Cabernet Sauvignon notes previously prepared by Ron Rolleston for the December 2009 CS tasting are 18 pages filled with a ton of information and I strongly recommend you access these notes prior to the tasting (See notes below, following this article).
My notes below are a shortened version with additional information taken from Jancis Robinson, other websites, and Kevin Zraly’s World of Wine.
The flight that has been prepared will provide you with a full range of terrior, climate and quality (low end to high end wines). Keep this in mind when analyzing the various wines – your scores should reflect this with a wide spread in your numbers.
All hail the King! But a king doth not a gentleman make. A temperamental prince in youth, you’re a thick-skinned brat with a bitter chip on your shoulder. The air of nobility only develops after a decade or more banished to a dark cellar. Your Bordeaux caretakers warned others of your tannic nature, but the image makers of California left you to your own devices. They spent decades of constant frustration trying to calm your aggressive nature. Finally heeding the advice of the Bordelaise, your New World guardians now employ the services of your perfumy cousin Cabernet Franc to teach you grace, and the sultry French consort Merlot, to teach you maturity. At last, your time has come. In a royal manner, you now rule over North America in a court known as ‘Meritage’.
Cabernet Sauvignon (aka. Bouche, Bouchet, Petit-Bouchet, Petit-Cabernet, Petite Vidure, Sauvignon Rouge, Vidure ) is the world’s most renowned, but relatively recent, red wine grape, rivalled only by Merlot (in the 1990’s) as the world’s most planted dark-skinned grape variety. Few would argue that, along with Chardonnay it is the world’s most marketable wine variety. It is this marketability — more than any real sense of ecological fit — that explains Cabernet Sauvignon’s spread to red wine regions around the globe (from the Okanagan to Lebanon).
What makes Cabernet Sauvignon remarkable to taste is not primarily its fruit flavour – but its structure and its ability to provide the perfect vehicle for individual vintage characteristics, wine- making and élevage techniques, and especially, local physical attributes, or terroir.
There are a couple of noted Cabernet Sauvignon flavors that are intimately tied to viticultural and climate influences. The most widely recognized is the herbaceous or green bell pepper flavor caused by pyrazines, which are more prevalent in under-ripened grapes. Pyrazine compounds are present in all Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and are gradually destroyed by sunlight as the grape continues to ripen. To the human palate this compound is detectable in wines with pyrazine levels as low as 2 nanograms (ng) per liter. At the time of veraison, when the grapes first start to fully ripen, there is the equivalent pyrazine level of 30 ng/l. In cooler climates, it is difficult to get Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ripen fully to the point where pyrazine is not detected. The green bell flavor is not considered a wine fault but it may not be desirable to all consumers’ tastes.
Two other well known Cabernet Sauvignon flavors are mint and eucalyptus. Mint flavors are often associated with wine regions that are warm enough to have low pyrazine levels but are still generally cool, such as Australia’s Coonawarra region and some areas of Washington State. There is some belief that soil could also be a contributor to the minty notes, since the flavor also appears in some wines from the Pauillac region but not from similar climate of Margaux. Resinous Eucalyptus flavors tend to appear in regions that are habitats for the eucalyptus tree, such as California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys and parts of Australia, but there has been no evidence to conclusively prove a direct link between proximity of eucalyptus trees and the presence of that flavor in the wine. In Chile, one of the few places with ungrafted Cabernet Sauvignon wines, the wines if produced carefully in a modern winery can be very good with aging potential.
The distinguishing marks of the Cabernet Sauvignon berry are its small size, its high ratio of pip to pulp, and the thickness of its skins, so blue, as opposed to red or even purple, on the vine. The pips are a major factor in Cabernet Sauvignon’s high tannin level while the thickness of its skins accounts for the depth of colour that is the tell-tale sign of a Cabernet Sauvignon – as well as the variety’s relatively good resistance to rot. The vine is susceptible however to powdery mildew, which can be treated quite easily, and the wood diseases eutypa and exoriose, which cannot. It both buds and ripens late.
