Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most well-known grape varieties in the world. In fact, in 2015 it took the crown for most-planted grape variety from Merlot. A title Cabernet Sauvignon had held previously, until the 1990s.
Grapes can be found throughout Canada, Chile, China, Lebanon and beyond. If you’re looking to learn more about some of the unexpected places these grapes can crop up, be sure to read our review of the world’s more unexpected wine regions. Although, perhaps it is most well known for its life in Bordeaux and the Napa Valley, as well as some other key new world wine nations.
You might think all this points to Cabernet Sauvignon being a great grape that has been honed since ancient times, but it isn’t the case. DNA Analysis shows that this grape was given life through the combining of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc at some time around the 17th century. Then, in little over 100 years it had found traction in Bordeaux.
Let’s spend some time looking over this grape’s major regions and seek out the differences and similarities between Cabernet Sauvignon grapes across the world.
Cabernet Sauvignon in France
It’s hard to start anywhere other than France, more specifically Bordeaux. This is where Cabernet Sauvignon became famous. This is where Cabernet Sauvignon is still famous. Appellations such as Margaux, Pauillac and the Mêdoc still command both acclaim and high price tags.
These appellations all form part of the ‘Left Bank’ of the Bordeaux region. This is because it is to the left of the Gironde river. The top Bordeaux regions are said to be able to ‘see the water’. The Gironde runs up from the city of Bordeaux, to the North-West, where it eventually spills out into the Atlantic.
Cabernet Sauvignon is also planted in smaller numbers across the river in the Right Bank, where Merlot rules the roost. The reason for this dichotomy is the soil type. It is thought that the loose well-draining gravel soils helped radiate heat, which aided in ripening. So, it’s just a question of percentages. In the Left Bank appellations Cabernet Sauvignon makes up to lions share of the blend. In the classic Right Bank wines, Cabernet Sauvignon is often present. However, it lets Merlot take centre stage.
Interestingly, France may be the one of the few wine-making nations that has paid attention to the soil type involved in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Sauvignon has been seen to thrive on a variety of different soil types, which partly explains the popularity of this grape among new world wine-makers. Wine-makers in other nations pay greater attention to method of production compared to Bordeaux, where it is all about the terroir.
Cabernet Sauvignon in The USA
There is great Cabernet Sauvignon to be found in a number of different American wine regions. However, California wines are often the most desired and California produces more than 90% of all American wine.
California actually has a fairly long history with wines being made as far back as the 1700s. Slowly, more and more vineyards were planted and expansion shifted north to the areas of Sonoma and Napa, (which are still key today).
Although, it had setbacks. The 1890s saw a phylloxera outbreak rip through the region. Then, Prohibition hit. Amazingly, 140 wineries managed to outlast Prohibition through manufacturing sacramental wines, (MacNeil 677). Then, in the 1960s and 70s things really started taking shape and even one more devastating phylloxera outbreak in the 1980s couldn’t stop this train.
Things really changed following the Judgement of Paris 1976. This was originally set up as a publicity stunt. The express goal was to compare the best French wines, (such as Château Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild), to wines from across the globe. In particular California.
The results would change people’s global perception of wine. California won across the board. The original results were met with a mixture of disbelief and ire. French judges refused to believe this was accurate, some even wanted their scorecards returned to them, so no-one would know they deemed the wines of California superior. The wine tasters contention then was that the French wines were simply too young. They need time to develop.
Well then, the only thing to do was repeat the experiment. And they did. In 2006, they used the exact same wines and found the exact same results.
The quality of Californian wines was undeniable and the forward-thinking technologically guided wine-making practices seemed the way of the future. Californian wine was well and truly here to stay.
Now, where does Cabernet Sauvignon sit in the world of California wine? It is the second most planted for a start, behind only Chardonnay.
California boasts incredibly, powerful, structured and rich examples of this grape variety. Both as single varietal wines, or as blending partners in classic Bordeaux-like blends. The method favoured by Californian vintners often involves leaving the grape to ripen on the vine for longer than usual. Thereby, allowing sugars and tannins to mature. This means the end result is a softer and dryer wine. It is this that often truly sets the Californian Cabernet Sauvignon apart.
As we’ve said though, California is not the be all, end all for American Cabernet Sauvignon. Enter, Washington State. A newcomer who now demands much respect particularly for their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Deeply concentrated fruit flavours are the key characteristic of Washington State Cabernet Sauvignons. Like jam, but without being sickly.
So, California may be the region that gets the most attention. But, don’t forget about the vineyards surrounding rainy Seattle.
Next, how could we not discuss Argentina? It makes sense that they have found success with this grape. Much like Malbec, they’ve harnessed a classic French grape and created something completely unique to its predecessor. Argentina has seen a meteoric rise to fame, with few shouting about the virtue of Argentine wine until the 21st century.
Some attribute this change in direction to political and economic factors. Argentina had struggled for much of the 20th century and now, as greater stability took hold, the chance for enterprise emerged and the wine industry is one of the great success stories. This was in part due to something dubbed the ‘Chile Factor’. Under similar circumstances Chile was beginning to increase exports massively, particularly within the USA and the UK. Argentina thought, ‘why not us?’, (MacNeil 880).
