Cabernet Sauvignon — Long Live the Long Lived King!
In the world of grapes, some varieties are called "Noble", and among the nobility Cabernet Sauvignon is doubtlessly the King red wine grape, not solely for its quality, but also for the enormous success it has had planted throughout the world. The quality of wines produced from Cabernet may be equaled, but not surpassed by other varieties; it produces top quality fruit in a vast array of wine regions; it is a grape grower's favorite; and it is a winemaker's dream to make. The resulting wine is full bodied, rich, and full of flavor, and can age for many years when cellared properly. For all of these reasons, Cabernet Sauvignon has been called the "perfect variety".
From Grape to Bottle — Cabernet in the Vineyard and Winery
In the vineyard, it is a tough, hardy vine that reliably produces good quality fruit. The grapes are small and spherical with skins that are tough and thick, with a deep blue/black color. The thickness and the toughness of the skins result in good resistance a variety of vine diseases and help it to recover quickly in the event of late season rains. It does require a fairly long growing season, but any moderately warm, not too rainy climate, with well drained soils can produce good quality fruit.
In the winery, it is an easy and straightforward wine to make. After crushing, the mixture of juice and grape solids known as must is pumped into large fermenting vessels and either the native or added yeast begins the fermentation. As the mass of pulp and skins rises to the top of the fermenting wine, forming a cap, it is either punched down into the juice, or the juice is pumped back over the cap to extract the color and flavor from the skins. After fermentation ceases, the pulp and skins are left to macerate for a period of from a few days up to a month, depending on the style the winemaker is looking for. Typically, the wine is then pressed, and the clear wine is run off into oak barrels. With its rich, robust flavors, Cabernet tolerates long aging in oak, often from 1 to 2 or more years before bottling.
In the Glass — The Flavors of Cabernet
Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine of very deep color, dark ruby purple when young, aging to a brick red over years in the cellar. It possesses a great intensity and depth of flavor. The primary fruit aromas and flavors of Cabernet run to cassis (black currant), blackberry, plum, and black cherry. There are often secondary aromas and flavors of herbs, spices, green olives, mint, and tobacco. If grown in cooler climates, where it may not be as ripe when picked, vegetal, asparagus, and green pepper notes are likely to be present. The use of oak barrels will impart flavors of vanilla and smoke, as well as oak. With aging, cedar, leather, cigar box, and earthy qualities will be added to the mix. Because of its thick skins, Cabernet is often high in tannin, and young Cabernet can be rather harshly astringent in the mouth. These tannins also act as a preservative, helping the wine to age, and as it ages, the tannins polymerize and their effect is softened, resulting in the classic aged character of Cabernet. Many years ago, if a Cabernet was drinkable in its youth, it was dismissed as a bad wine, but modern winemaking techniques now can produce wines that are supple enough to be enjoyed young, but which can still age gracefully for many years. There is often in the aging of Cabernet a "dumb phase" when the exuberant youthful fruit that made the wine drinkable young has faded, but the tannins have not yet fully softened. With time, the wine can emerge from its "dumb phase" and become an elegant, flavorful, aged Cabernet Sauvignon.
On the Table — Cabernet and Food
Whoever came up with the adage "White wine with fish, red wine with meat" was probably sitting with a glass of Cabernet in their hand. Cabernet is the red meat wine pair excellence, which is not to say it won't go with other foods, but simply that it has an affinity for richly flavored, fat laced red meat. Perhaps the quintessential pairing of Cabernet Sauvignon is with lamb. It should be no surprise that the town flag of Pauillac, the home of Chateaux Latour, Lafite Rothschild, and Mouton Rothschild has a sheep on it. With a roast leg, or with lamb chops, the flavor of Cabernet is ideal, and the tannins present in the wine serve to cut the fattiness, and refresh the palate. Avoid the mint sauce however, use garlic, red wine marinades, mustard, rosemary or other herbs to add flavor to the lamb. The other very logical choice with Cabernet is beef, although not every preparation or style of beef. With a nicely seared, grilled steak, served with a simple herb butter, or with a red wine sauce, Cabernet is ideal. With the gentler flavors of a simple roast beef, you may be better off with a lighter wine. The general rule is, as the preparation and the saucing gets richer, the better the match with Cabernet. Another specialty of the southwest of France is duck, and a Cabernet with a Magret (Duck Breast), provided the sauce is more savory than sweet, or Confit is a delicious combination. While some preparations of pork or veal can go with Cabernet, there are better choices available. The flavors of Cabernet, and especially its standard load of tannin, pretty much rule out any fish dish, even a "meatier" fish like a tuna steak. With chicken, there is, however a role for Cabernet. If you roast a whole chicken, using garlic and herbs to season the chicken, an older, mature, Cabernet that has lost its rough edges of youth can be an amazing accompaniment. As to cheeses, again a mature, 10+ year old Cabernet can do well with heartier English cheeses like Cheddar, Wensleydale, Cheshire, or Gloucester. Other cheeses will do better with other wines. There are those who believe in Cabernet with chocolate desserts, but only if you have a dark chocolate, not very sweet dessert, and at that, there are better choices than Cabernet.