In many aspects, Cabernet Sauvignon can reflect the desires and personality of the winemaker while still presenting familiar flavors that express the typical character of the variety. 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. But Cabernet Sauvignon can be also be blended with a variety of grapes such as Shiraz, Tempranillo and Sangiovese. The decision to blend is then followed by the decision of when to do the blending— before, during or after fermentation. Due to the different fermentation styles of the grapes, many producers will ferment and age each grape variety separately and blend the wine shortly before bottling. Also, the type of oak will have a great influence on the end wine.
Varietal Aromas/Flavours: Processing Bouquets/Flavors:
Fruit: black currant, blackberry, Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood black cherry, plum
Herbal: bell pepper, asparagus Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar (methoxy-pyrazine), green olive
Spice: ginger, green peppercorn, Bottle Age: cedar, cigar box, musk pimento, mint, anise, mushroom, earth, leather
Class C5. Dry Red Cabernet Sauvignon (BCAWA Classification) Wines in this class must contain at least 85% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Black currant, cassis, plum, black cherry and spice. It can also be marked by herb, olive, mint,
tobacco, cedar and anise, and ripe, jammy notes. Generally accepted that oak improves it by softening tannins and imparting, woody, toasty, cedar, vanilla characters.
Specific Gravity: 0.990 – 0.995 Acidity: 5.0g/L – 6.7g/L pH: 3.4 – 4.0
All entries in this class will be considered for the AWC National Competition as Class C1, Dry Red Bordeaux Style.
11% – l6%
Medium red to garnet
0.0% – 1%
Prepared by Ron Rolleston
After completing this session you should know:
- The description and technical characteristics of the C5. Dry Red Cabernet Sauvignon
- The dominant grape of the Bordeaux region.
- The major growing areas in the world for producing quality cabernet sauvignon.
- Typical descriptors of Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Some of the foods that pair well with Cabernet Sauvignon.
A red wine to be consumed with food. Better wines in this class are virtually free of residual sugar, although a well-balanced and well-aged wine will have a softness that could be mistaken for sweetness. The garnet edge of a well-matured wine is preferable to the red-purple of a young wine.
Class C5. Dry Red Cabernet Sauvignon
Wines in this class must contain at least 85% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Black currant, cassis, plum, black cherry and spice. It can also be marked by herb, olive, mint, tobacco, cedar and anise, and ripe, jammy notes. Generally accepted that oak improves it by softening tannins and imparting, woody, toasty, cedar, vanilla characters.
Alcohol: 11% – l6%
Colour: Medium red to garnet
Sugar: 0.0% – 1%
Specific Gravity: 0.990 – 0.995
Acidity: 5.0g/L – 6.7g/L
pH: 3.4 – 4.0
All entries in this class will be considered for the AWC National Competition as
Class C1, Dry Red Bordeaux Style.
Varietal wines in the Bordeaux Style Dry Red Class must contain at least 85% of one of the following grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, or Carmenere.
Blended wines in the Bordeaux Style Dry Red Class must contain at least 85% of two or more of the above varieties blended to create an elegant combination rather than a wine resembling one of the components.
Cabernet Sauvignon makes the most dependable candidate for aging, more often improving into a truly great wine than any other single varietal. With age, its distinctive black currant aroma can develop bouquet nuances of cedar, violets, leather, or cigar box and its typically tannic edge may soften and smooth considerably.
It is the most widely planted and significant among the five dominant varieties in the Medoc district of France’s Bordeaux region, as well as the most successful red wine produced in California.
Long thought to be an ancient variety, recent genetic studies at U.C. Davis have determined that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually the hybrid offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
Cabernet sauvignon berries are small, spherical with black, thick and very tough skin. This toughness makes the grapes fairly resistant to disease and spoilage and able to withstand some autumn rains with little damage. It is a mid to late season ripener. These growth characteristics, along with its flavor appeal have made Cabernet Sauvignon one of the most popular red wine varieties worldwide.
The best growing sites for producing quality wines from Cabernet Sauvignon are in moderately warm, semi-arid regions providing a long growing season, on well-drained, not-too-fertile soils. Vineyards in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, much of the Napa Valley, and around the Paso Robles area of the Central Coast have consistently produced the highest-rated California examples.