While Malbec still holds the title of King of Argentine Wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is also capable of great things. From the more approachable fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignons which present something different to usual expectations, to the big, bold and robust varieties which you expect from Bordeaux and California – Argentina can do both fantastically.
We’ve mentioned the Chile Factor, now we can look at the country behind it. Chile is Argentina’s neighbour to the left. Nestled between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Antarctica to the south, the desert to the north. This combination of long, sunny days, high altitude, coastal breezes and regular snow melting to irrigate the vineyards provides an idyllic setting for grapes which are largely safe from pests and disease just to Chile’s relative isolation, (MacNeil 863).
Chile’s history may be closely linked to the hegemonic colonial influences of Spain. Yet, in the world of wine it is France that stamped their authority. The Chilean wine industry changed in the nineteenth century when rich landowners, hoping to emulate the Châteaux’s of Bordeaux bought up large estates and began planting French grapes. Particularly, Merlot and of course Cabernet Sauvignon. Then, over time came more French influence through Malbec and Carmenérè.
Yet, for a long time, Chilean wine was confined to relatively unimpressive and inexpensive wine. However, from the 1980s, things began to change and the ‘Bordeaux of South America’ was born, (MacNeil 866).
Today a whole variety of wines can be found to hit any style or price point. This goes for Cabernet Sauvignon as well. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape in Chile. It can take the form of quaffable affordable wines to rarified offerings. A particularly exciting Chilean wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carménère. This blend often produces some of Chile’s most revered wines.
Now, we move continents, to the Southern tip of Africa. Somewhat of an anomaly, as very few African nations make wine and none do so on the scale of South Africa. Vinification began around 300 years ago, when Dutch colonists looked to make wine from the native grapes they found on the coastline. However, results were disappointing so word was quickly sent back to bring European vine cuttings.
Regrettably, slave labour built this early infrastructure. However, it wasn’t until Apartheid ended and the new chance for international commerce came that South African wine found a home on the world stage. Interestingly, before this period much of the wine wasn’t made to the greatest standard anyway. In the 1990s, 70% of all South African grapes were used in the production of cheap brandy. Today, 80% of grapes are used in wine, (MacNeil 897)
Even today, large portions of South African wine is mass-produced through coops and doesn’t become anything spectacular. However, there is a lot of fantastic wine out there. Cabernet Sauvignon being one of the primary examples of this. You can often find Cabernet Sauvignon alongside Merlot in classic Bordeaux-style blends that are rich and delicious wines.
Heading further south now, to the land of Australia. Australia is a nation that has been growing great wine and intends to continue to do so. Between 1995 and 2005 exports quadrupled in value. Part of their success can be attributed to the state of the art winemaking techniques that are often employed throughout the wine industry. Almost all steps in the winemaking process, are more often than not, automated.
Every style of wine can be found within Australia, with the vast majority of the vineyards being close to the coastlines of the south. Australian winemaking can divert from traditional European methodology as well. Generally, the emphasis on terroir means that you focus on the specific area the grapes are grown and craft wine within that.
However, some Australian winemakers go the other way and gather grapes from a number of different vineyards and locations. They then blend them with the express goal of creating a wine greater than the sum of its parts. This could explain the prevalence of Cabernet Sauvignon – a versatile grape, which has had great success as a percentage of a blend.
Indeed, some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Australia will be found blended with Shiraz, (Australia’s leading red grape). While these blended wines are often highly sought after, great single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon can be found as well. Powerful, structured and often displaying particularly strong notes of herbs, menthol and green tobacco. Two areas in particular where Cabernet Sauvignon thrives are Coonawarra and Margaret River.
Cabernet Sauvignon Food Pairing
For a perfect wine pairing, we’re going for Ribeye steak. Cabernet Sauvignon and steak may seem like a great pairing, but there are certain nuances to the wine and the steak that must be considered.
A prime cut to pair with Cabernet Sauvignon is Ribeye. Two key reasons for this are flavour and fat. Cabernet Sauvignon is flavourful, tannic and acidic. This means you need a big flavourful food that is going to stand up to the wine. The higher fat content is also going to be cut through by the acidity in the wine.
So, more specifically, while big and bold Cabernet Sauvignon will still work to an extent. The best way to go is a younger, fruit-forward Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon.
The strong fruity flavours will not be overpowered by the rich Ribeye, yet the tannic nature gives the wine enough depth and structure to not get run over by the meat.
One final tip – don’t skimp on the salt and pepper when seasoning the steak. Salt always helps to elevate the fruity characteristics of the wine. While pepper will bring out the classic, subtle herbaceous notes to the Cabernet Sauvignon.
Our recommendation is Angulo Innocenti’s Nonni Cabernet Sauvignon. Argentina is world famous for beef and they make a pretty spectacular Cabernet Sauvignon – pairings don’t get more perfect than that!
There’s the story on Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the most crucial grapes in modern wine production. Get tasting different styles from across the world and see how the influences of terroir and winemaking practices can influence the grapes in your glass.
Not done learning yet? Good on you! Why not check out some of our other guides to the key wine grapes in the world!
- Grenache – The Spicy and Well-Traveled Grape
- Syrah – Star of the Rhône Valley and Beyond
- Malbec Wine From Around The World
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MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.
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