Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz


by Bugger the Panda
My apologies to everyone for having been absent from my duty for a few weeks. 

First, my computer went to the place that computers go when they blow up. 

Second, I have been travelling for a bit and without my notebook posting an article was impossible. I stayed a bit in London, with my daughter but she uses a Mac. I am still in the steam driven digital Microsoft age.

Third, I managed to resurrect a 10 year old notebook but it is very cranky and reinstalling MS Office seems to have sent it into phases of recurrent mental breakdown, especially after I tried to reinstall my MS Outlook files which I kept on a backup hard disk.

I really do need the services of someone from Newsnet; one of their IT Trekkies to debug the beast.

So, here I am typing away in the free software OpenOffice, which can save documents in MS Word format quite well and does not overload and blackout. It is stable! Who needs Microsoft anyway?

I had by now hoped to have finished publishing the next three red grapes on my list, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz and after a bit of lazy thought realised that they could all be grouped in one article, so closely they are associated in production and sales.

They are different grapes and do produce different wines but are often blended together, even in Australia and definitely, but well hidden, in Bordeaux.

All these three red grapes, and the others I have mentioned so far, in earlier articles, with the exception of Reisling, have their origin not in France or Italy or Germany but the Middle East. Yes you read me correctly, the Middle East, land of the Fatwa, the veil, Mad Mullahs and the interdiction on the consumption of Al Kuhl الكحل . In fact all our “indigenous” cereals in Europe, which are just modified grasses, also came from the same general geographical area. They came with our ancestors as they migrated out of the Middle East, up into Greece and thence into the European mainland. Modification and evolution took their place but genetically they belong to grape varieties still grown in the Middle East. There is even a province in Iran called Shiraz.

These established varieties then went around the World from the European “domesticated” species. Europe may the commercial heart of the World wine industry but its birthplace is still the Middle East.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Jancis Robinson, her of the funny red specs, in her book The Book of Grape Varieties, says that for most lovers of the divine liquid there no greater red wine than that produced  from Cabernet Sauvignon. It is also a relatively easy grape to grow and thus is found over a wide variety of climates and soil conditions.

As I have banged on about previously, there are two pivotal elements which help to define the expression of a particular grape, soil and climate. I tend to concentrate on climate much more that soil. The reason for this is simply that the effect of climate is more understandable for most people. It is logical for us that a grape grown in a hot country will be different from that from a cooler one. That should be the primary filter for us when look to buy a wine, whether we know what grape variety(ies) was used or not. After mastering that concept, if you really want, and your liver is not knackered, you can read up about the effect of different soils. For most of us with £5 to spend the soil type and effect of micro-climate is a waste of drinking time. There is another element in product differentiation, that of vinification, techniques of the vineyard and winery. Again I will not touch this area in any detail but will mention some from time to time, if relevant.

The main characteristic of Cabernet Sauvignon is that it has a deep concentrated flavour, based on blackcurrants. There can be other elements to this, especially Cedarwood but also to lesser degrees, Mint, Herbs, Eucalyptus and Bell Pepper.

Cabernet Sauvignon wines are tannic but, in warm climates, this is not a harsh character and the wines become saleable quite quickly. Remember that the harvest in the Southern Hemisphere is six months ahead of the Northern one and a wine dated 2009 today on a Tesco shelf would nearly be two years old. Cash flow is very important in the modern wine business and few producers have the resources to lay aside wine for more than 5 years to mature. I also don’t have that time to wait to drink’em.

The warmer the climate the richer the grape, the fuller the flavour, the more easy to drink young.

The cooler the climate the slower the grape matures and the tannins take much longer to soften.

This means that Bordeaux wines, which are based on C Sauvignon have a problem if they want to sell their wine faster than 5 or 10 years after the harvest. Their trick is to blend the wine with Merlot, which has a much softer tannin mouth feel and allows the wine to be drinkable younger. The labels on Bordeaux  wines doesn’t tell you that or what percentage is being used, but it is done.

The Aussies, after developing the concept of single variety grape wine are now introducing blend which are usually stated, if not on the front label, it will be on the back one. Sometimes the Ozzies use Shiraz. More of that later.