Typically, Cabernet Sauvignon wines smell like black currants with a degree of bell pepper or weediness, varying in intensity with climatic conditions, viticulture practices, and vinification techniques. Climates and vintages that are either too cool or too warm, rich soils, too little sun exposure, premature harvesting, and extended maceration are factors that may lead to more vegetative, less fruity character in the resulting wine.
In the mouth, Cabernet can have liveliness and even a degree of richness, yet usually finishes with firm astringency. Some of the aroma and flavor descriptors most typically found in Cabernet Sauvignon are:
|Typical Cabernet Sauvignon Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors|
|Varietal Aromas/Flavors:||Processing Bouquets/Flavors:|
|Fruit: black currant, blackberry, black cherry||Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood|
|Herbal: bell pepper, asparagus (methoxy-pyrazine), green olive||Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar|
|Spice: ginger, green peppercorn, pimento||Bottle Age: cedar, cigar box, musk, mushroom, earth, leather|
Cabernet Sauvignon began to emerge as America’s most popular varietal red wine in the mid-60s. By the late 1980s, it had replaced “burgundy” as a consumer’s generic term for red wine (as had Chardonnay, replacing “chablis” as the equivalent for generic white wine). This popularity was based partly on the flavor appeal of the grape and partly on its status or snob-appeal as a “collector’s” wine. Indeed Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine most subject to inflationary climb, as fans, collectors, and the Nouveau Riche bid the supply ever upward.
by Jim LaMar
Also called Bouchet, Bouche, Petit-Bouchet, Petit-Cabernet, Petit-Vidure, Vidure, Sauvignon Rouge
Ideal soil Gravel
General Dense, dark, tannic
Cool climate Vegetal, bell pepper, asparagus
Medium climate Mint, black pepper, eucalyptus, pencil lead
Hot climate Jam
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. It is grown in nearly every major wine producing country among a diverse spectrum of climates from Canada’s Okanagan Valley to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon became internationally recognized through its prominence in Bordeaux wines where it is often blended with Merlot and Cabernet franc. From France, the grape spread across Europe and to the New World where it found new homes in places like California’s Napa Valley, Australia’s Coonawarra region and Chile’s Maipo Valley. For most of the 20th century, it was the world’s most widely planted premium red wine grape until it was surpassed by Merlot in the 1990s.
Despite its prominence in the industry, the grape is a relatively new variety, the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc during the 17th century in southwestern France. Its popularity is often attributed to its ease of cultivation – the grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy and resistant to rot and frost – and to its consistent presentation of structure and flavours which express the typical character (“typicity“) of the variety. Familiarity and ease of pronunciation have helped to sell Cabernet Sauvignon wines to consumers, even when from unfamiliar wine regions. Its widespread popularity has also contributed to criticism of the grape as a “colonizer” that takes over wine regions at the expense of native grape varieties.
History and origins
The grape’s true origins were discovered in the late 1990s with the use of DNA typing at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, by a team lead by Dr. Carole Meredith. The DNA evidence determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc and was most likely a chance crossing that occurred in the 17th century. Prior to this discovery, this origin had been suspected from the similarity of the grapes’ names and the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon shares similar aromas with both grapes–such as the black currant and pencil box aromas of Cabernet franc and the grassiness of Sauvignon blanc.
Cabernet Sauvignon leaf. In cooler climate conditions, vines will focus more energy in producing foliage, which is needed to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, rather than ripening grapes. This makes canopy management and aggressive pruning an important consideration for growers.
While Cabernet Sauvignon can grow in a variety of climates, its suitability as a varietal wine or as a blend component is strongly influenced by the warmth of the climate. The vine is one of the last major grape varieties to bud and ripen (typically 1-2 weeks after Merlot and Cabernet franc) and the climate of the growing season affects how early the grapes will be harvested. Many wine regions in California give the vine an abundance of sunshine with few problems in ripening fully, which increases the likelihood of producing varietal Cabernet wines. In regions like Bordeaux, under the threat of incremental harvest season weather, Cabernet Sauvignon is often harvested a little earlier than ideal and is then blended with other grapes to fill in the gaps. As global warming has increased the number of warm vintage years, the possibility of creating varietal Cabernet in Bordeaux has also increased, making the decision to blend based more on ideology and tradition. In some regions, climate will be more important than soil. In regions that are too cool, there is a potential for more herbaceous and green bell pepper flavours from less than ideally ripened grapes. In regions where the grape is exposed to excess warmth and over-ripening, there is a propensity for the wine to develop flavours of cooked or stewed blackcurrants.
