Tasting Panel – Cabernet-dominant reds

From issue #73.August 14, 2017
Tasting Panel – Cabernet-dominant reds

Rich, luscious cabernet-dominant reds were up for judgment from the Dish Tasting Panel’s discerning palates – find out who came out on top, for some seriously delicious winter supping.

Fun facts you can take to your next pub quiz: 1) cabernet sauvignon has been grown in Bordeaux, France, since at least 1600AD and 2) cabernet sauvignon only exists because somewhere in the mists of time, (red grape) cabernet franc and (white grape) sauvignon blanc did the wild thing in the woods somewhere.

However, if you’ve been struggling to get back into local cabernet after some less-than-luscious experiences back in the 80s and 90s, then get the good glasses out of the china cabinet folks, because we’ve found some wines to rock you. For the longest time, our growers were stuck with some rather average clones that struggled to ripen regularly and could be a real pain in the clacker to get your tastebuds around. The wines were often rather hard, green and overly grippy in the gob.

Yet thanks to having access to high-quality, modern plant material, better suited to New Zealand’s regional diversity, alongside increased winemaking skill and (dare we say it) a touch of global warming in more recent years, we are experiencing a massive elevation in the quality of Kiwi cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in the marketplace.

And that’s exactly what we here at Dish were looking for, the best of those cabernet-dominant styles available right now.

Style/varietal: Cabernet dominant reds
Tasting date: Saturday, June 3rd 2017
Entries: 44

Yvonne Lorkin 
(Dish drinks writer)
James Rowan (Winemaker at Westbrook Wines)
Cameron Douglas MS (Senior Lecturer AUT and Master Sommelier)
Reneé Dale (Associate judge and winemaker at Moi Wines)

Rating System
Gold ★★★★★ – ​Superb. Strongly recommended.

Silver ★★★★ – A cut above the rest in quality.

Bronze ★★★ – A good quality crowd-pleaser.

(NB: All wines are judged blind and the scores of judges for their own wines cannot exceed those of other judges.)

Top Cabernet dominant reds of the tasting

Pioneer Block 17 Plateau Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Merlot 2015 ($37.90) – TOP WINE
★★★★★ Gold Medal

This wine induced wows right across our panel. “I love how this wine has turned out,” says winemaker Kyle Thompson. “The focus was on maximum fruit expression and balance given the exceptional fruit we received. I love how dark and rich it’s become, but it’s still true to the intense fruit expression and concentration of the 2015 vintage”. This wine has a serious structural side to it, but is really approachable now, with beautiful dark chocolate tannin structure, ripe wild blackberry, and a lovely savoury oak kick to finish. “Lovely density, refinement and elegance,” added Renée.

Elspeth Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($49.95) 
★★★★★ Gold Medal

“It’s so bright, generous, fully fruited, succulent-yet-youthful and showing precise structure and finely tuned tannins, that it’s jaw-droppingly delicious,” announced Yvonne. Cameron noted a savoury seam, stitching together the dark berries, plum and spice notes. “I like the supple tannin structure, dusty complexity and it’s pert, flirty finish,” added Renée. Winemakers Paul Dawick and Tim Preston and the team at Mills Reef are absolute aristocrats where cabernet is concerned, their 28 years’ experience in crafting reds from Hawke’s Bay, clearly evident here.

James Sinclair Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Merlot 2015 ($28)
★★★★★ Gold Medal 

“A modern classic,” remarked Renée, “refined, nicely structured and defined.” Cameron noted its black cherry, plum and toasty, charred complexity on the palate. “This wine is hand-selected and is really starting to shine with a bit of age,” says winemaker Kyle Thompson. “We settled on a cabernet sauvignon-dominant blend, incorporating a small amount of malbec  with a higher portion of merlot. I really like the fruit expression in this wine – it’s pure and fresh but ripe and juicy, the structure is velvety, warm and inviting.” Our judges clearly agreed. “It’s a very pretty, glossy, vibrant wine, packed with dark fruits, pepper, dried herb notes and a racy ribbon of oak on the finish – gorgeous,” said Yvonne.


Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2014 ($49.99)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Smouldering crimson-black coloured, it’s a very pretty wine in the glass and an extremely attractive wine in the mouth. Rocking layers of concentrated red fruits (“rhubarb, tamarillo and roast beetroot too,” insists James), this is a seductively good red with a plush mid-palate and a long, liquorice-like finish. “There’s no mistaking the serious oak layers,” added Cameron, “and yet there’s plenty of flavour and fruit.” Senior winemaker Nick Picone and his team have a real treasure on their hands here.

Reserve Waiheke Island Cabernet Merlot Franc 2013 ($52)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

There are only small amounts of this eye-poppingly good example available and we suspect after this result is published, it’ll disappear pronto. Winemaker Heinrich Storm has harnessed the very best from Goldie Estate’s sun-soaked Waiheke Island vineyard overlooking Putiki Bay. Maturing beautifully at four years old, the dark fruit notes are generously enticing “and the tannin structure is just lovely,” noted James, while Renée loved the hints of espresso martini and cherry in the mid-palate.

Growers Series Howell Family Vineyard Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Franc 2015 ($52)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

Waikare-based Pyramid Valley have been sourcing organically grown cabernet franc from Chris Howell’s 31-year-old vines for a few years now, and with each new vintage it gathers greater complexity and generosity. “Richly coloured and packed with dark fruit, the oak has a lovely dusty, bacony character,” commented Cameron. “It has lovely extract and balance, it’s also very flirtatious and sultry to sip,” added a clearly impressed James. While it’s still very youthful, and clearly needs food, it’s an impressive, stylish cabernet franc that’ll reward patient cellaring.

Estates Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Franc 2014 ($24.99)
★★★★½ Silver Medal (BEST VALUE)

Just how on earth Cairn Coghill, Grant Edmonds and their team at Sileni manage to produce cabernet franc like this for under $25 is a mystery. With its lifted florals and almost meaty mid-palate, our judges found it a supremely satisfying example. “Very complex on the nose and showing layers of dark berries, chocolate and toasty spice notes,” said Cameron, while Yvonne adored its smooth, succulent mouthfeel and seamless, solid, tannin structure alongside spicy blueberries, cocoa and vanilla flavours.

Gimblett Gravels The Gimblett 2014 ($35)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

Winemakers Warren Gibson and Damian Fischer are obsessive about creating this special blend each year. The 2014 is dominated by 49% cabernet franc followed by 39% cabernet sauvignon, 9% merlot and a 3% splash of malbec, and it’s darned lovely. “It has great colour, a youthfully fruity bouquet and bold, dusty tannins,” commented Cameron, while James was impressed by its finely tuned acidity, herbal and berry notes and well-judged presence and poise. All judges agreed this was one to watch as it ages. Or, even better, drink as it ages.

McDonald Series Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($27.99)
★★★★ Silver Medal

Chris Scott has taken Church Road Wines to dizzying heights particularly over the last decade, as he creates Bordeaux-styled reds that age impressively at every level. 93% cabernet sauvignon is fleshed out with a squeak of 7% merlot and weighing in at 14.5% alc, it’s a plush, warming wine with complex scents of Chinese herbal tea, pepper and anise notes. With a core of blueberry, plum and bouquet garni herbs, it’s a firm, dry, smoky-toned example.

Grand Reserve Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013 ($44.99)
★★★★ Silver Medal

The Grand Reserve wines are only made in exceptional years and 2013 was definitely classed as exceptional. This wine is on a trajectory to greatness. While really attractive now, it has a few years ahead before we see its true potential. “Juicy dark berries, forest fruits and tobacco leaf loveliness,” leapt from Renée’s notes, while Cameron felt the fruit was more coiled around a core of toasty, vanilla-centric oak and Yvonne enjoyed its earthiness and solid, stretchy tannins.