There are few grape varieties as steeped in regal metaphors as Cabernet Sauvignon. That status is deserved, due to its power, structure and ability to express a unique character nearly anywhere it’s planted. But not all Cabernets are created equal.
In Napa, the “king of grapes” often rules with muscle and opulence, while in its native home of Bordeaux, its reign has been a long and more complex one. And in Australia, two different and distinctive Cabernet kingdoms have developed: Margaret River and Coonawarra.
Margaret River, a windswept slice of Western Australia’s southern coast, produces medium-bodied Cabernets of elegance, complexity and transparency. Almost all wear a crown of briny sea spray, pencil lead, eucalyptus and currant.
Coonawarra, a region with nearly 130 years of wine history, rests about halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, on the southeast edge of South Australia. The region, with its famed, ancient terra rossa soils, sits 60 miles from the sea, and spawns rich, sturdy Cabs etched in dark berry fruit, mint and dried herbs.
Though many Australian winemakers have unlocked Cabernet’s magic, only a few have devoted their lives to this noble grape. They’ve searched endlessly for an understanding of the connection between grape and land. Here are six of Australia’s most devoted subjects, who’ve helped shape Cabernet’s reign down under.
Just two miles from the Indian Ocean, beneath towering jarrah trees in the heart of Margaret River wine country, is a winery that has done more to advance Australian Cabernet Sauvignon than almost any other. And yet, for all its influence and accolades, Cullen remains a salt-of-the-earth, family-run farm.
Vanya Cullen, the managing director and chief winemaker, seems to be in constant motion. She dashes from winery to tasting room, from vineyards to veggie patch. Her parents, Kevin and Diana Cullen, were at the forefront of grape growing in Margaret River.
Not only have the Cullens crafted some of the most heralded wines in Australia, they’ve also been longtime environmental leaders.
They started to plant vines as early as 1966, and they achieved commercial success by the early 1970s. Their vineyards are located in what’s now known as the premier Cabernet subregion, Wilyabrup. Vanya, the youngest of six children, grew up among her family’s vines. She started making wine alongside her parents in 1983, and was appointed chief winemaker in 1989.
Not only have the Cullens crafted some of the most heralded wines in Australia, they’ve also been longtime environmental leaders. The family has championed biodynamics, water self-sufficiency, solar power, carbon neutrality and sustainable packaging. Their restaurant, one of the oldest and most beloved in the region, serves biodynamically farmed produce sourced from the property.
Cullen’s top Cabernet bottling, Diana Madeline, is one of Australia’s most heralded wines. A limited-release selection, it bears Vanya’s mother’s name and includes small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. Complex, elegant and very ageworthy, it expresses Cullen’s vines and the influence of the nearby Indian Ocean.
Recently, Vanya introduced a second limited-release Cabernet Sauvignon that bears her own name. Made with the minimal intervention philosophy she’s so passionate about, it also spends time fermenting in terracotta amphorae.
“Over the three decades of working at Cullen, the love for Cabernet Sauvignon has deepened,” Vanya writes regarding the latest release of her namesake wine, from the 2015 vintage. “Cullen Vineyard, with its land, vines, wines and people…is my life’s work.”
Proprietors Clare and Keith Mugford are hands-on at the winery, where they head up the winemaking and viticulture. Unlike the Cullens, however, the Mugfords were not the original owners.
That title goes to Bill and Sandra Pannell. The Pannells first planted vines on the northern end of the Wilyabrup subregion of Margaret River in 1969, around the same time as other regional founders Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle and Cullen.
Those first Cabernet plants were cuttings taken from vines at Houghton winery in the Swan River Valley, about 180 miles north of Margaret River. Today, some of the defining characters of Margaret River Cabernet are attributed in part to the Houghton clone, as it’s now known.
Moss Wood’s Cabernet Sauvignon is a tightrope walk of elegance and power.
“Western Australia has the Houghton clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is virtually not used at all in eastern Australia,” says Keith Mugford. “It has fruit flavors and tannin balance quite different from the clones used in the rest of the country.”