The “green bell pepper” flavor
There are a couple of noted Cabernet Sauvignon flavors that are intimately tied to viticultural and climate influences. The most widely recognized is the herbaceous or green bell pepper flavor caused by pyrazines, which are more prevalent in under-ripened grapes. Pyrazine compounds are present in all Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and are gradually destroyed by sunlight as the grape continues to ripen. To the human palate this compound is detectable in wines with pyrazine levels as low as 2 nanograms (ng) per liter. At the time of veraison, when the grapes first start to fully ripen, there is the equivalent pyrazine level of 30 ng/l. In cooler climates, it is difficult to get Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ripen fully to the point where pyrazine is not detected. The green bell flavor is not considered a wine fault but it may not be desirable to all consumers’ tastes. The California wine region of Monterey was noted in the late 20th century for its very vegetal Cabernet Sauvignon with pronounced green pepper flavor, earning the nickname of “Monterey veggies”. In addition to its cool climate, Monterey is also prone to being very windy, which can have the effect of shutting down the grape vines and further inhibiting ripeness.
Two other well known Cabernet Sauvignon flavors are mint and eucalyptus. Mint flavors are often associated with wine regions that are warm enough to have low pyrazine levels but are still generally cool, such as Australia’s Coonawarra region and some areas of Washington State. There is some belief that soil could also be a contributor to the minty notes, since the flavor also appears in some wines from the Pauillac region but not from similar climate of Margaux. Resinous Eucalyptus flavors tend to appear in regions that are habitats for the eucalyptus tree, such as California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys and parts of Australia, but there has been no evidence to conclusively prove a direct link between proximity of eucalyptus trees and the presence of that flavor in the wine.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape itself is very small, with a thick skin, creating a high 1:12 ratio of seed (pip) to fruit (pulp). From these elements the high proportions of phenols and tannins can have a stark influence on the structure and flavor of the wine— especially if the must is subjected to long periods of maceration (skin contact) before fermentation. In Bordeaux, the maceration period was traditionally three weeks, which gave the winemaking staff enough time to close down the estate after harvest to take a hunting holiday. The results of these long maceration periods are very tannic and flavorful wines that require years of aging. Wine producers that wish to make a wine more approachable within a couple of years will drastically reduce the maceration time to as a little as a few days. Following maceration, the Cabernet must can be fermented at high temperatures up to 30℃ (86°F). The temperature of fermentation will play a role in the result, with deeper colors and more flavor components being extracted at higher temperatures while more fruit flavors are maintained at lower temperature. In Australia there has been experimentation with carbonic maceration to make softer, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
The tannic nature of Cabernet Sauvignon is an important winemaking consideration. As the must is exposed to prolonged periods of maceration, more tannins are extracted from the skin and will be present in the resulting wine. If winemakers choose not to shorten the period of maceration, in favor of maximizing color and flavor concentrations, there are some methods that they can use to soften tannin levels. A common methods is oak aging, which exposes the wine to gradual levels of oxidation that can mellow the harsh grape tannins as well as introduce softer “wood tannins”. The choice of fining agents can also reduce tannins with gelatin and egg whites being positively-charged proteins that are naturally attracted to the negatively-charged tannin molecules. These fining agents will bond with some of the tannins and be removed from the wine during filtration. One additional method is micro-oxygenation which mimics some of the gradual aeration that occurs with barrel aging, with the limited exposure to oxygen aiding in the polymerization of the tannins into larger molecules, which are perceived on the palate as being softer.
