Grape Focus: Cabernet Sauvignon

I started to write this post back in September … and then I got sidetracked for a few months.  Clearly blogging my way through wine school hasn’t quite panned out as planned!  Better late than never though, here is a look at Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the best known red grape, and one that commands very highest prices.  Back in the fall I did a short research project on where it comes from, what it tastes like and how it grows.   Here’s a recap plus a few of my favorite Cabernet-based wines at the end!

The Vine:


Cabernet Sauvignon grapes hang in loose clusters made up of small, dark berries.  The berries have thick skins & relatively large seeds, which are part of what makes its wine so dark with such intense flavors.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc (yes, really, a white grape).  Cabernet Sauvignon’s name comes from the French “sauvage” which means wild, likely because of its natural vigor.  It was not until 1997 that scientists discovered the genetic provenance, which probably occurred spontaneously in a mixed vineyard in Bordeaux around the 17th Century.

Although we might think today that Cabernet Sauvignon would have proliferated due to its superior flavors, evidence suggests that it was the vine’s resistance to disease and hardiness that led to its dominance in its homeland.

Cabernet Around the World:

Cabernet prefers warmer climates, which allow the grapes to fully ripen, and well drained soils, and it is grown in almost every major wine making region around the world.

legendary Bordeaux Chateau Pichon-Longueville

The main Old World region for Cabernet is Bordeaux, where it was born.  Here, it is typically combined with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot to create the classic “Bordeaux blend.”  Historically, different varieties of grapes would have been planted in the same vineyards in order to decrease risk if the harvest of any one was negatively impacted one year.  It also adds complexity to the wine, drawing on the various aromatic traits of each variety.

More recently, Cabernet has also been planted in Tuscany, where it is blended with Sangiovese and other grapes to make “Super Tuscans”, as well as in Spain.

In the New World, California Cabernets are perhaps the best known, and most highly regarded.  It thrives in Napa Valley, where the climate and (some of the) soil is similar to that of Bordeaux.  Because California is warmer than Bordeaux, Cabernet is more able to fully ripen here and develop deep fruit flavors.  As a result, California is able to produce 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines instead of blends, although many vintners also make classic Bordeaux blends here.

You can also find Cabernet in Washington state, Chile & Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

What does it taste/look like?

Cabernet has very distinct characteristics, so you can recognize a wine as Cabernet no matter if it comes from Bordeaux, from California, from Chile or from Australia.

  1. cab_glassIt is very intense – in flavors, in tannins & in acidity – all of which also make it very age-able
  2. It has a great affinity for oak, and is almost always aged in oak barrels, especially French
  3. It is a great vehicle for showcasing the other components of the wine growing and making process including the terroir of the vineyard, the winemaking techniques used, and the individual climate traits of each vintage year.
  4. Common descriptors include cassis, dark cherry, earth, tobacco, cigar, eucalyptus and herbs such as bay leaf.
  5. The color of the wine in glass is usually very dark – think deep ruby to almost black.

Ok, so what should I drink?

One of the struggles with Cabernet Sauvignon is that because it tends to need more aging time, and because it really likes to be aged in oak, good examples are often expensive.  (Side bar: oak is expensive.  One barrel can run $1,500 new, which translates to about $2/bottle.  Start thinking about everything else you need to make wine, and things start to add up pretty fast.)  That being said, there are still some great deals out there.  Here are some of my favorites!

PACKSHOT_CHATEAU_LANESSANChateau Lanessan, Haut-Medoc, Bordeaux: A solid French producer whose property is just across the line from the swankier St Julien.  A bottle will set you back $15-20.  We have bought a bunch of vintages of this at K&L and will probably buy a bunch more. It’s a great wine to have on hand for every-day drinking.

Chateau Marsac-Seguineau, Margaux, Bordeaux: We tasted the 2010 vintage of this wine in class when we were studying the region and it was one of my favorites.  Strong graphite, cassis and clove spice on the nose, followed by a chocolate-covered-dark-berry palate with some black tea and cigar thrown in for good measure.  Wine Searcher says you can get it for about $40.

Arkenstone NVD, Napa Valley: This wine is a more expensive option, but compared to many others of its caliber (and price!) it is still an outstanding value.  It tends toward old-world style — no jammy monsters or whack-you-across-the-face-oak here — made with beautiful new-world fruit — think raspberries, cherry pie and sweet tobacco supported by elegant tannins.  It runs about $250 for a 3-pack.  (Full disclosure, this is my boyfriend’s wine.  Yes, I chose well.)