Everything You Need to Know About Cabernet Sauvignon
Where the grapes are grown, what its prominent flavors are, and more
Cabernet sauvignon is one of the most popular and widely planted red grape varietals in the world. Part of its attraction is that it has a distinctive and very recognizable taste no matter where it is grown — which is perhaps why today we can find it in just about any wine growing region which is reasonably warm.
According to Jose Vouillamoz, a botanist specializing in grape DNA, cabernet sauvignon is actually a relatively young varietal, only appearing in the 18th century as the result of a "natural" crossing of sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc in one of the many co-planted Bordeaux vineyards. Part of its immediate success came about because it’s a very obliging grape to grow: fairly disease resistant, and easy to vinify. Baron Hector de Brane of Château Mouton and Armand d'Armailhacq, of Château Armailhac (later purchased by Baron Philippe de Rothschild), are credited with the promotion and promulgation of the variety in the Médoc, where it quickly became the most widely planted variety.
King Cab the Colonizer
In the last 50 years, cabernet sauvignon has been viewed as an aristocratic and magnificent grape variety capable of producing fruit-forward, powerful young drinking wines as well as complex and sublime long lived wines. Moreover, cabernet sauvignon has a distinctive and very memorable flavor profile, making it a consumer favorite. For many red wine drinkers, the wines and brands became increasingly, consistently recognizable.
As its commercial success increased, so did the number of regions and countries where cabernet sauvignon was planted. Its genius ability to modernize and spice up most red blends added to its rampant colonization in vineyards all over the world.
From winery to winery, the high concentration of phenolics in the varietal allows for extended maceration times, resulting in deeply colored and tannic wines. Furthermore, cabernet sauvignon’s startling affinity with new oak creates wines where black currant flavors seamlessly blend with vanilla and sweet spicy notes. The strong tannic structure, deep color, and fruit-forward characteristic also are the reason why cabernet sauvignon tends to hijack most blends it has been added to. Its powerful personality seems to add the exact amount of "trendiness" to a traditional blend, giving it a broader appeal for most red wine drinkers.
King Cab, the brand, thus became the key that would open doors in restaurants and stores in the U.S., the U.K., Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world.
Blend or Single Varietal?
Whilst it’s true that cabernet sauvignon is relatively easy to grow in most wine regions which are warm enough, and will produce a wine that is easily recognizable, there are very few regions in the world where cabernet sauvignon by itself is better than the blend. Even in its native Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon is rarely bottled as a single varietal. Instead it’s generally blended with the much fatter merlot and perfumed cabernet franc. In Spain, cabernet sauvignon is often blended with tempranillo, especially in the regions of Navarra and Cataluña; in Tuscany, it is often blended with sangiovese, though some super Tuscan’s are single cabernet sauvignon varietal wines.
A lot of excellent single varietal examples come from the New World. The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are two regions in California which are well known for producing some excellent cabernet sauvignons. There is quite a big difference between hillside and valley floor wines: the hillside wines tend to have smaller berries and lower yields, resulting in more intense and austere wines, which are slower to mature and more elegant than the more opulent and fruit-forward valley floor wines.
Australia is another region were cabernet sauvignon fares very well as a single varietal, especially in Coonawarra and Margaret River. Both regions are coastal and a little cooler than more inland wine growing regions, and Coonawarra’s Terra Rosso soils tend to bring out the fine structure and more minty fruit flavors in Coonawarra’s cabs. The wines from Margaret River are tightly structured, with a lot of black fruit flavors and kitchen herb notes.
— Caroline Henry, Snooth