The magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon, which has become the main red wine grape of the world, dominates the market for wine along with Chardonnay and a select few other grapes. An incredibly diverse grape, certainly the most versatile and adaptable in the wine world, Cabernet has been planted from California to Australia, with flavors ranging all across the spectrum but maintaining the dense, thick, tannic structure that Cabernet has become famous for. Notes of dark fruit and sometimes even jam mingle with young berry flavors and bitter tannin. Cabernet is the classic red wine grape: intense and powerful without being over-alcoholic.
Cabernet is not a picky grape, which is, in a few words, the reason it is the top red wine grape in the world. Although it is certainly prone to diseases, it is not a grape that has a bad reaction to either warm or cold climates, and can be grown almost anywhere and anyhow. Although the best results come from climates such as France and California, different temperatures bring out different flavors in Cabernet while keeping the boldness and expansive fruit flavors that it has become famous for.
The actual grape is small and thick, which is why there is so much tannin in Cabernet. During the production process, growers found that the grape’s wine reacted very well to oak aging, which not all grapes do. Rather than softening the wine too much, oak aging tends to bring the wine to just the right level of acidity and bitterness, while adding new flavors of its own. What type of oak to use and how long to age the wine for is a science in itself. It is doubtful that Cabernet would have the pedigree that it does if it did not have such a natural affinity for oak aging.
The tannins that can make young Cabernet so hard to drink do it a great favor in the long term. They preserve the wine, letting its flavors rearrange themselves and open up while the tannin itself recedes and eventually dies off. This process can take 60 or more years. This is what has made great Cabernet, especially Bordeaux, famous for centuries. Houses in Bordeaux’s Médoc offer some phenomenal Cabernet; though blended with other grapes, it dominates the blend and gives the wine almost all of its character. It is mostly Pauillac from which the expensive Cabernets appear, with three of five “First Growths” coming from Pauillac: Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and Latour.
Cabernet’s wine is very powerful and tends to be too strong if not blended. The French invented the idea of blending Cabernet with lighter varietals in order to tame it. For example, Lafite uses about 70% Cabernet, but lightens it up with 25% Merlot and, in some vintages, tiny proportions of other grapes. Latour uses about 75% Cabernet for their blend. Almost all the smaller Médoc châteaux are similar.
Pauillac is probably the most famous of Cabernet’s domiciles on the left bank of Bordeaux, but it, too, has competitors. The main one is likely Margaux. Not all Margaux wines are as expensive as those from the château of the same name, but there are a lot of leaders here. Interestingly, the wines are considered much different, with richer flavors and a more velvety texture than those of neighboring Pauillac.
Equally powerful wines, although by critics considered slightly less finessed, come from the other two Médoc villages, St-Estèphe and St-Julien. These wines can offer good quality compared to Pauillac for a fraction of the price (although they are still very expensive).
More minerally, and more made up by Merlot, the wines of Pessac-Léognan come not from the Médoc, but the nearby region of Graves. Château Haut-Brion is a first growth here—so good that the Médoc classifiers decided to include it even though it was not even made there.
The great thing about French Bordeaux is that after 20 or 30 years (even with less luxurious growths), the old flavors start to soften, and new flavors are introduced by gradually depleting tannin. All kinds of flavors can intrude, as diverse as chocolate and violet, and the wine, if stored right, can easily last half a century. It is said that some Bordeaux has lasted over 100 years, although the quality of these wines has been questioned. The exciting world of Bordeaux Cabernet (all of the wines listed above use at least a large amount of Cabernet in their blends) will continue to provide the most exclusive and expensive wines, but in the last 50 years competition has sprung up all across the rest of the world.
On Bordeaux’s own Right Bank, Cabernet is less good, and it is mostly used in small percentages as a blending grape. And outside of Bordeaux entirely, in places such as the Loire Valley, Cabernet is lighter and less structured, which makes a drinkable wine but without the legendary age ability and versatility of the beloved Bordeaux.
In the rest of the Old World, Cabernet is just as popular as it is in France, and many competitors deserve to be taken seriously. Although Sangiovese is much more popular in Italy, where it is native, Cabernet is often used in Super-Tuscans as about half the blend on average. These wines, such as Solaia, have reached levels of critical acclaim equal to some Bordeaux. Less prestigious wines exist in Spain, Portugal, and everywhere wine is grown in Europe.
Cabernet is everywhere in the US, but most would agree that the best examples come from Sonoma Valley, California, and especially Napa Valley. These Cabernets, often 100% varietal, have had a good reputation for about 40 years now, although a large undermarket of lower-level wines is bringing down California Cabernet’s reputation. The grape undoubtedly does well viticulturally in California, and its different flavors allow it to go unblended often, creating wine with more raw power than Bordeaux. In 1976, Stags Leap winery turned in an upset by winning first place in the Judgement of Paris blind-taste test, outdoing competitors such as Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. Then, however, a phylloxera epidemic hit, and it took years before California recovered. When it did, California Cab quickly became marketed as a luxury item, and Napa Valley Cab is now as expensive as Bordeaux! However, discerning buyers will be able to find good bargains in other wine-growing regions in California, as well as Washington State.
Malbec is the flagship red grape for most South American vineyards, especially in Argentina, but Cabernet is becoming increasingly promising. The grape tends to be slightly less good in warm climates, making a more soupy, “baked” flavor, making it hard to prefer such Cabernet over examples from cooler vineyards. Still, once the right viticultural methods are put in place these disadvantages could be overcome.
Cabernet is excellent in Australia. Blending it with the country’s flagship grape, Syrah, has yielded generally disappointing results, but varietal Cab from places like the Barossa Valley can be monstrously powerful and age able.
Plenty of other places are taking their stab at Cabernet, offering price and drinkability as an alternative to the somewhat expensive and intimidating wines of Bordeaux. Almost everywhere in the world that wine is grown, Cabernet is grown, and the grape’s strong point is that it is able to have different and good flavors in all these places.
Cabernet offers many benefits to those who are up to the challenge of its somewhat demanding flavors. It is drinkable young, but can be forgotten about for years and still be good, if not better. Its tannins act as natural preservatives and also are good for health, according to recent studies. For strong foods, Cabernet is often the only wine that can keep pace. And with the expanding market for all Cabernet, even the more classic and expensive examples from Bordeaux, interest will surely only continue to grow.
Cabernet Sauvignon, full of diversity and longevity, deserves its status as the world’s primary red wine grape.