Cabernet Sauvignon is the Alpha, the big dog. Many people say “Cab is King.”
They’re not wrong.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a dominant force in the wine industry and the most popular choice among US wine consumers. Not hard to see why.
Cabernet Sauvignon originated in the Bordeaux region of France in the 1600’s. Eventually researchers at UC Davis concluded it was made by crossing Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Whether this was done intentionally or not is debated.
One thing not up for debate? The resounding success of this creation.
Cabernet has long been the headlining grape variety in Bordeaux, where it thrives, especially in the gravely soil of the left bank. It’s relatively easy to grow, with thick skins, a strong tannic backbone, ample fruit, and the ability to age elegantly for many years. It also develops a number of nuanced secondary flavors and aromas after spending some time in oak.
All this is to say, it’s a well endowed wine.
Soon after taking hold in Bordeaux, local winemakers started blending it with Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, giving birth to the infamous “Bordeaux blend”.
New world and old world styles
As one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon is subject to a variety of styles. Certainly that’s part of its wide appeal; anyone can find one that suits their palate, from a fresh, lightly oaked version to a super extracted style dripping in sweet oak.
In general, these styles can be split between new and old world.
New world Cabernet is riper, with more pronounced fruit and softer tannins. It’s more approachable upon release, and is typically associated with warmer regions like California. Still, plenty of Bordeaux winemakers use modern techniques to fashion extremely polished, rich, and ripe examples.
Old world Cabernet shows a more rustic personality, where the ripe fruit profile takes a back seat, and more pronounced charcoal/slate, green pepper and earthy notes ride up front. This style is generally associated with cooler climates like Bordeaux, but again, winemakers can exert a certain amount of influence over the end result.
California’s rise to cabernet stardom
Today we take it for granted that California produces some incredible cabernet. Yet for decades people discounted their wines as as inferior, better suited for large jugs and immediate enjoyment by less sophisticated folks, to put it nicely.
Then the “Judgement of Paris” happened and everything changed.
That was when a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet took first place in the famous Paris blind tasting organized by Steven Spurrier. The world began taking California wine seriously. Other California entrants included Ridge’s Monte Bello, Mayacamas, Heitz, and Clos du Val, all of which fared well against stiff competition of classified Bordeaux like Haut-Brion, Lafite, Montrose, etc.
Today California cab represents the New World style, with a core of lush, ripe fruit, softer tannins. They’re easier to enjoy young but still retain magnificent ability to age gracefully for many decades. In Napa, where Cabernet is the most widely planted grapevine, it also fetches the highest price, sometimes exceeding $20,000 per ton!
Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot
These two very popular grapes are often confused by newcomers to wine.
They do share some similarities, but in fact, they’re quite different. Cabernet Sauvignon is more aggressive, tannic, and structured, while merlot shows a softer, plush personality with less tannic grip, more generous fruit, and a stronger profile of cocoa. Cabernet is usually drier than Merlot, which is often perceived to be a touch sweeter than Cabernet.
Cabernet is not exactly a beginner’s wine. The boldness can be intimidating to some. Cheap cabernet doesn’t usually do the grape justice, and leaves you with a bad impression.
In the glass
Cabernet is a full-bodied red wine, with moderate acidity and great aging potential. Overall dark black cherry, blackcurrant, vanilla, tobacco, new leather, and black pepper are some of the primary flavors and aromas you can expect to find in a glass of Cabernet. Secondary flavors might include hints of oak, olive, plum, mushroom, and red currant.
There’s also a rather distinct flavor often found in Cabernet – green bell pepper. This comes from pyrazines in the grape, which can vary depending on the ripeness, but are almost always present in some small amount. Cabernet from cooler regions like Bordeaux show more prominent vegetal or “green” notes.
Some cabs, like those made by Napa’s Heitz Cellars, are well known for their minty/eucalyptus notes. This isn’t as common, but in places like Pauillac, Washington State it seems to be more prevalent.
Where it’s grown
While France may have given rise to Cabernet, plenty of other regions make it their star player. In Italy Cabernet lays the foundation for their powerful “Super Tuscan” style wine, combining forces with Sangiovese and Cab Franc. In Spain they often blend it with Tempranillo. Chile has some excellent, fresh, fruity examples as well.
And of course, California Cabernet is perhaps the best definition of new world style.
Over the past few decades Cabernet has risen to take the #1 spot as the most planted variety in the world. In total, there are more than 650,000 acres of cabernet growing around the world. France, Chile, the US, Australia, Italy, South Africa and Argentina make up the largest holdings of cabernet.
It does well in warmer climates, and needs a long growing season thanks to it ripening later than most other grapes. California provides the ideal home, where it sees plenty of warm days and very little rainfall.
Outside California, the most sought-after Cabs come from Bordeaux’s left bank. Cabernet from Bordeaux endures a different life. There the weather is less predictable, and it’s often harvested a little earlier, yielding a less ripe, higher acid version.
Cabernet Sauvignon is quickly growing in popularity in Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand. Not only is this grape being planted because of consumer popularity but also because of its ability to grow in a wider variety of climates and regions and tends to ripen later than other grapes, making it easier for growers and winemakers to harvest if they have multiple varietals in their vineyards.
Cabernet Sauvignon and food go together like a ’64 impala and hydraulics. Truly an excellent and versatile food friendly wine. Especially does well with fatty meats, where the tannins can bind to the fats, and rich, hearty pastas. From filet mignon and sirloins down to hamburgers, wings lasagna and bolognese. It also plays nicely with salami and aged cheddar or gouda.
Great cabs worth seeking out:
- Chateau Montelena- Napa Valley, CA
- Clarendon Hills- McLaren Vale, Australia
- Kendall Jackson- Alexander Valley, CA
- Barnard Griffin- Columbia Valley, WA
- Chateau Margaux- Bordeaux, France
feature photo via Flickr