Cultivating wine is a tough business, and its success depends on many different factors. The soils and climate are the most crucial factors. They determine which variables can be cultivated in which region. But some varieties are so adaptable that they can grow in almost any place. One of them is Cabernet Sauvignon.
What Is Cabernet Sauvignon?
Cabernet Sauvignon is a red grape variety. It originated in France, but it’s one of the most widely spread varietals worldwide today. Vintners use it to produce full-bodied red wines that are very tannic and have significant acidity and alcohol levels.
Because of the grape’s characteristics, vintners worldwide use Cabernet Sauvignon to make very versatile wines with different taste profiles. And it’s not only popular as a pure varietal wine. It’s also an ingredient in many famous blends. In this article, we will discuss all the details.
The Grape Characteristics
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are relatively easy to cultivate because it doesn’t require much effort to keep them healthy. The small berries have thick skins that protect them from fungi, insects, and other harmful diseases.
The vines are adaptable to all types of soils and robust against many climatic influences. They can stand warmer as well as colder climates. Or in other words, they can survive in both the Old World and the New World. Nevertheless, the grapes always showcase the typical Cabernet characteristics, no matter where they grow.
Another (and maybe the most) crucial advantage of the varietal is an economic factor: Cabernet produces high yields. So whether vintners want to mass-produce wine or make high-quality styles in lower quantities, Cabernet is the right pick for them.
Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes
More Details on Old and New World Wine: COMPARING OLD WORLD WINE VS. NEW WORLD WINE
The History of Cabernet Sauvignon
For a long time, the origin of the Cabernet Sauvignon variety wasn’t clear, and its name is partly a result of this uncertainty. The term “Sauvignon” derives from the French word “sauvage” (English: wild).
Some experts believed that the grapes came from the Spanish Rioja region. Others thought it might be related to the French Carménère varietal. And a couple of them even considered it an ancient grape that the Romans used to make their wines.
It took until 1997 to discover Cabernet Sauvignon’s true heritage. By analyzing its DNA, Californian scientists could prove that it actually is an offspring of two very different varietals: Cabernet France, a red grape, and Sauvignon Blanc, a white variety. It was most likely the result of an accidental breeding between the two in the 17th century in France.
Long before its true origin was revealed, Cabernet Sauvignon spread around the world. The reason for its rise was its characteristics: The robust vines and the thick-skinned grapes are resistant to many diseases and parasites that tend to affect vineyards. Thus, it’s easier to cultivate them, keep them healthy, and bring in decent yields.
Vintners in Bordeaux were among the first to cultivate the new varietal. Especially in the Médoc region, they used it to blend their world-famous red wines. But over the centuries, winemakers from all parts of the world adopted it, for instance, from Napa Valley in California or Maipo Valley in Chile.
Napa Valley Cabernet is particularly noteworthy as it contributed massively to the rise of New World wines. In 1976, a special event took place that became known as The Judgement of Paris. A jury of nine of the most respected sommeliers and wine experts gathered for a wine tasting. In a blind test, they compared some of the finest French wines with unknown wines from California. And amazingly, both the red and the white American wines, among them Cabernets, won the competition.
Inspired by that success, New World vintners focused their efforts to produce high-class wines, and Cabernet Sauvignon gained even more popularity. Nowadays, it’s the world’s most popular varietal with almost 800,000 acres of vines.
How Do Cabernet Sauvignon Wines Taste?
Pure Cabernet Sauvignon wines are full-bodied with high alcohol contents of up to 15%. They have medium acidity, medium to high levels of tannins, and intense flavors of red and black fruits.
Young wines often are very tannic and thus taste very harsh. But when they age, the tannins slowly soften and make the wine more enjoyable. For that reason, oaking is a common practice, especially among winemakers who aim to produce high-class wines. The oaking does not only soften the wine; it also adds exciting spicy and earthy flavors, such as vanilla, tobacco, or leather. In sum, these changes result in a more complex and more balanced structure.
More Details on Oaking Wine: WHAT IS OAKED WINE AND HOW DOES IT TASTE?
Its origin has a significant impact on the wine’s taste. If it comes from a colder region, the grapes might not have the chance to ripen fully before the weather incites the need to harvest. In this case, the wine likely features notes of green vegetables.
In wines from warmer regions, the aromas of black fruits such as plum, black cherry, cassis usually are more dominant.
Where Do Cabernet Sauvignon Wines Come From?
With more than 742,000 acres of vines, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular varietal of the world. Due to their robustness, vintners can cultivate them in both warm New World countries and cooler Old World areas. Depending on the region and its microclimate, the wines they make can differ significantly, though.
