Feature Story, Game Changers

Game Changers | Margaret River Cabernet

Virginia Willcock, who makes the wines at Vasse Felix in Western Australia, has a long history with Margaret River cabernet sauvignon. She still farms a parcel of vines Tom Cullity planted 50 years ago. Her perspective on the shi ing style of the wines helped me understand why I had, for a time, lost interest in Margaret River cabernet, and then suddenly found myself ordering it again. “The 1970s and ’80s were the beautiful decades of naturally made wines,” she told me. “In the 1990s, young winemakers armed with a lot of technology began playing with ways to make the wines bigger, more pronounced. Then you see it getting reined back in, less pushed, less fattened. Nature played a hand in forcing the finer lines in 2002, 2004 and 2008 in particular. Then there was a consistent backing off in 2010, with finer wine made from here on in; the wines became Margaret River again.” Tasting a range of old and young Margaret River cabernet earlier this year, on the 50th anniversary of Cullity’s planting, I was struck by how the best share a similar musculature, their tannins cool, with none of the barriers formed by drought or heat stress. Their flavors play in variations of fresh currants, often red, sometimes black. It may be the wines’ ability to age with grace, continuing to offer pleasure as they pass from their first decade into their second, that places them on the world stage of great cabernet sauvignon. And it may be their transparency that distinguishes them from most any other long-lived cabernets.

Cullen 2013 Margaret River Diana Madeline
A graceful cabernet, this manages high-toned red-fruit ripeness with a lovely gentleness of tannins. It feels complete, a rich blend of cabernet sauvignon (73 percent), merlot (20 percent) and cabernet franc (7 percent), balanced for fillet mignon. The cabernet and merlot vines for this wine were planted from 1967 to 1973. (92 points, $109; Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, CA)

Ringbolt 2012 Margaret River 21 Barriques Cabernet Sauvignon
Heather Fraser makes this wine from a vineyard in Wilyabrup, the vines planted in 1970 and dry grown. An elegant cabernet that’s as aromatic as a freshly pulled espresso, it has the brisk ripeness of the 2012 season, its flavors focused on those coffee notes of oak, with plenty of clean, high-toned fruit beneath it. (92 points, $46; Negociants USA/The Winebow Group, NY)

Vasse Felix 2013 Margaret River Tom Cullity
This vintage, from a warm summer and a long, cool harvest season, layers gentle, savory tannins and honeyed blue fruit. Focused on cabernet sauvignon (76 percent), with malbec and petit verdot, it’s a young, minty red that needs bottle age to develop, or short ribs to show itself more fully. (90 points, $160; Negociants USA/The Winebow Group, NY)

Woodlands 2012 Margaret River Wilyabrup Valley Woodlands Vineyard Thomas Cabernet Sauvignon
David and Heather Watson planted their first cabernet vines on Caves Road in Wilyabrup in 1973 and 1975. Their sons, Stuart and Andrew, farm the vineyard and make the wine today, using the original vines for their top wine each year, a cabernet sauvignon named for a family member or friend. In 2012, they produced a rich, fleshy cabernet, with marked purity to its black cherry flavor. There’s vibrancy to the dark fruit, as if shot through with ripe yellow plum, the lushness of the texture checked by tart acidity and a briny, salty edge. Needing time to integrate, this is a wine to age before serving with lamb tagine. (92 points, $140; Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, NJ)

Xanadu 2014 Margaret River Stevens Road Cabernet Sauvignon
The cabernet sauvignon in Block 3 at Xanadu’s Stevens Road Vineyard grows in gravelly loam soils, producing this cool, coastal red. It has scents of eucalyptus and jarrah, with a light breeziness that brings to mind Loire Valley cabernet franc. The spicy cardamom scent and tart red fruit balance the round, sweet softness of the texture, suggesting a match with duck rillettes. (92 points, $90; Rathbone Wine Group, Napa, CA)

This feature appears in the print edition of Fall 2018.
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