Like a bear hug in a bottle: the joy of Aussie cab-shiraz blends

Date:11-05-2013 07:58:13 read:2

Like a bear hug in a bottle: the joy of Aussie cab-shiraz blends

All right, we know it’s not a bear. But sometimes only a big Aussie shiraz-cabernet sauvignon blend will cut the mustard.

A scene of serenity in South Australia
A scene of serenity in Australia, which has given us 'this great and wonderful red', the shiraz-cab blend Photo: Alamy

'Well I’ve just got to,” is a mantra practically patented by one of my old university friends, a high achiever with a long history of setting himself near-impossible tasks. “Steve, you can’t write an essay by tomorrow morning in Russian, which you only started learning last week, and which isn’t even your degree subject,” I would say as we wandered off to the bar, passing his desk plastered with bits of paper with Cyrillic characters scrawled on them. “Well I’ve just got to,” would be the clenched response.

I’m always trying – who doesn’t? – to cram too much into my day, muttering, “Well I’ve just got to,” as I set the alarm for 5.30am so as to clear some of the never-ending to-do list and straighten my hair before dashing out. It works, mostly, until at the end of one of those days your brain goes into malfunction mode and refuses to make a single decision more.

The available courses of action on evenings when “Which chair shall I sit on?” seems too foxing a question to answer are: 1. Bed with a cup of tea. 2. Mix a brain-rinsing caipirinha. 3. Pour a glass of wine so comforting and cosy it feels like a great, big hug.

No wine seems more hug-like than an Australian shiraz-cabernet sauvignon. We talk a lot about Aussie shiraz and Aussie chardonnay, but in my view the Australians’ real gift to the world of wine is the cab-shiraz blend. I would like to hear a lot more shouting about this great and wonderful red. It’s a very unclassical idea, to mix the great red grape of the northern Rhône with that of Bordeaux (though admittedly you will find syrah and cabernet in the same bottle in the appellation of Cabardes in the Languedoc, where grapes from the Mediterranean meet those from the Atlantic).

But in Australia it just works so gorgeously well. Why? I think partly because Australian cabernet sauvignon is actually very good and somewhat underrated. Also because cabernet sauvignon, usually so disciplined, structured and deliberate – the grape equivalent of an aristocrat in top hat and tails with Verrry. Prrrecise. Diction. – is a bit more mellow when grown in Australia. It unwinds, relaxes, puts on a metaphorical open-necked shirt. Meanwhile, syrah, transported from the Rhône to the Antipodes, loses some of its Grendel-like darkness and ferocity, sometimes taking on a kind of sweet mulberries and cooked raspberry taste and smell. As shiraz, it acquires might and mass, becomes less of a craggy overhang, more like a great, looming mountain.

So the two grapes, instead of clashing in a misunderstanding of slightly socially challenged, if we are honest, (cabernet) and black-peppered rage (syrah), begin to fit together so much better. You get the pleasing drive and certainty of cabernet sauvignon layered into the heart of shiraz: a wine that is as warm and reassuring as a hug.

Cabernet-shiraz, or shiraz-cabernet, depending on how it’s mixed, is quintessentially Australian. They have been bottling shiraz and cabernet together in this country since the 19th century, when they called it claret, which you might say wasjust their way of saying, “This is the best red we do.” (The French don’t stand for that sort of behaviour anymore, you won’t be surprised to hear, even if the wine is going to be sold only on the other side of the world; though Penfolds did produce a 2009 red nostalgically labelled “Coonawarra Claret” – “We found out when the law was changing and rushed it out,” says winemaker Peter Gago.)

There are some truly impressive cabernet sauvignon and shiraz wines. For instance, Yalumba’s The Signature (cost: about £30), made with powerful Barossa fruit. Or Penfolds Bin 389 (cost: about £50), whose grapes come from many different regions, including Coonawarra, Barossa, Adelaide Hills and Wrattonbully. “This is the one we all buy, internally,” the chap from Treasury Wine Estates (which owns Penfolds) said to me as I tasted a dozen or so Penfolds wines in the unglamorous surroundings of a wine fair in Düsseldorf recently. What people buy within the trade, with their trade discounts, is always telling.

But the bliss of cabernet-shiraz is that it is not one of those annoying wines that only comes into its own at a price, with age and concentration. It also works, in a beautifully snuggly way, when it costs less than a tenner.

They don’t make cabernet-shiraz anywhere else. OK, technically they do – they put cabernet and shiraz in the same bottle in South Africa, for example – but it doesn’t sing like this.

The trend for single-varietal wines – “chardonnay” or “shiraz” or “sauvignon blanc” – means that this glorious Australian blend is under-enjoyed. The cheaper versions are the ones I drink when “Well I’ve just got to” has gone a bit too far and I couldn’t even make a decision about pizza topping if you asked me to. In those circumstances, it’s good to know the wine, at least, is sorted.

Read Victoria Moore's shiraz-cab picks

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