Affinity for oak
One of the most noted traits of Cabernet Sauvignon is its affinity for oak, either during fermentation or in barrel aging. In addition to having a softening effect on the grape’s naturally high tannins, the unique wood flavors of vanilla and spice complement the natural grape flavors of black currant and tobacco. The particular success of Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends in the 225 liter (59 gallon) barrique were a significant influence in making that barrel size one of the most popular worldwide. In winemaking, the decision for the degree of oak influence (as well as which type of oak) will have a strong impact on the resulting wine. American oak, particularly from new barrels, will impart stronger oak flavors that are less subtle than those imparted by French oak. Even within the American oak family, the location of the oak source will also play a role with oak from the state of Oregon having more pronounced influence on Cabernet Sauvignon than oak from Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Winemakers will often use a variety of oak barrels from different locations and of different ages and blend the wine as if they were blending different grape varieties.
Winemakers can also control the influence of oak by using alternatives to the standard barrique barrels. Larger barrels will have a smaller wood-to-wine ratio and therefore less pronounced oak flavors. Winemakers in Italy and Portugal will sometimes use barrels made from other wood types such as chestnut and redwood. Another method that winemakers will consider tea bagging with oak chips or adding oak planks to the wines while fermenting or aging it in stainless steel tanks. While these methods are less costly than oak barrels, they create more pronounced oak flavors, which tend not to mellow or integrate with the rest of the wine’s components; nor do they provide the gradual oxidation benefit of barrel aging.
The Bordeaux wine region is intimately connected with Cabernet Sauvignon, even though wine is rarely made without the blended component of other grape varieties. It is the likely “birthplace” of the vine, and producers across the globe have invested heavily in trying to reproduce the structure and complexity of Bordeaux wines. While the “Bordeaux blend” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Merlot created the earliest examples of acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon wine, Cabernet Sauvignon was first blended in Bordeaux with Syrah, a pairing that is widely seen in Australia and some vin de pays wines from the Languedoc. The decision to first start blending Cabernet Sauvignon was partly derived from financial necessity. The sometime temperamental and unpredictable climate of Bordeaux during the “Little Ice Age” did not guarantee a successful harvest every year; producers had to insure themselves against the risk of losing an entire vintage by planting a variety of grapes. Over time it was discovered that the unique characteristics of each grape variety can complement each other and enhance the overall quality of wine. As a base, or backbone of the wine, Cabernet Sauvignon added structure, acidity, tannins and aging potential. By itself, particularly when harvested at less than ideal ripeness, its can lack a sense of fruit or “fleshiness” on the palate which can be compensated from by adding the rounder flavors of Merlot. Cabernet franc can add additional aromas to the bouquet as well as more fruitiness. In the lighter soils of the Margaux region, Cabernet-based wines can lack color, which can be achieved by blending in Petit Verdot. Malbec, used today mostly in Fronsac, can add additional fruit and floral aromas.
DNA evidence has shown Cabernet Sauvignon is the result of the crossing of two other Bordeaux grape varieties— Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc— which has led grapevine historians, or ampelographers, to believe that the grape originated in Bordeaux. Early records indicate that the grape was a popular planting in the Médoc region during the 18th century. The loose berry clusters and thick skins of the grape provided a good resistance to rot in the sometimes wet maritime climate of Bordeaux. The grape continued to grow in popularity till the Powdery mildew epidemic of 1852 exposed Cabernet Sauvignon’s sensitivity to that grape disease. With vineyards severely ravaged or lost, many Bordeaux wine growers turned to Merlot, increasing its plantings to where it soon became the most widely-planted grape in Bordeaux. As the region’s winemakers started to better understand the area’s terroir and how the different grape varieties performed in different region, Cabernet Sauvignon increased in plantings all along the Left Bank region of the Gironde river in the Médoc as well as Graves region, where it became the dominant variety in the wine blends. In the Right bank regions of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, Cabernet is a distant third in plantings behind Merlot & Cabernet franc.
In the 1970s, Italian winemakers started to blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Sangiovese (pictured) to create wines known as “Super Tuscans”.
Cabernet Sauvignon has a long history in Italian wines, being first introduced to the Piedmont region in 1820. In the mid-1970s, the grape earned notoriety and controversy as a component in the so-called “Super Tuscan” wines of Tuscany. Today the grape is permitted in several Denominazioni di origine controllata (DOCs) and is used in many Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) wines that are made outside DOC perimeters in certain regions. For most of its history the grape has been viewed with suspicion as a “foreign influence” that distracts from the native grape varieties. After decades of experimentation, the general view of Cabernet Sauvignon has improved as more winemakers find ways to complement their native grape varieties with Cabernet as a blending component.
