King Cabernet and Seductress Shiraz

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Cabernet may be king but the throne is faux and the real power lies with the seductress Shiraz. Cabernet is regarded as one of the great interlopers of indigenous and new vineyards worldwide, and is a chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc - a bastard, one might say.

But like all bastards, Cabernet can be as suave and sophisticated as any blue-blood, with no compunction about pretending to be king, or even Elvis.

Shiraz, cast for so long as a Persian belly dancer, actually has a more noble - and now fashionable - lineage. Unlike relative newcomer Cabernet in Bordeaux, Shiraz has reigned in the Rhone since Roman times and DNA profiling reveals it as progeny of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche in southeast France. Shiraz is now estimated to be at least the world's fifth most planted grape.

Cabernet's conqueror reputation is yet another pretence, for while he strode far and wide, he ruled neither his conquests nor his backyard with any real authority. As one Australian winemaker puts it "Bordeaux's greatest coup was in convincing the rest of the world that the great red Bordeaux is pure Cabernet".

Ironically, that is probably what early Bordelaise intended since it was only judicious fruit farming as a hedge against late-ripening Cabernet that saw its less famous blending consorts being planted – it was fortuitous that the blend worked in the cellar. Besides, Cabernet plantings are now greatly exceeded by Merlot, the next pretender to the throne.

Seducers can leave the seduced the better for it and Shiraz is no exception. In the South of France, Shiraz or Syrah, has been added as a cépage améliorateur or 'improver' variety to the appellation wines of Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. Syrah is used to add colour and structure. In fact, unlike Cabernet and Merlot for example, it's allowed in to all the fine red appellations.

In the Côte-Rôtie, up to 20% Viogner can be added to Syrah, and in Hermitage 15% may comprise Marsanne and/or Roussane, but improved tannin management has seen this practice all but disappear, with Syrah increasingly confident in its solo act, while regally helping others put on a show.

So envious was the King of the seductress he became - for hundreds of years - a cross-dresser. During the 18th and 19th centuries many red Bordeaux were in fact Hermitage as Bordeaux merchants desperately needed to puff up King Cabernet. Early in the 19th century, merchant Nathaniel Johnston wrote "The Lafitte of 1795, which was made up with Hermitage, was the best liked of any of that year."

The truth is Cabernet needs his consorts. He needs the flesh of Merlot, the perfume of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot's colour and scent of violets. Without these his throne would be lacklustre and his royal accoutrements threadbare, his blue skin concealing his lack of blue blood.

Cabernet also reveals less than regal conduct in the vineyard where he needs rootstocks to control his vigour, a permanent training wheel if you like. He is also susceptible to powdery mildew and doesn't care much when you pick him from the vine. Shiraz, however, demands a more punctual harvest for she may be perfectly ripe the one day and over-ripe the next. Shiraz is quite fussy about where she grows. You simply have to treat her right, just like the queen.

Meanwhile Cabernet has been happy to pimp himself to powerful retailers, believing his own hype, laying waste to indigenous varieties the world over. A brand unto himself, Cabernet is often readily identifiable in the glass regardless of where it is grown, showing at least two to three of his character traits. However, doubt surrounding Cabernet's true credentials continue to grow.

Both Cabernet and Shiraz need plenty of heat and light to ripen, but the seductress can do it with less water, for she is made of sterner stuff. Unlike the king, she also holds her composure at higher alcohols, remaining true to self, while the king often loses character and focus above 14.5%.

Shiraz's makeover is complete - transformed from belly dancer to popular superstar, as comfortable taking the leading role as playing back up singer. The King - for now - is lost in the audience.


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