Bordeaux, the varietal’s home, is still the region with the most Cabernet plantings worldwide. It has AOC status, which is the highest quality category in France. So Bordeaux wines are among the best French red wines.
More Details on Quality Categories: WHAT THE APPELLATION OF ORIGIN TELLS YOU ABOUT WINE
Initially, wine laws allowed only six red varietals to make them: Malbec, Merlot, Carmenere, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. In July 2019, four new varieties were added to the list. However, they play only a minor role so far.
Pure Cabernet wines are relatively rare in Bordeaux. Top-quality Bordeaux wines typically are blends of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The proportions and the taste vary based on the exact production area. In general, wine experts distinguish the Left Bank and the Right Bank of Bordeaux.
The Left Bank is the region west of the Garonne river. It includes appellations such as Médoc or Pessac-Léognan. In this area, Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant varietal in Bordeaux wines. It produces deep-colored, concentrated but well-balanced wines with full bodies, firm tannins, and perceivable acidity. They offer intense flavors of black fruits such as blackberries, cherries, cassis as well as notes of coffee, vanilla, and other spices. These are some examples:
- Chateau Peyrabon 2016
- Chateau Larroque Bordeaux Superieur 2015
- Chateau Pontet-Canet 2016
Consequently, the Right Bank is the area east of the river. Right Bank wines usually feature Merlot as the most important ingredient, with only small portions of Cabernet Sauvignon. As a result, the wines are lower in acidity and less tannic than Left Bank styles. Aromas of black fruits, spices, chocolate, and floral notes are common. But Right Bank wines can also develop earthy flavors, notes of tobacco, or herbal aromas. Here are some typical Right Bank wines:
- Chateau Haut-Colombier 2017
- Chateau Fombrauge 2017
- Chateau Grand-Pontet 2016
The Judgement of Paris (see History section) was the beginning of a Cabernet Sauvignon boom in the United States. Today, many American vintners produce wines purely made from this varietal, and often they age them in oak before bottling.
California was one of the first New World wine regions that adopted the grape. Today, the quantity of plantings in the golden state equals those in Bordeaux. The most noteworthy bottles come from the Napa Valley. When grown on the hillsides, they tend to be rustic with strong berry flavors and perceivable earthy notes. Those from the valley floor are more fruit-forward. Other Californian subregions that produce Cabernet wines are Sonoma Valley or Mendocino County. Try these wines:
- Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
- Buena Vista Chateau Buena Vista Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
- Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
In Washington State, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red grape. One reason for that is that the robust vines can stand the winter frost that’s typical for the state. Wine from the region usually is made for easy consumption. They are very fruity with spicy notes and silky tannins.
- Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
- Chateau Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
- Woodward Canyon Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Cabernet vines are wide-spread in many parts of Chile. Besides Acanagua or Curicó, the Maipo Valley is the most prestigious wine region of the country. Some wine lovers even refer to it as the “Bordeaux of South America”. One reason for this comparison is Cabernet Sauvignon. With more than 40% of all plantings, it’s the most widespread variety in the valley.
Typically, Maipo’s wines are fruit-forward with mineral and earthy notes and an outstanding balance of creamy tannins and acidity. The following wines from Chile are worth testing:
Maipo Valley, Chile
- The Seeker Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
- Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
- Haras de Pirque Hussonet Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
As mentioned before, you can find Cabernet Sauvignon wines from all over the world. Besides the most noteworthy regions that we’ve just discussed, you might want to try styles from one of these areas:
- Tuscany, Italy
- Penedès DO, Catalonia, Spain
- Coonawarra, South Australia
- Stellenbosch, South Africa
- Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
How to Serve Cabernet Sauvignon Wines
Cabernet Sauvignon usually comes with a rich main dish. To serve it with other courses, it’s too powerful. It’s also unusual to sip it on its own because its high alcohol content can cause tipsiness in no time.
No matter how and when you enjoy Cab, you should serve it in small portions. If you overfill the glass, you might hold the wine back from releasing its full bouquet.
What Is the Right Glass for Cabernet Wines?
Due to its popularity, many glassblowers produce wine glasses specifically for Cabernet Sauvignon. They are tall and have wide bowls. In these glasses, the wine has a bigger surface, so it gets in touch with more oxygen and releases its aromas faster. The glasses’ openings are relatively narrow to prevent the delicate odors from evaporating too quickly.
If you don’t have a specific Cabernet glass, you can alternatively use a Bordeaux glass or a standard red wine glass.
What Is the Right Serving Temperature for Cabernet Sauvignon?
