The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Masters revealed

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We reveal all the medallists from this year’s Global Wine Masters for Cabernet Sauvignon, along with a full analysis of the stylistic trends taking place with the king of grapes.

Cabernet seems in no danger of losing its flagship status as the king of grapes. Such a reputation, bestowed on it for its role in the great wines of the world, could have been diminished by its extensive use in lesser labels, or clumsy handling, even in top-end blends.
However, thanks to Cabernet’s ability to consistently deliver drinks with concentration and structure, along with lift and softness, this is still the go-to grape for attention-grabbing wine.
Augmenting such a position is Cabernet’s affinity for barrel ageing and blending with a wide range of varieties, most commonly Merlot in France, Sangiovese in Italy, and Shiraz in Australia.
So what about the style and quality of the Cabernet being made today?
Judging by this year’s Cabernet Masters, this grape is in a good place.
As you can see from the following tables, we had a large number of Gold medal-winning samples in a range of price bands, and from a broad sweep of sources.
Such a strong performance can be traced to the improved management of the grape in the vineyard and the cellar. While Cabernet can give crunchy green characters when not fully ripe, if the grape receives enough sun exposure and time on the vine, such capsicum-like flavours will diminish, if not disappear.
The challenge is to obtain fully ripe Cabernet without also creating a wine with too much alcohol. Thankfully, the incidence of excessively warming wines in this year’s Masters was lower than in previous competitions.
The Global Masters: making winners out of winemakers

As for cellar management, Cabernet, with its small berries and thick skins, can yield extremely tannic wines, if extraction regimes are forceful. Couple such grape-derived polymers with barrique-sourced tannins, and the wines can be excessively drying.

However, as we found in the majority of wines in the competition, the tannins of Cabernet were certainly present, but not aggressive. It seems winemakers are taking a softer approach to this noble grape, and are pulling back on the proportion of new oak used for maturing the wines.
So, the base standard of Cabernet being produced today seems to be moving upwards. These wines still have plenty of delicious dark fruit, but fewer have fatiguing characters, such as grainy, mouth-coating tannins, hot alcoholic finishes, or overtly sweet vanillin flavours from barrel ageing.
As to the high points – wines with intense blackcurrant fruit, cedar and chocolate complexity, ripe tannins, and a bright finish – we found them from a number of places, but particularly Sonoma Country, Coonawarra, Hawke’s Bay, the Barossa, Napa and the Maipo.
Such places are already famous for the quality of their Cabernet, but it was pleasing to have this confirmed in our blind-tasting format, as well as pick out the top performing producers.
Having said that, there were also a clutch of great Cabernets from more obscure areas of the wine world. These were Israel’s Upper Galilee and Turkey’s Strandja Mountains.
Indeed, this year’s tasting highlighted two great producers of Cabernet that may not be known to many. One is Israel’s Barkan Winery, which is making an exciting array of Cabernets with power and charm, differentiated according to the varying altitudes of their vineyards.
The other is Turkey’s Chamlija, a producer of richly-flavoured dense reds with interest and enough dryness on the finish to keep them refreshing. Among the established Cabernet-producing corners of the globe, we were impressed by the quality-to-price ratio of the wines from Jacob’s Creek and Wakefield/Taylors Wines, showing that Australia can yield soft, juicy, pleasing Cabs at keen prices.
Wines with a real wow factor came, above all, from Sonoma County, along with the Napa Valley, although it was the former region that gained more top medals.
Notably delicious, with pure, polished intense black fruit, were the Cabs from Stonestreet Estate, as well as Kenwood Vineyards, although Gallica and Freemark Abbey were at a similar level of quality.
It should be noted that the tasting did not include the great wines of Bordeaux, but when it comes to varietal Cabernets – as opposed to blended versions – it is generally the aforementioned New World wine regions that dominate global production of the grape.
The judges, left to right, front row: Susan Hulme MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Jonathan Pedley MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW. Back row: David Round MW, Andrea Briccarello, Beverly Tabbron MW, Tobias Gorn

