In the wine world, one grape variety is associated with more illustrious and iconic estates than any other and that’s Cabernet Sauvignon.
From Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux to the first ‘Super Tuscan’ Sassicaia, and from the cult Californian Screaming Eagle to the Lebanese legend Château Musar, Cabernet Sauvignon forms the backbone and therefore ensures the wines’ ability to age and evolve over decades, not just years.
What’s Cabernet Sauvignon’s Secret?
By sheer virtue of the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon is grown pretty much all over the world, it would appear to be fairly easy to cultivate, and so long as there’s sufficient warmth during the summer months to ripen the comparatively small, thick-skinned berries, the resilient vine will do the rest.
Being a slow and late ripening variety means that the crucial budding phase happens after the worst of the spring frosts, a blight that frequently devastates so many other vine varieties, as witnessed across France earlier this year. Those thick skins on the grapes makes them highly resistant to rot, and pests too, as well as contributing higher tannin levels in the wines which helps those wines to age.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a naturally low-yielding variety so you generally get good concentration levels of flavours in the resulting wines, and this explains why it’s such a popular blending variety with other well-known grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz.
Where do the Best Cabernet Sauvignons Come From?
It was through Bordeaux in France during the 18th Century that Cabernet Sauvignon really shot to prominence. Especially across the vineyards of the area known as the Médoc. It is there that you can find all the famous classed growth châteaux, known as Cru Classés, from village names like Margaux, St Julien and Pauillac. These wines have fascinated and seduced collectors all over the world ever since and have been the catalyst for a subsequent wave of ‘Bordeaux Blends’ from numerous other countries.
Australia also has a heritage of producing outstanding Cabernet Sauvignons that dates back to the late 19th Century and in fact some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world can be found in the Barossa Valley. The Penfolds Kalimna Block 42 vineyard was planted in 1885 and has been in continual production since then.
Outside the Barossa, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in other parts of South Australia like Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and Eden Valley and further beyond to the Yarra Valley in Victoria and Margaret River in Western Australia.
Both Spain and Italy have had long associations with Cabernet Sauvignon, both dating back to the 19th Century, with the Rioja and Piedmont regions respectively making blends with their own native grapes using the Bordeaux blueprint.
Other regions followed, namely Penedès, Navarra and Ribera del Duero in Spain and Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Tuscany in Italy.
The Napa and Sonoma Valleys of California have produced cult Cabernets and Cabernet blends for well over fifty years and some have even been selected by experts, during blind tasting, over the best of Bordeaux.
Other notable areas around the world to look out for are Stellenbosch in South Africa, Mendoza in Argentina (especially Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley), Aconcagua and Colchagua in Chile, Hawkes Bay and Waiheke Island in New Zealand, Bulgaria and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
What is Cabernet Sauvignon’s Key Characteristics?
The flavours most associated with Cabernet Sauvignon don’t just come from the grape itself.
As the wines are synonymous with oak barrel ageing, the usual fruit descriptors like blackcurrant, blackberry and plum are joined by liquorice, coffee bean, vanilla, clove and cedar wood. Add in other grape varieties on top of that and the wines gain even greater flavour complexity. It’s a little like making a decent curry, the more component ingredients you add, the better and more flavoursome the curry will become.
A Trio of Cabernets to Try
The Cape Heights Cabernet Sauvignon represents terrific value and is a great introduction to this classic grape variety. From the north of Cape Town in the Swartland and Breede River Valley wine regions, and created by two young winemakers, it’s a well-structured and expressive example with generous blackberry flavours and ripe, leafy tannins. It’s a great every day drinking Cabernet to be paired with food. Something like a simple steak frites works well.
Wild & Wilder’s ‘The Pugilist’ Cabernet Sauvignon from Langhorne Creek in South Australia is another outstanding value wine that’s energetic, vibrant and smooth with silkier tannins than one might expect. Careful use of oak adds subtle depth of flavour without dominating. As the region does not hold quite the same cachet as neighbouring Barossa or McLaren Vale, it means you can find great value. This is a highly popular choice and makes the perfect accompaniment with a Sunday roast beef or a mild Massaman curry.
The yields for the Berton Reserve Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon are very small but concentration levels are high and this has the classic rich blackcurrant and minty eucalyptus notes that defines the famous Coonawarra region. With firm tannins and hints of dark chocolate and toasty oak on the finish, this wine has plenty of time to improve further so it’s a great one to keep for a few years before drinking.
International Cabernet Sauvignon Day is the 2nd September so we are celebrating this iconic grape variety all week. Do you have a bottle for the weekend?