Yalumba: Coonawarra Cabernet Classes

28 02 2019

[These wines were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Tonight’s bottle duet replicates one of the most common questions that plagues burgeoning wine consumers:  when it is worth it to jump a tier?  If you’ve tasted and enjoyed the entry-level offering from a given producer, should you invest the extra few bucks to try their next level up?  Will you get more in return, enough more to justify the additional expense?  Value judgments and personal preference are always at least somewhat subjective, but objectively, when you move from a winery’s starter bottle to the next level up, and when you pay more for that privilege, it’s often because you’re getting one or more of:  (1) better, more consistent, more carefully sorted grapes, (2) better vineyard sources, or older vines from within the same vineyard, (3) more estate fruit grown by the producer itself, (4) better (or at least more expensive) winemaking and maturation practices, including more time aging in oak barrels (my legal career confirms that, in some ways at least, time is in fact money), and/or (5) better lots, blends or barrels from the results of the winemaking process.  You can see the similarities in style, region and approach common to the producer between the entry-level or next-level bottles, but in theory at least, due in part to the factors above, you should see some elevation in quality and product as you climb the hierarchy.


That isn’t to say that pricier is always better; diminishing returns are real in the world of wine, particularly when you enter the realm of luxury wines that cannot hope to deliver the value per dollar of their earthbound affiliates.  But in my experience, the price jump from the cheapest offering of a given brand to its next level up almost always pays off in quality; the patience and precision and commitment required to make truly good wine can be strained when you’re also trying to keep below a $20 price tag, and even the slightest bit of economic leeway can make a massive difference.  Neither of tonight’s offerings fall fully into the entry-level category, but they represent the first and second rungs of Yalumba’s Coonawarra Cab quality tiers, so they will serve nicely to illustrate the considerations that go into whether to make the jump.


2016 Yalumba Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (~$23)

The reason this Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon can’t fully be described as “entry-level” is that nothing from Coonawarra is entry-level — this is a legendary region, one of the few in the world to be instantly recognizable by virtue of its primary feature, in this case the prominently rust-red terra rossa soils that have to be seen to be believed.  For Coonawarra, however, this majestic red dirt might only be the cherry on the sundae of what makes the area tick, as it hides a rich vein of water-preserving, grape-developing limestone and a swath of marine fossil complexity, relics from when the region was at the bottom of the Great Southern Ocean.  Coonawarra is world-renowned for Cabernet Sauvignon, and there aren’t many estate-grown Coonawarra Cabs that clock in for less than this; Yalumba has worked some magic to bring this product of its decades-old Menzies Estate vineyard to market at this price point.


I’ve had this wine before, but not for well over a year, and the extra time in bottle has done wonders for its contents without abandoning any of the vivid primacy on which I have to assume this bottle hangs its hat.  One of the ways that you can control the price of Coonawarra Cab is to shorten its time in pricy oak barrels, and this one does that by only placing a quarter of the finished wine in barrel, and then only for 4 months.  This makes for a fascinating case study across from the more classically oaked Cab coming nexts.  The “entry-level” Yalumba Coonawarra is a deep yet limber ruby-purple colour, briefly glass-staining but still lightening substantially at the rim.  Its joyously primary nose is comprised mostly of plump red fruit (redcurrant, cherry, boysenberry), tempered by brambly, leafy herbaceousness but buoyed by Wine Gums gelatinous tang, not to mention Coonawarra’s telltale mint signature (expressed here more like menthol inhaler, but I got the idea).

This is emphatically not your stereotypical heavy, sloppy, warm-weather New World Cab — from the first sip onwards, it is sleek, juicy and tart, with addictive energy and surprising focus.  Springy and agile on the tongue, it is a lively beast, its citrus-inflected acid much more prominent than its quietly powdery tannin.  To me it reads as a compelling embrace of modern Australia, moving beyond grocery store trends and attention-grabbing labels to true value and something more lasting.  A compelling way to do Coonawarra on a budget.

88+ points


Stelvin/Cork Ratings:  6.5/10 & 7/10 (Multiple bonus points for the latter thanks to the DS medallion…I’m easily swayed and do not apologize.)

2014 Yalumba “The Cigar” Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (~$39)

Jump a tier and $15 or so, add a couple more years of bottle age, and let’s see if the quality boost supports the price inflation.  One immediate reason why this is an older release is that it spent 14 months in oak barrels instead of four; the whole blend got the barrique treatment (some brand-new barrels, most older ones) as well, as opposed to just a quarter.  This mid-tier Cab is named “The Cigar” after the narrow rectangular shape of its home region, made long and skinny thanks to the thin north-south distribution of the terra rossa.  (It also comes with an attached “Distinguished Sites” metal medallion that I quite enjoy, even if the site in question is the same as that which spawned the medal-less base wine above.)  The Cigar’s added bottle age and time in oak make for a more stately rich ruby colour and make for an utterly magnificent nose of cedar planks and clove, blackcurrant and eucalyptus, bay leaf and black bean, and (of course) every kind of smoking-related aroma you can conceive of:  sweetly pungent tobacco, leather armchairs, matchsticks, cigar box.


In contrast to its younger brother, this evolved offering swaps acid for tannin emphasis, its wood-aided structure both a focal point and a fulcrum for brown sugar, black raspberry, pepper, lilac and mint julep flavours.  The finish extends longer but the brightness fades earlier than the starter Coonawarra above, as the fruit-laden vivacity of the former wine is replaced by a presence no less enjoyable but slightly more ponderous.  These two wines almost couldn’t be more different, but for all of the ways in which they are alike:  same winery, same region, same site, same grape.  Remarkable.  But is The Cigar worth the jump?  Its more prestigious grape selection and maturation process have lent it an aromatic profile to die for, but some palates will still long for a hint of the freshness imbued in every drop of the base Cab.  I prefer The Cigar, but I can see the merit of each bottle and have some sympathy for the thought that, in this case, the leap into the $40 stratosphere might not provide proportionately increased value.  What I will say is that a greater appreciation for both Yalumba and Coonawarra comes with tasting both together.

90+ points




4 responses

28 02 2019

Nice article. Interesting read.


1 03 2019
Peter Vetsch

Thanks so much!


1 03 2019

Great post, easy to read, understand educational and fun. Cheers 🍷


1 03 2019
Peter Vetsch

Thanks a lot Phil!


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