In Piedmont, the grape was sometimes used as an “illegal” blending partner with Nebbiolo for DOC classified Barolo with the intention of adding color and more fruit flavors. In the DOCs of Langhe and Monferrato, Cabernet is a permitted blending grape with Nebbiolo as well as Barbera. Wines that are composed of all three grape varieties are often subjected to consider oak treatment to add a sense of sweet spiciness to compensate for the high tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo as well as the high acidity of Barbera. There are varietal styles of Cabernet Sauvignon produce in Piedmont with qualities varying depending on the location. In other regions of northern Italy, such as Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the grape is often blended with Merlot to produce Bordeaux style blends. In the Veneto region, Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes blended with the main grapes of Valpolicella–Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella. In southern Italy, the grape is mostly used as a blending component with local varieties-such as Carignan in Sardinia, Nero d’Avola in Sicily, Aglianico in Campania and Gaglioppo in Calabria.
Other Old World producers
In Spain, Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with Tempranillo.(pictured)
The introduction of Cabernet Sauvignon in Spanish wine occurred in the Rioja region when the Marqués de Riscal planted cuttings from Bordeaux. By 2004, it was the sixth most widely planted red wine grape in Spain. Today it is found in some quantities in every Spanish wine region, though it is not permitted in every Denominación de Origen (DO) designated region. In those areas, wines with Cabernet Sauvignon are relegated to less distinguished designations such as Vino de la Tierra or Vino de Mesa. The grape is most prominent in the Catalan wine region of Penedès, where its use was revived by the estates of Bodegas Torres and Jean León. There the grape is often blended with Tempranillo. It is also primarily a blending grape in the Ribera del Duero, but producers in Navarra have found some international acclaim for their varietal wines.
A bottle of Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Californian Cabernet Sauvignon.
In California, Cabernet Sauvignon has developed its characteristic style and reputation, recognizable in the world’s market. Production and plantings of the grape in California are similar in quantity to those of Bordeaux. The 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting event help to catapult Californian Cabernet Sauvignons onto the international stage when Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars‘ 1973 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon beat out classified Bordeaux estates like Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Montrose, Château Haut-Brion and Château Léoville-Las Cases in a blind tasting conducted by French wine experts. In the 1980s, a new epidemic of phylloxera hit California, devastating many vineyards, which needed replanting. There was some speculation that ravaged Cabernet vineyards would be replanted with other varietals (such as those emerging from the Rhone Rangers movement) but in fact California plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon doubled between 1988 and 1998; many wine regions— such as Napa Valley north of Yountville and Sonoma‘s Alexander Valley— were almost completely dominated by the grape varieties. It also started to gain a foothold in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Mendocino County. Cabernet from Sonoma County has shown a tendency to feature anise and black olive notes while Napa County Cabernets are characterized by their strong black fruit flavors.
In California, the main stylistic difference in Cabernet Sauvignon is between hillside/mountain vineyards and those on flatter terrain like valley floors or some areas of the Central Valley. In Napa, the hillside vineyards of Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain District have thinner, less fertile soils which produces smaller berries with more intense flavors, reminiscent of Bordeaux wines that require years of aging to mature. The yields are also much lower, typically in the range of 1-2 tons per acre in contrast to the 4-8 tons that can be produced in the more fertile valley floors. Wines produced from mountainside vineyards tend to be characterized by deep inky colors and strong berry aromas. Throughout California there are many wine regions that have the potential to grow Cabernet Sauvignon to full ripeness and produce fruity, full-bodied wines with alcohol levels regularly above the Bordeaux average of 12-13% — often in excess of 14%.
Old vine Cabernet Sauvignon at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. As the grapes mature they will darken to a bluish purple hue.
The use of oak in California Cabernet has a long history, with many producers favoring the use of new oak barrels heavily composed of American oak. After the early 1980s’ unsuccessful trend to create more “food friendly” wines, with less ripeness and less oak influence, winemakers’ focus shifted back to oak influence, but producers were more inclined to limit and lighten the use of oak barrels, with many turning to French oak or a combination of new and older oak barrels.
Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in nearly every South American country including Chile, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay. In Chile, the wines were historically limited by the excessively high yields that were commonplace throughout the country. As producers begun to concentrate on limiting yields, regional differences began to emerge that distinguished Chilean Cabernets. For vineyard plantings along flat river valleys, the climate of the region is the most important consideration; as plantings move to higher elevations and along hillsides, soil type is a greater concern. The wines of the Aconcagua region are noted for their ripe fruit but closed, tight structure that needs some time in the bottle to develop. In the Maipo Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are characterized by their pervasive black currant fruit and an earthy, dusty note. In warmer regions, such as the Colchagua Province and around Curicó, the grapes ripen more fully; they produce wines with rich fruit flavors that can be perceived as sweet due to the ripeness of the fruit. The acidity levels of these wines will be lower and the tannins will also be softer, making the wines more approachable at a younger age.
In Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon lags behind Malbec as the country’s main red grape but its numbers are growing. The varietal versions often have lighter fruit flavors and are meant to be consumed young. Premium examples are often blended with Malbec and produce full, tannic wines with leather and tobacco notes. In recent years, there have been increased plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Uco Valley of the Mendoza Province; the wines coming from vineyards planted at higher altitudes garner some international attention.
In the 1970s, the Coonawarra region first brought international attention to Australian Cabernet Sauvignons with intense fruit flavors and subtle minty notes. The Margaret River region soon followed with wines that were tightly structured with pronounced black fruit notes. In the 1980s, Australia followed California’s contemporary trend in producing lighter, more “food friendly” wines with alcohol levels around 11-12% percent; by the early 1990s, the styles changed again to focus on balance and riper fruit flavors. Today Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most widely planted red wine grape in Australia, following Shiraz with which it is often blended. It can be found in several wine regions with many large producers using grapes from several states. Notable regional differences characterize Australian Cabernet Sauvignon: in addition to the wine styles of Coonawarra and Margaret River, the Barossa Valley produces big, full bodied wines while the nearby, cooler Clare Valley produces wines with more concentrated fruit, and wines of the Victorian wine region of the Yarra Valley are noted for their balance in acidity, tannins and fruit flavors.
Other New World producers
Since the end of apartheid, the South African wine industry has been working to reestablish itself in the world’s wine markets with many regions actively promoting their Cabernet Sauvignon. Today it is the most widely planted red wine grape in South Africa. It is produced in both varietal and blended styles; some producers favor a Bordeaux blend, while others follow the Australian example of blending with Syrah. Early examples of South African Cabernet Sauvignon were produced by grapes planted in vineyard locations that were cooler than ideal, creating very herbaceous wines with the distinctive “green bell pepper” notes. In the mid 1990s, there was more emphasis on harvesting at fuller ripeness, and new clones were introduced that produced riper, sweeter fruit. As the vines age, and better vineyards locations are identified, regional styles are starting to emerge among South African Cabernet Sauvignons: the Stellenbosch region is noted for heavy, full bodied wines while Constantia‘s wines are characterized by their herbal and minty flavors.
In New Zealand, climate has been a challenge in finding wine regions suitable for producing Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the industry focus has centered on the North Island. The Hawke’s Bay region was the first to make a significant effort in producing Cabernet Sauvignon but the cool climate of the region, coupled with the high yields and fertile alluvial soils, produced wines that were still marked with aggressive green and vegetal flavors. Added focus on canopy management, which gives the grapes more sunlight to ripen by removing excess foliage, and low vigor rootstock and pruning combine to achieve lower yields and have started to produce better results. The grape is sometimes blended with Merlot to help compensate for climate and terroir.
Other regions in New Zealand have sprung up with a renewed focus on producing distinctive New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon: The Gimblett Road and Havelock North regions of Hawke’s Bay, with their warm gravel soils, have started to achieve notice as well as Waiheke Island near Auckland. Overall the grape lags far behind Pinot noir in New Zealand’s red wine grape plantings.
