Of all of the world’s grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most well-known and has been planted around the world. The grape calls France, and particularly Bordeaux, home. It’s a relatively new variety having been developed as a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc in the 17th century. Its popularity stems from its heartiness and its wines’ ability to age and develop layers of complexity.
The grape’s skin is thick and rot resistant while it flowers late and usually avoids spring frosts. Its yields are normally low although green harvesting is often done in top vineyards to further reduce yield and concentrate the remaining grapes. The typical Cabernet wine shows deep color, full body, firm tannins in the finish and notes ranging from currant, through mint, cedar and blackberry to eucalyptus.
The variety’s popularity has created one of the most traveled grapes as it has been planted in most wine producing countries including the United States, Australia, Chile, South Africa and even Italy and Spain where it is often blended with native varieties. In its native Bordeaux it thrives in the deep gravel hills or croupes of the Médoc where the water drains easily into the Gironde River and the vines have to struggle to produce. It is usually blended with varying amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and dashes of Petit Verdot and Malbec. The wines of Bordeaux are still viewed as the ultimate expression of the variety with tremendous life and complexity.
Early settlers brought Cabernet to America where it found a ready home in the Napa Valley. The floor of the valley along the Napa River is similar to the Médoc with its gravel and drainage. On the dry hillsides bordering the valley the grapes get less water and develop thicker skins yielding deep color and firm structure. It has moved from there to Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake County and Paso Robles in California and many of the U. S. states.
French Huguenots took their vines with them to South Africa and Cabernet found a new home. Early attempts to produce quality Cabernet met limited success as the vines were too often planted in cool areas where the grapes couldn’t ripen fully. Stellenbosch and Constantia have some very mature vines now and some highly regarded wines are coming from those regions.
Settlers took the variety to South America where it thrives in Chile’s Maipo Valley. The dry climate and soil yield intense wines with deep color and firm structure. Some of the best wines of the country are blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère and Petit Verdot. Wines such as Almaviva and Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta are iconic wines of the country.
In its globe-hopping life Cabernet has turned up in Australia where it varies in style from the highly prized wines from Coonawarra’s warm climate to Margaret River on the west coast where the cooler climate often produces more subtle wines.
Try some variations on this always changing and traveling variety.
Brad Lewis, ABC Fine & Wine Spirits