Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular and widely made wines, grown in nearly every wine producing country. Cabernet varietal wines and Cabernet-dominant blends command some of the highest prices and greatest respect in the world. The grape has seen a phenomenal rise in popularity since its first mention in Bordeaux during the eighteenth century.
In 1996, researchers at UC Davis discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon is the genetic result of a natural crossing between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Its amazing diversity of flavor-producing compounds (called phenolics), small berry size, and high levels of tannin and acidity result in wines that are deeply colored, structured, and complex with great potential for aging. It’s a relatively young grape with the first modern spelling traced to 1840. Since that time, its popularity has exploded, and it has become one of the most successful varieties in history.
The tannins, acidity, and intense flavors of Cabernet make it a good pairing with hearty dishes that have a strong flavor and fat component. Steak is a classic pairing, but Cabernet is also good with dishes like lamb or venison, as well as mushrooms, vegetable stews, or hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The original home of Cabernet Sauvignon is in Bordeaux, where it is still the primary grape in the five most venerated wines of the region – the so-called “first growths” – Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Mouton Rothschild. The practice of blending grapes in Bordeaux results from the relatively mild climate in which Cabernet Sauvignon can fail to ripen completely, depending on the weather. In cooler years, the addition of softer, fruitier grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Franc is necessary to temper the intense tannins of the blend. Even in warm years, Bordeaux wineries like the flexibility of being able to control the style and taste of the final product through blending. The blends of Bordeaux have been widely imitated around the world.
Cabernet Sauvignon has a century-long history in Tuscany, though its presence there has been met with controversy. Many Italians see the grape as a French intruder that threatens local heritage at the expense of native grapes like Sangiovese. In the 1970s, a group of winemakers on Tuscany’s Bolgheri Coast began making wines with Cabernet, Merlot, and other French grapes often blended with Italian varieties like Sangiovese. These wines, now known as Super Tuscans, did not follow strict government rules stipulating how wine could and couldn’t be made and were therefore sold simply as “table wine.” Some of these wines include Tignanello, Ornellaia, and Sassicaia. These Super Tuscan producers showed the world that Cabernet from Bolgheri can be world class with quality equal to any in the world.
Cabernet was first planted in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in the mid-nineteenth century and gained international acclaim in 1976 when Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon beat some of the best French wines in a blind tasting competition. It helped put California on the map – Cabernet from Sonoma and Napa is now considered archetypal, with rich, supple textures, and a fruity, approachable character when compared to the drier and more tannic European Cabernet.
The summer days in Washington State are longer than in California due to the higher latitude which allows for greater ripeness in the vineyards. Eastern Washington has areas that are perfectly suited for growing Cabernet, with rocky, well-drained soils and dry air. The wines of Washington are only recently getting the attention they deserve. Keep an eye out for Washington Cabernet if you haven’t already tried it.
Of all the regions in South America, it’s a tiny area near the Chilean capital of Santiago called Puente Alto that has emerged as a premier source for Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of the wines from the Puente Alto sell for high prices and are considered world-class in quality.
Australia is home to two regions that are known for their Cabernet. Coonawarra on South Australia’s Limestone Coast is famous for its red soil, called terra rossa, which is considered a factor in producing excellent Cabernet. Margaret River is an area on the western coast that has a moderate, Mediterranean climate influenced by the cool southern ocean. Cabernet from Margaret River can be drier and more subtle than those from South Australia and are often made in a style inspired by the wines of Bordeaux.
It’s not an accident that Cabernet has become such a popular grape. We never seem to get tired of it, and since it’s so widely planted, we have access to a huge variety of choices. Enjoy your continued exploration of this exciting variety!