Judge’s opinion: Jonathan Pedley MW

Thinking back over recent editions of the Cabernet Sauvignon Masters, my thoughts are positive. There were fewer green/sappy/vegetal/unripe notes in the wines in the 2019 competition. There was less reduction. The oak was competently, and in most cases subtly, handled. The main negatives were: hot alcohol in quite a few wines, and tough dry tannins that will not resolve themselves over time. Reconciling the need for ripeness (to eliminate the green notes) with keeping the alcohol level under control is clearly one of the challenges in making great Cabernet Sauvignon. Managing the tannins should be a bit easier. I am yet to be convinced that many of today’s super-premium reds, with their thuggish tannins and fiery levels of alcohol, will ever reach a state of harmony regardless of how much bottle age they receive. We managed a reasonable spread of Gold medals in the price ranges. We had no joy with the dwindling under-£10 bracket (rising costs and taxes make it harder to produce something interesting), but there were two wines in the £10-£15 category that were given Golds. We experienced the usual dip in the big £15-£20 flight, with many wines showing over-extraction (probably a case of too much fancy winemaking with fruit that is nothing special), although we awarded one Gold in the £20-£30 bracket. A Gold rush came at the higher price points. On a personal level, while there were plenty of powerful concentrated wines I did not find many that had the elegance and harmony to get me thinking about a potential Master. In terms of origin, Australia seems to have achieved the highest hit rate, with Coonawarra doing particularly well. That said, California, South Africa and Chile all picked up Golds, with the latter doing better than usual.

Judge’s opinion: Patricia Stefanowicz MW

Judging the Cabernet Sauvignon Masters gives a most enlightening picture of the world’s most prominent red grape variety, and the 2019 Masters was no exception. There was much to like. Medal-worthy wines generally showed high quality: they were juicy, well-balanced and delicious, whether inexpensive or ridiculously expensive. The exciting wines came from all over the globe. Australia performed well as expected, as did the US. Chile seems to have gotten to grips with ripening the grapes, and the vegetal, green pepper notes of yore were less evident in the wines. There were also some intriguing examples from Lebanon and Turkey, and some rather special versions came from Argentina. What makes the best of these wines delicious is the vibrancy and delightful expression in the varietal Cabernets and the fleshiness across the mid-palate in the blends. The blends showed especially well at £15-£30, where Merlot gave fleshiness and Cabernet Franc a floral lift. Elegance across the range seems to be improving, with beautiful freshness and velvet-textured tannins balanced with concentrated fruit and a well-judged use of oak. Alcohol levels also appear to be a little lower, poised gracefully with fruit, oak and structure. Probably the most consistency came in the £15-£20 price band, with at least one stellar wine and no disasters. And the same could be said of the £20-£30 bracket, where we were panning for gold regularly. Above £30, the wines performed as they should: delectable, absolutely beautiful, concentrated and lingering with a gorgeous expression of Cabernet Sauvignon flavours and well-integrated oak. They are expensive but mostly worth the price. In particular, the ultra-premium wines of Sonoma County were really rather special indeed. If there were minor disappointments, South Africa was occasionally a little too robust, exhibiting charred meat and full body (and high alcohol) but perhaps not enough depth of blackcurrant fruit. Are they trying too hard? When in balance though, a wine could work well. It seems a little daft to make unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon; those we tried appeared to be missing something to fill the mid-palate.

About the competition

The Drinks Business Global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters is a competition for all styles of Cab from around the world. This year’s event saw over 150 entries judged blind by a panel of highly experienced tasters. The best wines were awarded medals which ranged from Bronze through to Gold as well as Master, the ultimate accolade given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines were tasted at Beach Blanket Babylon Restaurant and Bar in London’s Notting Hill on 17 April. This report features only the medal winners. For further information on the Global Masters please call +44 (0)20 7803 2420 or email Sophie Raichura at: sophie@thedrinksbusiness.com or visit the Global Masters website.
Judging the Cabernet Masters 2019
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