Full-bodied red wines are best when they are slightly below room temperature. Aim for 60 to 65°F (15-18°C). To bring your Cabernet to the right temperature, put it into the refrigerator for about 30 to 60 minutes before serving.
Should You Decant Cabernet Sauvignon Wines?
Yes, absolutely. A bold wine like Cabernet needs exposure to oxygen to open up and release all of its aromas.
In some older bottles, you might find sediments. By decanting the wine, you can filter them out. If your bottle has sediment, let it stand upright for 24 to 48 hours before opening it so that the sediment can sink to the bottom.
More Details on Decanting: WHAT IS A WINE DECANTER AND WHY DO YOU NEED ONE?
For a young wine, 15 to 30 minutes of decanting are enough. Older styles might require longer. Aerate them for 60 to 90 minutes to allow them to rise to their full potential.
How to Store Cabernet Sauvignon Wines
When storing Cabernet, make sure that it’s safe from high temperatures (and sudden temperature changes), sunlight, and vibrations. You also shouldn’t keep it in the same room with chemicals like cleaning supplies, paint, or heating oil. Their odors can invade a wine bottle via the cork over time.
Store your bottles lying on their sides, so the wine is in contact with the cork and keeps it moist. Otherwise, the cork might get porous so that pieces break off it and sink into the wine.
Can Cabernet Go Bad?
Yes, like all table wines, Cabernet can go bad. Continuous exposure to oxygen can start chemical reactions that produce very unpleasant flavors and odors. If that happens, the wine isn’t drinkable anymore.
How Long Does Cabernet Sauvignon Last When Open?
Once opened, high-tannin red wines have a longer lifespan than most other white or red wines. Cabernet is one of them, and it can last for 3 to 5 days. Make sure to reseal the bottle with the original cork or a bottle stopper and store it in your regular fridge. In case you don’t want to drink it, you can use it to prepare a sauce or a stew instead.
Can Cabernet Be Aged?
Yes, high-quality Cabernet Sauvignons have excellent aging potential. The combination of high tannin levels, significant acidity, and complex bouquets qualifies them for extensive aging. For young wines, it might even be a must-do. Their tannins are so aggressive that they’re almost undrinkable, but aging makes them more approachable.
To bring out the fruit flavors to the fullest, you can age these wines for up to 5 years. If you store them for 10 to 15 years, you can expect more earthy notes and smooth tannins with just subtle fruity notes. And if you allow them to ripen for 20 years or more, they will develop aromas of dried fruits and intense earthy flavors.
Cabernet Sauvignon Food Pairing
Cabernet Sauvignon wines are very bold with high alcohol levels and firm tannins. When pairing these wines with food, you have to make sure that they don’t overpower the dish. A good rule of thumb is: Pair the intense red wine with flavorful red meat preparations.
Rich, savory meals like steaks, burgers, braised beef dishes, or roasted lamb can absolutely stand Cabernet. So it’s an excellent wine to serve with barbecue.
The subtleties of pairing Cabernet with food depend on its origin and the precise flavors. Wine from France and other Old World countries often have aromas of green vegetables. These wines go well with pork or duck and vegetable side dishes, given that their tannins aren’t too aggressive. For example, try roasted duck breast with sauteed broccolini.
If your wine has earthy notes, it’s a perfect pairing for all types of mushroom dishes. That’s the case for many oaked styles from the New World. Zurich Ragout is a good choice, but you can also go for vegetarian dishes like grilled Portobello mushrooms.
In any case, be careful with spicy dishes. Cabernet’s high alcohol content enhances flavors like chili or cayenne so that they might overwhelm other aromas. So better stay away from pairing it with hot meals.
Pairing it with dessert is also tricky. Bold reds easily overpower most milk- or cream-based dishes. On the other hand, chocolate-based desserts can work well with Cabernet, especially when you add a fruity component. Chocolate lava cakes and Mousse au Chocolat are delicious with raspberries or strawberries, and Cabernet matches them superbly. In case you aren’t a fan of chocolate, go for a blackberry cobbler.
Of course, you can pair the wine with cheese too. To match its full body, you need an intense one like an English cheddar. As a salty, pungent cheese, it’s equally intense as the wine and makes a great pairing. Other options are hard cheeses like Grana Padano and Old Gouda, or blue cheeses like Stilton and Roquefort.
As you’ve learned in this article, Cabernet Sauvignon truly is the All-Star of wines. Its adaptability to different climatic conditions and its robustness against diseases make it one of the most popular grapes among winemakers. And it produces fantastic red wines with great aging potential.