Light expression from

  • South Island, New Zealand  (Marlborough)
  • Trentino, Italy
  • Tasmania, Australia
  • North Island, New Zealand (Gisborne)
  • Provence, France

Medium Expression

  • South Australia, Oz, (Conawarra, Clare Valley, Clare, McLaren Vale.)
  • Victoria, Oz, (Yarra)
  • Western Australia, Oz, (Margaret River) and Swan lager
  • Washington State, USA, (Yakima and Columbia River). Yakima also grows loads of hops.
  • California, USA, (Central Napa and Sonoma Valleys)
  • Bulgaria (Plovdiv)

Full Expression

  • Chile, Maipo Valley
  • Spain (Penedés)
  • South Africa, everybloodywhere
  • New South Wales, Oz, (Hunter Valley)
  • South Australia , Oz, (Barossa)
  • Western Australia, Oz, (Swan Valley)

One important caveat to this triage is that Australia has been having quite a few years of drought and many of their wines have moved up one tier in the “body” stakes. Light has become medium and medium has become heavy. Heavy has either become even more heavy or has been blended with other lighter grapes to reduce the impact. The same thing has happened in Spain and the southern regions of France, wines have increased in alcoholic content. I’ll cover the significance of this some time later.

Merlot was once, not so long ago confined to France and it was the grape of South West France. In SE France it is the Carignan grape and most of this wine is produced for everyday consumption rather than special occasions; Languedoc and Rouisillon.  Merlot comes earlier to harvest than Cabernet sauvignon but, matures very quickly and the time of harvest can influence the quality of the wine considerably.

The wines are very fruity and the tannins less noticeable than Cab S.

The fruity character of Merlot wines range from strawberry, red berry, plum, cedar and tobacco in lighter versions to blackberry and black cherry in medium ones. The rich heavier Merlots have been described as chocolate, fruit cake and even gamey.  These two grapes, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the ones used to make all Bordeaux wines although their presence and the percentage are never disclosed.

I have yet to taste a light Merlot, although someone somewhere has made one, probably.

Medium Expression

  • South Australia, Oz, (Coonawarra)
  • Western Australia, Oz, (Margaret River, Mount Barker)
  • Languedoc-Rousillon, Vin de Pays d’Oc, France
  • North Island, New Zealand, (Hawkes Bay, Auckland)
  • South Island, New Zealand, (Marlborough, Nelson)
  • Washington State, USA,

Full Expression

  • California, USA, (Napa Valley, Santa Barbera)
  • Chile, (Maule, Curico)
  • South Africa, (Franschoek, Paarl, Stellenbosch)

Same caveat, concerning the drift towards fuller bodied wines.

Syrah or Shiraz
Everyone seems to know Shiraz but it is really mainly planted in France, as Syrah, and Australia as Shiraz. So positive has this grape been for the Australian wine industry that it is now planted in California and South Africa. I believe it may also be planted in Arizona and Texas.

It is a grape for warm climates.

Shiraz is a big meaty tannic wine that needs at least three years to round off. It is a grape capable of giving 15 and 16%  alcohol so, be careful. Often it is blended with a softer variety to reduce the mouth puckering effect. In France the balancer is Grenache whilst in Australia it is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Look carefully on the back label and you will often see a wine described at Shiraz contains a percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine carries the similar flavour descriptors as Cabernet Sauvignon but a bit more spicey peppery 

  • Blackcurrant
  • Spice
  • Pepper
  • Mint
  • Eucalyptus

This is a wine not for the feint hearted.

I have yet to taste a light version and is well suited for hand to hand combat.

Medium Expression

  • Vin de pays d’Oc  (France)—good value and sometimes drinkable young.
  • Ardeche, (France)—south of Burgundy
  • South Africa, Stellenbosch and Paarl
  • South Australia, Oz, (Coonawarra)
  • West Australia,Oz, (Mount Barker)
  • Victoria,Oz, (Yarra Valley)

Full Expression

  • France (Northern Rhone), daft as it seems further north from the Oc the wine become stronger?
  • South Australia,Oz, (Coonawarra, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale)
  • Victoria, Oz, (Hunter  Valley)
  • California, USA, (Napa Valley, Monterey and Santa Barbera)