Taking a Cab Around The World
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
It is safe to say that Cabernet Sauvignon is widely known as the reigning king of all grapes – the gateway for most wine lovers – the red wine equivalent of the little black dress. The grape varietal is resistant to the elements, age-worthy, and is hearty enough to grow anywhere on the globe.
The blue-black berry is deceivingly small in size and has a high skin-to-juice ratio which creates high proportions of phenols and tannins. “Phenols” are chemical compounds that affect taste and color, while “Tannins” come from the skins, seeds and stems give the textural element that makes wine taste (and feel!) dry. Together they soften and develop over time leading to an array of flavors.
So what are the different styles of Cabernet Sauvignon?
The three main factors determining the different styles are: the climate in which it is grown, the type of oak used, and the time spent aging in barrel.
- Cooler climates produce an herbaceous style with vegetal notes, especially green bell pepper. In warmer climates, cassis (black currant) and eucalyptus become evident.
- American oak imparts strong flavors of vanilla and coconut, whereas European oak (most frequently French) offers textural subtlety with spicy notes.
- Time in the barrel (and the bottle) allows the slow ingress of oxygen, which makes wine taste smoother and less astringent.
What is not as well known is Cabernet Sauvignon’s origin. An accidental breeding occurring in 17th century France combined the red grape Cabernet Franc and the white grape Sauvignon Blanc. (Its half-sibling, by the way is Merlot – both have Cab Franc as a “father” but different “mothers.”). The offspring was immediately adopted by left bank Bordeaux producers who loved the characteristics it added to their classic blend.
Overall, styles have definitely changed over the last, say twenty years – even in Bordeaux. They used to be tannic, high acidity, Cab dominant blends requiring years of bottle age to fully develop. But whether it be climate change, economic factors, or intentionally aiming for high scores from a major critic (Robert Parker), many producers are now picking at maximum ripeness levels. They also employ oxygenation techniques to soften tannins in order to make their wine more drinkable upon release. No matter how or why it’s happening, it’s apparent that the old world is coming more toward the new world than reverse.
Since Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in a wide range of climates and regions throughout the world it wouldn’t be fair to say unequivocally that a specific country produces a specific style. Let’s do it anyway.
Dry, medium to full-bodied, medium alcohol with high acidity and tannin.
Together with Merlot, Cabernet is a key component of the Bordeaux blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.
It is legal in the US to add up to 25% of another grape into a wine labeled “Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Dry, full-bodied, high alcohol and high levels of soft, ripe tannins.
Almost a quarter of California’s 80,000 acres under vine are in Napa.
It is home to some of the world’s greatest expressions of the grape (with prices to match). Some value can still be had in Sonoma, Lodi, San Louis Obispo and always emerging new regions. Styles can range from highly-oaked, high-alcohol, fruit forward wines, to elegant and balanced age-worthy classics.
- Washington State
Although it is the most widely planted red grape in the state it is mostly found in Columbia Valley where it is characterized by lower tannins and a fruitier style. Many of the vineyards lie on the same latitude as Bordeaux.
Dry, full-bodied, soft tannins.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape in Chile. The wines are usually aged for 1 to 2 years in American oak.
Dry, full-bodied and ripe but with a strong tannic structure.
Leading Cab regions Coonawarra and Margaret River produce wine bearing notes of bell pepper and jalapeño (!).
Dry, full-bodied, with high levels of tannin and acidity.
Cabernet does particularly well in Durbanville and areas around Stellenbosch.
A wide range of styles, from fresh and fruity to complex and collectible are grown in Golan Heights, Galilee and Jerusalem Hills.
Garnering most acclaim (and most high prices) are Cabs from Tuscany where it is blended with Sangiovese to make what are called “Super Tuscan” wines. In the Veneto region, it is sometimes added to the the main grapes of Valpolicella-Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella.
Spain also uses Cabernet as a blending grape, providing structure and aromas to the local Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Monastrell grapes. It is sometimes known by it’s synonym, Burdeos Tintos.
Although lagging behind the country’s signature grape Malbec, Argentinian Cabs are gaining in popularity and acclaim. Grown under the influence of a warm continental climate they have a great depth and concentration leading to hints of smoke and dark chocolate.
Surprisingly, China is the number-one consumer of red wine worldwide, and the number-one varietal is Cabernet Sauvignon. Not so surprising is how young the vines are at this point. Although the regions are still in flux and yet to be defined, the handful of wines reaching the international market show promise in the provinces of Xinjiang and Shandong.
Three Fun Facts
The word “Sauvignon” is believed to derive from the French sauvage which means “wild”.
Cabernet Sauvignon was the first grape to have its entire genome sequenced. Funding for the 2016 UC Davis genome project was provided by J. Lohr Vineyards.
The grape has its own day! International Cabernet Sauvignon Day is August 30th.