Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the world’s most renowned red wine grape for the production of fine red wines. It is also one of the most widely planted (overtaking Merlot again in 2015). From its power base, and probable origin in Bordeaux, France, it is now grown in nearly every major wine producing country among a diverse spectrum of climates. The grape is a relatively new variety, apparently the product of a an accidental breeding between a red Cabernet Franc grape plant and white Sauvignon blanc plant during the 17th century in southwestern France.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a red grape varietal known for its thick, durable skin, and the vine’s resistance to the elements. It is adaptable to a wide range of soils, although it performs particularly well on well-drained, low-fertile soils. It has small, dusty, black-blue berries with thick skins. The distinguishing feature of the Cabernet Sauvignon berry is the high ratio of pip to pulp. The grapes produce deeply coloured, full-bodied wines with notable tannins. Its spiritual home is the Left Bank regions of Bordeaux, Médoc and Graves, where it thrives on the well-drained gravel-rich soils producing tannic wines with piercing blackcurrant fruits that develop complex cedarwood and cigar box nuances when fully mature. The Bordeaux winemakers loved the grape’s healthy level of tannins, which meant the wine could evolve in the bottle for many years. They also determined that it responded incredibly well to spending time in oak, as the oak brought out beautiful new flavours. The result was a wine that was full-bodied with a medium level of acidity that was fantastic for drinking with food.
As the Bordeaux wine blend evolved into one of the world’s most famous and highly coveted wines, the Bordeaux brand spread across the globe, and with it went the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. As the name of the grape spread, and more people around the world began to grow it, many took to calling Cabernet Sauvignon the great colonizer, as it became the most widely planted grape globally, until Merlot overtook it in the nineties.
Cabernet Sauvignon covers a wide spectrum of aromas and flavours. It can be herbaceous when a little unripe with capsicum notes, becoming blackcurrant or cassis-like often with cedary, musky and spicy qualities. It’s deep-coloured and its assertive tannins and affinity with oak allow the wines to improve in bottle over years if not decades. It is equally capable of producing affordable, everyday reds in some French regions and countries like Bulgaria, as it is of producing wines with real finesse and class, the best of which come from Bordeaux and California and parts of Tuscany and Australia. In recent years Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina are laying claim to some very good blends and varietals made from Cabernet Sauvignon. In California Cabernet Sauvignon based wines are distinguished by their rich mixture of cassis, mint, eucalyptus and vanilla oak. In Australia it is planted with particular success in Coonawarra where it is suited to the famed Terra Rossa soil. In Italy barrique aged Cabernet Sauvignon is a key component in Super Tuscans usually as part of a blend with Sangiovese and sometimes on its own.
In California, Australian and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon wine, you can often spot mint or eucalyptus. Its affinity with oak lends secondary characters with a range of vanilla, cedar, sandalwood, tobacco, coffee, musk and spicy notes. In cooler climates, Cabernet Sauvignon tends to produce wines with blackcurrant notes that can be accompanied by green bell pepper notes, mint and cedar which will all become more pronounced as the wine ages. In more moderate climates the blackcurrant notes are often seen with black cherry and black olive notes while in very hot climates the currant flavours can veer towards the over-ripe and “jammy” side.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a large part of Cabernet Sauvignon’s reputation was built on its ability to age and develop in the bottle. In addition to softening some of their austere tannins, as Cabernet wines age new flavours and aromas can emerge and add to the wines’ complexity. Even with the ability to age, some Cabernet Sauvignon wines can still be approachable a few years after vintage. In Bordeaux, the tannins of the wines tend to soften after ten years and can typically last for at least another decade-sometimes longer depending on the producer and vintage. Some Spanish and Italian Cabernet Sauvignons will need similar time as Bordeaux to develop but most examples are typically made to be drunk earlier
Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine that needs to be drunk with food, given its acidity, tannins and alcohol. Often paired with fatty meats, other possibilities include figs and walnuts. Fats and proteins reduce the perception of tannins on the palate. When Cabernet Sauvignon is paired with steak or dishes with a heavy butter cream sauce, the tannins are neutralized, allowing the fruits of the wine to be more noticeable.
Its popularity is often attributed to its ease of cultivation—the grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy and naturally low yielding, budding late to avoid frost and resistant to viticultural hazards such as rot and insects—and to its consistent presentation of structure and flavours which express the typical character, typicity, of the variety. In many aspects, Cabernet Sauvignon can reflect the desires and personality of the winemaker while still presenting familiar flavours that express the typical character of the variety. The most pronounced effects are from the use of oak during production. Typically the first winemaking decision is whether or not to produce a varietal or blended wine. The “Bordeaux blend” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet franc, with potentially some Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carménère, is the classic example of blended Cabernet Sauvignon. In parts of Australia, Cabernet Sauvignon wines tend to have a characteristic eucalyptus or menthol notes.