When the Pannells retired in 1984, they handed the reins to Keith Mugford, who had made wine for Moss Wood since 1979 (Bill and Sandra Pannell’s children created highly acclaimed wine labels of their own). Keith officially took ownership of the estate in 1985, with his wife, Clare. They still tend to Moss Wood’s original vines, as well as to Ribbon Vale Vineyard, which they purchased in 2000, located just one mile down the road.
Moss Wood’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which includes a little Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, is a tightrope walk of elegance and power, swaddled in its youth by toasted oak, intense berry fruit, tobacco and tar. “We like the fruit to have ripened to the point where the dominant features are the dark berry-type fruit characters, but not so ripe that the floral notes of Cabernet Sauvignon are lost,” says Keith. “The tannins should have good concentration, underpinning the palate rather than dominating, such that wine has smoothness and balance. None of these characters should be dominant, but rather the wine should be a harmonious combination, even when young.”
The wine takes decades to reach its stride, and it can be cellared for 40 years or more.
“You can drive from Margaret River town, where you can smell the trees and the undergrowth, and in minutes be at the beach, where you can smell the salt and seaweed,” he says. “It’s still so pristine and isolated, you can still see what it was like 300 years ago.
“People seek this out. Most people in Margs have come from another life. They’ve all chosen to be here.”
Among those transplants were Andrew’s parents, David and Heather Watson. They established Woodlands Wines, among the oldest wineries in the region, on a site just south of Moss Wood in 1973.
The Watsons maintain a focus on traditional winemaking with minimal intervention.
For nearly two decades, its Cabs were considered among Australia’s best. The winery’s 1981 Andrew Cabernet Sauvignon, named after their son, was the first Margaret River wine to receive a national red wine trophy, winning best red wine categories at competitions such as the National Wine Show of Australia, the Perth Wine Show and the Mt. Barker Wine Show.
From 1992 to 1999, the Watsons took a break from winemaking to send their two sons to school in Perth, selling their fruit to local premium wineries. When Andrew and his brother, Stuart, came of age, they, too, chose to live in Margaret River.
Woodlands was reborn, and the brothers didn’t miss a beat. With Andrew in his current role and Stuart as chief winemaker, the Watsons maintain a focus on traditional winemaking with minimal intervention. The family vineyards are dry-farmed, and they’re on track to be certified organic in 2018. A second vineyard, Woodlands Brook, purchased in 2007, will also likely receive the designation.
Cabernet Sauvignon shows up in several Woodlands blends, like the Margaret bottling. The winery’s top Cab follows the tradition of being named after a family member each year. Andrew describes its style in two words: “elegance and intensity.” It encompasses everything that’s great about top-notch Margaret River Cab.
Few are lucky enough to have a commute like Sue Hodder, senior winemaker at Wynns. She resides in an old limestone house in the heart of the historic vineyards.
For 25 years, Hodder has been a champion of the winery that put Coonawarra on the map, alongside Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon and Viticulturist Allen Jenkins, who’ve worked with her for more than half of her tenure at the estate.
“I walk to the winery through the vineyards,” says Hodder. “[Its] rich history goes back to the Coonawarra Fruit Colony of the 1890s and the families who planted vines and orchards then.”
The winery was built by John Riddoch in 1891, and its vines thrived in the region’s terra rossa soils through the end of the 19th century. But a combination of economic hardship and the region’s relative isolation soon ground production to a halt. It wasn’t until 1951, when Melbourne-based winemaker and merchant Samuel Wynn and Co. purchased the property, that Coonawarra’s wine industry was revitalized.
Wynns’s most lauded wine, the Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, is touted as Australia’s first varietally labeled Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cuttings from Wynns’s Cabernet Sauvignon vines are now highly sought after in Australia. There are 14 different clones, including heritage selections, with many still on their own rootstocks. Wynns produces a range of single-vineyard Cabernets each year, and each is crafted with an eye to better understand how its different vineyards perform.
