Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably the most well-known grape in the world. It is often associated with wine snobs for a couple of reasons. The first is that it tends to have fuller body, higher levels of pigment and more intense flavors, which can scare away a wine novice. The second is that the grape’s higher tannin and acid levels make it a desirable grape for aging. Aged wines are more costly and only the rich or well-connected can afford them on a regular basis. The common flavor profile of Cabernet can include black fruit, green bell pepper, cedar and menthol, or eucalyptus.
Cabernet is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It prefers a moderate to hot climate and sand or gravel soil. It is thick skinned, as you may guess by the pigmentation. It buds late and ripens late. If you will recall, this is the opposite of Merlot.
Cabernet is the other of the two principal grapes of the Bordeaux region. We have already learned that Merlot is the other. Remember also that, where Burgundy is more of a purist, requiring their wines to be homogenous, Bordeaux is a hetero. The wines here are blends that may also include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, or Petit Verdot and will be referred to as “Bordeaux blends,” which we will get to in more detail later.
Bordeaux is divided into the Left Bank and the Right Bank. To determine which is which, you must stand just beyond where the Gironde River splits, facing Northwest. To your left will be Cabernet dominated wines (Left Bank) and to your right will be Merlot dominated wines (Right Bank). Better known Left Bank villages for Cabernets are Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Graves, Pauillac, Pessac-Leognan and Margaux. This is the northernmost area where the varietal will ripen. The bell pepper flavor shows itself here, especially in the young wines.
Another outstanding region for Cabernet is Napa. If a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is labeled as such, at least 75% of the wine must come from this grape. Venturesome winemakers here create Bordeaux blends, but you will likely see them labeled as “Meritage.” There are some excellent examples of these wines. In the U.S., you are going to experience riper fruit flavors and higher tannin levels that is assisted by American oak.
Cabernet Sauvignon has played a very important role in the history of wine in the United States. For many years, California struggled to achieve the level of international notoriety that the French have enjoyed for centuries. After Prohibition, many California Cabernets were seen as excessively tannic or considered too bold for the rest of the world (as is the case with many things American). Many vineyards and wineries during this time were bought by investors with little to no experience in the industry. How could they possibly make a product to parallel those made for centuries in the Old World?
Fortunately, a professor from Chicago, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Vineyard, beat out quite a few of the top wines of Bordeaux (along with some other California samples) in a blind tasting held in 1976. This tasting, known as “The Judgment of Paris” is the subject of a delightful and informative book written by George Tabor. It is also the basis for the movie “Bottle Shock,” although the movie focuses more on the California Chardonnay - Chateau Montelena - that also took the crown, but in the white category.
Cabernet Sauvignon is also making a name for itself in Italy and its “Super Tuscans” and is playing a strong role in Chile’s gain on the marketplace. Here, Cabernet represents nearly half of the black grapes grown. Here, the bell pepper you taste is going to remind you more of a red than a green; you may even catch some mint. Blending partners in Chile include Merlot, but also Carmenere and Syrah. Central Valley and Maipo are regions to watch.
Choose one wine from a moderate climate and one from a hot climate. Look for differences in acidity. Are there any differences in flavor? Tannins? You may also choose to make your own “Judgment” and compare an Old World (Bordeaux) to a New World (Napa). Are there any similarities in texture, or are these wines distinctive from one another? If you already know that you enjoy a good Cab, and have the resources to do so, see how many different areas you can sample.
On The Label
Cabernet Sauvignon, Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan, Graves, St. Estephe, St. Julien
In The Bottle
Dark fruit, red fruit, smoke, sweet spice, herb, dried fruit, cedar
At The Table
Steak, grilled foods, red meat, lamb, aged cheese, smoked foods, black pepper