The Geography of Cabernet — Where It Grows, and Grows Well
It would be silly to begin the discussion of where Cabernet grows well anywhere but Bordeaux. Bordeaux has made Cabernet famous, and Cabernet has made Bordeaux famous. Interestingly, though, for less than half of the grapes grown in Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, and most of the wines of Bordeaux could not be labeled under United States law as Cabernet, because they fail to meet the 75% varietal minimum. However, make no mistake that it is the Cabernet grape in the central Médoc peninsula that makes Bordeaux wines what they are. This 25 mile strip of land running from just north of the city of Bordeaux to Saint Estephe and the small region of Graves just south of the city are the home to the famous wine growing communities of Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Saint Estephe, and the famous chateaux of Haut Brion, Margaux, Latour, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, the three Léovilles- Las Cases, Barton and Poyferré, the two Pichons- Baron and Lalande, Cos d'Estournel, La Mission Haut Brion, and more. Here is the ancestral home of Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet here is usually makes up from 50-80% of the blend, along with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Médoc Cabernet is among the richest, toughest, most tannic Cabernet in the world, but it has historically rewarded cellaring like no other wine in history. 50-100 years is the potential life span of the top level wines in the best of years, and the good wines of good years, 10-12 years of cellaring is almost always rewarded. As a young wine, Bordeaux is more austere than most other Cabernets, has less "up front" fruit and more tannin. But with time, as the tannins soften that austerity evolves into structure, and an amazing array of complex flavors and aromas emerge. In other areas of Bordeaux, such as St. Emilion, Pomerol, and the lesser appellations, Cabernet Sauvignon plays a less important role. In these regions, Merlot and Cabernet Franc take the leading role in the blend, and Cabernet Sauvignon is used to add structure and richness to the wines.
Elsewhere in France, Cabernet Sauvignon is not a particularly important grape. The only large plantings are found in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south, and most of that for inexpensive, varietally labeled wine for the American market.
Cabernet is the red wine grape that made the world take notice of California wine. It has been grown there since the 1820s, and producers like Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards were producing top quality Cabernet over 50 years ago. But it was during the great explosion of the California wine industry in the 1970s that Cabernet found its starring role in California, especially in the Napa Valley and in Sonoma County. The famous "Judgment of Paris" tasting held in 1976, in which California Cabernets were tasted blind alongside great Bordeaux wines, and were scored higher or equally by a group of French judges, launched the growth of the California wine industry.
By United States law, if a label says Cabernet Sauvignon, 75% of the grapes used must be Cabernet. The 25% allowance recognizes the historic practice of blending Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and other grapes to tone down the sometimes aggressive tannin of Cabernet Sauvignon. Recently there has been a category called Meritage (rhymes with heritage) created to account form wines which are blends of the 5 traditional varieties of Bordeaux, but no one variety rises to the 75% level.
In general, California Cabernet is less tannic, less acidic, and has more up front fruit than Bordeaux, due to the generally warmer growing climate. While winemaking practices are a strong influence, there are some variations to Cabernet that can be ascribed to the regions in which the fruit is grown. The top region in California is the Napa Valley, home to such prestigious Cabernet producers as Beauleiu, Beringer, Cakebread, Caymus, Dominus, Grgich Hills, Mondavi, Montelena, Niebaum Coppola, Opus One, Phelps, Shafer, Stag's Leap, Viader, Whitehall Lane, and more. Napa Cabernet varies somewhat by whether the fruit is from the valley floor, producing a supple, elegant style wine, or from hillside fruit, with greater concentration and structure. Among the sub districts of Napa Valley; Calistoga, Diamond Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville, Stag's Leap, St. Helena, etc. there are minor differences, but they are often overshadowed by the style choices of the winemaker. Sonoma is the second most important region for Cabernet, boasting such famous names as Arrowood, B.R. Cohn, Beringer, Benziger, Chalk Hill, Jordan, Kenwood, Laurel Glen, Silver Oak, Simi and more. Cabernet is grown in the warmer regions of Sonoma, primarily from the Alexander, Knight's, Dry Creek, and Sonoma Valleys, as well as Chalk Hill and Sonoma Mountain. In general, Sonoma Cabernet is less full bodied and less intense than Napa, although there are scattered examples as big and powerful as any in Napa. Cabernet is planted in most of California's other growing regions, with varying success, and often only in small pockets or microclimates that are well suited. North of Napa and Sonoma, there are plantings in both Lake County, and the warmer parts of Mendocino County. East of San Francisco, in Lodi and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, there is some Cabernet grown, but in general these are warmer areas, and the fruit loses its definition, and the wines are not memorable Cabernet. The Santa Cruz Mountains, just south of San Francisco, are the source of some classic, mountain grown Cabernet, most notably Ridge Vineyard's Monte Bello. The Monterey valley in general has proved too cold to ripen Cabernet fully, and the vegetal quality of Cabernet tends to overpower the fruit. The region around San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles is the source of a large amount of Cabernet, mostly of middle level quality, but there are some fine producers like Justin, L'Aventure, and Wild Horse found here. The Santa Barbara county areas of Santa Ynez and Santa Maria are a bit too cold for large scale Cabernet growing, but there are some of the warmer, most inland sections that have been producing top quality Cabernet.
