a much riper style of wine that focuses on flavors ultra-ripe fruit and oak.
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As I tasted through 30 of the Old Bridge Cellars wines, I was reminded how careful winemakers in Australia are when it comes to their better wines. And there’s no question that these were among the best wines I’ve ever tasted from there.
The history of Australian wine in the United States has had a curious, checkered past. Most Americans think of Australian wine as $5.99 everyday quaffs from South Eastern Australia, most of which flooded the U.S. market in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There was nothing wrong with those wines, some of which (Yellow Tail) remain viable here. The Old Bridge lineup is almost exclusively top-tier, designed for special occasions.
In spite of that, prices remained remarkably fair, partially as a result of the 2008 U.S. economic downturn that drained wine lovers’ resources, and depleted Australian wine sales. At one point, Australia sold more than 20 million cases of wine here. Today, that number is down to 14 million cases.
Here are just a few of the top wines I tasted:
2016 Kilikanoon Riesling, Watervale, Mort’s Block ($35): A completely dry expression of Riesling with an aroma of “dusty lime,” green tea, and a trace of the classic “petrol.” Needs a few more years to open up, but a perfect foil now with Thai food or oysters.
2018 Giant Steps Chardonnay, Yarra Valley ($30): Made in a slightly reduced (Burgundian?) style, so the complexity already shows some of the depth one can get from our cooler climate. Wines of this caliber from other regions often cost $50 or more.
2017 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir, Central Otago ($25): Fresh plum, slightly leafy and dried herb graced aroma, a super value from a highly respected area of New Zealand!
2016 Innocent Bystander Syrah, Yarra Valley ($20): One of the finest values in red wine I’ve tasted in years. It has gorgeous pomegranate and raspberry fruit aromas alongside a trace of pepper, and it is already beginning to show complexity from the fact that it is more than three years old and still a baby.
The Cullen Cabernet (above) is designated Diana Madeleine and comes from the sub-region Wilyabrup. From the Old Bridge website: “Fantastic complexity and vitality with layers of dark fruit enhanced by gorgeous, leafy nuances. The palate is elegant and silky” and it should develop “over the next 20 to 30 years.”
The Leeuwin Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River is its Art Series (reserve). From the Old Bridge sales sheet: “Perfumed violets, cardamom, olive, cloves and bay leaf … with fruit of blackberry, cherry, and mulberry.”
To see the Old Bridge lineup, which includes great wines from d’Arenberg, John Duval, Brokenwood, Greywacke (New Zealand), Poggiotondo (Italy), and lots more, visit obcwines.com.
Wine of the Week: 2018 Pewsey Vale Riesling ($17): About 90% of all Australian Rieslings are really dry, and this is one of the most classic examples — and it also offers buyers a chance to see how great dry Riesling ages. This extremely young example from brilliant winemaker Louisa Rose (imported by Winebow) has just been released. Though it is fascinating now when paired with medium-spicy Thai food, it will reward cellaring for several more years. (If you are lucky enough to find an older vintage, chances are the price has not gone up and the wine is better for it. Most people don’t know how fascinating older Australian Rieslings can be!) The primary aroma of this wine is lime zest and delicate floral notes. As previously noted, it’s austerely dry.