Wynns’s most lauded wine, the Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, is touted as Australia’s first varietally labeled Cabernet Sauvignon. It was also the country’s first to use the term “estate” to denote fruit grown on site. It has become one of Australia’s benchmark Cabs, in all its dark-fruited, dried-herbed, minty glory.
In 2017, in honor of the wine’s 60th anniversary, Wynns held a tasting of all 60 vintages. It demonstrated Coonawarra Cabernet’s superb aging potential. “I am inspired by what has gone before me, by our vineyards and by working with great, inquisitive people,” says Hodder.
Penley Estate may not possess the long history of Wynns, but it does have a fresh, young winemaker and a family lineage that stretches back to the early days of South Australia.
Right in the heart of Coonawarra, Penley was founded in 1988 by siblings Ang, Bec and Kym Tolley. The name Penley is a mashup in honor of their parents, Judith Anne Penfold Hyland and Reginald Lester Tolley. Both the Tolleys and the Penfolds are founding families of the South Australian wine industry, the latter widely known for establishing one of Australia’s most famous wine brands.
Penley’s Cabernet Sauvignon plays a starring role in the winery’s many “series” labels.
In 2015, Kym Tolley retired as chief winemaker, and his sisters sought to breathe new life into the brand. They revamped the label and opened a sleek tasting room in McLaren Vale in 2017, where visitors from Adelaide can more easily taste the bottlings.
In 2016, they also hired a new winemaker, Kate Goodman, who arrived fresh from a role at Punt Road, an acclaimed Yarra Valley winery. While Goodman produces a very different style of Cabernet Sauvignon under her own Yarra-based label, Goodman Wines, she’s made exciting changes to the Cabs at Penley.
“We are working hard to harvest earlier to capture the vitality of the vineyard,” says Goodman. “Oak influence has been refined to allow the wines more space to express themselves. In addition, we are moving towards natural fermentations, using a lot more small, open fermenters and larger-format oak.”
Penley’s Cabernet Sauvignon plays a starring role in the winery’s many “series” labels. One, the Tolmer, is part of its Heritage Series, and named for the Tolley’s great-great grandfather, a police commissioner of South Australia. Another, the Phoenix, is part of the Mythology series. Each express variations of Coonawarra Cabernet’s trademark power, fruit intensity and distinctive dried herb and mint characters.
DiGiorgio Family Wines
His name is Peter Douglas, and he has worked with Cabernet Sauvignon at established wineries worldwide, including Château Léoville Barton in Bordeaux and various Constellation Brands wineries in Napa Valley.
In Coonawarra, Douglas has worked for Lindeman’s, Penfolds and Wynns, where he was chief winemaker for almost 15 years. He’s also consulted for dozens of wineries throughout the region, and his extensive experience has provided an unparalleled understanding of the grape and how to craft superb bottlings of authentic varietal expression.
Douglas’s extensive experience has provided an unparalleled understanding of the grape and how to craft superb bottlings of authentic varietal expression.
“I have been fortunate enough to have made Cabernet in California and Bordeaux as well as Coonawarra, and very much consider here to be consistently the best,” says Douglas, who’s worked for DiGiorgio since 2004.
The family purchased the winery, the second oldest in Coonawarra, in 2002, with Frank DiGiorgio leading the charge. It’s surrounded by old vines on terra rossa soils, some of which are more than 115 years old and part of John Riddoch’s original Coonawarra Fruit Colony. Others are between 40–55 years old.
The acquisition of the 110-year-old winery was a natural progression for the DiGiorgios, who’ve been a Coonawarra farming family since the early 1950s. After years of selling fruit from their nearby Lucindale Vineyards, planted in 1989, the DiGiorgios started their own wine label in 1998.
Douglas has worked his charm on these top sites. DiGiorgio’s well-priced Coonawarra Cabernet is a warming, fragrant combo of cherry-chocolate cake and dried green herbs, with a core of stony earthiness. It’s full-bodied, fruity and laced with tight, savory tannins that will allow it to age gracefully for the next decade. In other words, it’s everything that makes Coonawarra Cabernet a top drop.
Last Updated: May 4, 2023