Washington is the only other state which can claim significant Cabernet plantings. In the warm Columbia and Yakima Valleys, and the Walla Walla region, Cabernet grows quite successfully. The arid climate allows for precise control of irrigation, and there is rarely, if ever, any harvest rain. Wineries like Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, Owen Roe, Sineann, Columbia Crest, and Chateau Ste. Michelle have shown Washington to be a world class Cabernet region. Oregon has some Cabernet, mostly in the southern Rogue Valley region. In New York, Cabernet is found on the North Fork of Long Island in tiny quantities. The price for these wines is high, and for the most part the quality lags behind. One can see Cabernet from Virginia, Texas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Idaho, New Mexico, and in fact virtually any state where wine is made, but so far, none has risen above the level of ordinary wine.
Cabernet has been grown in Italy for over 100 years, but it has only become significant in the last 25-30 years. The majority of Italian Cabernet falls in two categories by taste and region. In the northeast part of Italy, in the area around Venice and in the Alto Adige, it produces light, elegant wines, with the cool climate vegetal character showing through. In Tuscany Cabernet, often blended with Sangiovese, produces wines that are Californian in their up front fruit, but with more of the structure and acidity of Bordeaux. When these wines were first produced, they acquired the name "Super Tuscan" because under Italian law at the time, wines produced from Cabernet in Tuscany were legally the lowest level recognized, Vino da Tavola. Super Tuscan was used to designate these top quality blends, and now Italian law has caught up with practice, and newly defined regions like Bolgheri and Maremma allow the use of Cabernet, and a category Indicazione Geografica Tipica that covers the Super Tuscans. The great names of Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Solaia, Guado al Tasso, Solengo, Oreno, and Tignanello testify that Cabernet and Cabernet blends from Italy rank with the best in the world. Cabernet is being experimented in other regions of Italy, notably the Piedmont, where it is used either by itself, as in Angelo Gaja's Darmaji, or in a blend with Nebbiolo or Barbera.
Australia has emerged in the past 20 years as a leading wine producer, based primarily on their stunning Syrah/Shiraz wines, but there is a lot of great Cabernet being produced down under, too. In taste profile, Australian Cabernet is definitely California style. They are big, ripe, and full of up front fruit character, with relatively high alcohol and low acidity. Despite these characters, they seem to age well. The best examples come mostly from the state of South Australia, specifically in the Coonawarra, Padthaway, McLaren Vale, and Barossa districts. Coonawarra is probably the top area; it and Padthaway are a bit cooler than McLaren or Barossa, so the wines are just a little lighter and more elegant. In the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley, Cabernet is often found in blends with Shiraz, serving to broaden out the intense jammy fruit of the Shiraz, and add depth and complexity to the finished wines. In Western Australia, the relatively cool Margaret River district is rapidly becoming a source for fine Cabernet as well.
Cabernet is widely planted in both Argentina and Chile. In Argentina, the most important grape, and the signature wine of the country is Malbec, and Cabernet is secondary. Most Argentinean Cabernet is mostly fairly light, and does not have the depth or intensity that characterizes the wine elsewhere, although Catena has produced wines from higher altitude vineyards that rise to the level of world class. Almost all of the Argentinean Cabernet is grown in the Mendoza district, in the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains. In Chile, Cabernet is the most important red wine, although Carmenere is being promoted by Chilean winemakers attempting to mimic the Argentinean success with Malbec in creating a unique identity for Chile. Much of Chilean Cabernet is inexpensive, fairly light, and somewhat earthier in style than Cabernet grown elsewhere. Cabernet is grown throughout most of the major Chilean growing regions, Aconagua, Maule, Rapel, Curico, but it is in the Colchagua and the Maipo Valley that the finest examples are produced. Conchay Toro's Don Melchor, the Mouton Rothschild joint venture Almaviva, and Casa Lapostolle's Clos Apalta all are grown in these regions, and proudly stand in the first rank of world Cabernet.
Cabernet is grown in most of the European winegrowing countries. It provides basic everyday wine from the Eastern European countries. In Spain, it is not widely planted, but from Catalunya there have been good examples, in the Ribera del Duero the famous Vega Sicilia has used some Cabernet in its outstanding wines, and it is now being experimented with in a number of regions Like most red wine grapes it is not common in Germany. In New Zealand, there have been attempts to produce top quality Cabernet in the Hawke's Bay region of the North Island, but the cool climate there has kept the wines more on the herbal side of Cabernet's flavor profile, and not quite at the world class level. In South Africa, in the Paarl region, and especially in the Stellenbosch district, Cabernet is planted and vinified into top flight wine, with classic Cabernet flavors and structure. In recent years, Cabernet has become an important grape in Israel, both for kosher and non kosher wines. In the cooler Galil, Golan Heights, and Judean Hills regions, Cabernets with typical Cabernet flavors and intensity are being produced by wineries such as Yarden, Segal's, Yatir, and Castel.