Countries like India with a fast growing middle and affluent class have also taken up producing Cabernet Sauvignon. Nasik valley has emerged as key wine growing area with many vineyards having been set up in last ten to fifteen years
Highly adaptable, globe-trotting Cabernet Sauvignon grows successfully around the world in various climates and soils. Canada and even Lebanon wherever it grows, Cabernet Sauvignon retains its strong character. It may take on certain regional accents, such as cedar in Bordeaux or mint in Australia, but it still tends to taste like itself (unlike the malleable Chardonnay), making it better and more interesting when blended with other red grapes.
Canadian examples of Cabernet Sauvignon abound, from restrained cooler-climate wines from Ontario to more full-bodied ones from British Columbia. Canadian Cabernets are normally sold under the varietal name, and they are often blended with Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Some blends are labelled Meritage.
New World Cabernet Sauvignons, such as this one from California’s Alexander Valley, often have more pronounced, ripe fruit flavors than Old World wines from regions like Bordeaux.
The style of Cabernet Sauvignon is strongly influenced by the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. When more on the unripe side, the grapes are high in pyrazines and will exhibit pronounced green bell peppers and vegetal flavors. When harvested overripe the wines can taste jammy and may have aromas of stewed black currants. Some winemakers choose to harvest their grapes at different ripeness levels in order to incorporate these different elements and potentially add some layer of complexity to the wine. When Cabernet Sauvignon is young, the wines typically exhibit strong fruit flavors of black cherries and plum. The aroma of black currants is one of the most distinctive and characteristic element of Cabernet Sauvignon that is present in virtually every style of the wine across the globe. Styles from various regions and producers may also have aromas of eucalyptus, mint and tobacco. As the wines age they can sometimes develop aromas associated with cedar, cigar boxes and pencil shavings. In general New World examples have more pronounced fruity notes while Old World wines can be more austere with heightened earthy notes.
Pairing with food
Fatty red meats, such as lamb, pair well with Cabernet Sauvignon due to the ability of proteins and fats to negate some of the tannic qualities of the wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a very bold and assertive wine that has potential to overwhelm light and delicate dishes. The wine’s high tannin content as well as the oak influences and high alcohol levels associated with many regional styles play important roles in influencing how well the wine matches with different foods. When Cabernet Sauvignon is young, all those elements are at their peak, but as the wine ages it mellows; possibilities for different food pairings open up. In most circumstances, matching the weight (alcohol level and body) of the wine to the heaviness of the food is an important consideration. Cabernet Sauvignons with high alcohol levels do not pair well with spicy foods due to hotness levels of the capsaicins present in spices like chili peppers being enhanced by the alcohol with the heat accentuating the bitterness of the tannins. Milder spices, such as black pepper, pair better due to their ability to minimize the perception of tannins—such as in the classic pairings of Cabernet Sauvignon with steak au poivre and pepper-crusted ahi tuna.
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. In contrast, starches such as pastas and rice will have little effect on tannins. The bitterness of the tannins can also be counterbalanced by the use of bitter foods, such as radicchio and endive, or with cooking methods that involve charring like grilling. As the wine ages and the tannins lessen, more subtle and less bitter dishes will pair better with Cabernet Sauvignon. The oak influences of the wine can be matched with cooking methods that have similar influences on the food-such as grilling, smoking and plank roasting. Dishes that include oak-influenced flavors and aromas normally found in Cabernet Sauvignon—such as dill weed, brown sugar, nutmeg and vanilla—can also pair well.
The different styles of Cabernet Sauvignon from different regions can also influence how well the wine matches up with certain foods. Old World wines, such as Bordeaux, have earthier influences and will pair better with mushrooms. Wines from cooler climates that have noticeable vegetal notes can be balanced with vegetables and greens. New World wines, with bolder fruit flavors that may even be perceived as sweet, will pair well with bolder dishes that have lots of different flavor influences. While Cabernet Sauvignon has the potential to pair well with bitter dark chocolate, it will not pair well with sweeter styles such as milk chocolate. The wine can typically pair well with a variety of cheeses, such as cheddar, mozzarella and brie, but full flavored or blue cheeses will typically compete too much with the flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon to be a complementary pairing.