Out of the ten thousand different grapes in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon has found itself in the dining room of almost every wine lover around the world at some point or another. Often referred to as “Cab,” the grape is known for making a full-bodied, deeply pigmented red wine and sometimes, structured rosé. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most studied wines in the world, showing up often in blind tastings and at dinner tables.
Cabernet prefers to grow in a warm climate, but in milder climates, it manages to thrive in its own way. Perhaps the reason that Cab is so revered is thanks to its ability to shapeshift, expressing the individual characteristics of the place it grows in. From Bordeaux to Chile to South Africa to the vineyards in St. Helena, Cabernet Sauvignon is the one grape that can make a uniquely fascinating sensory experience.
How did Cabernet become so famous? Let’s take a look at the history of the grape, what its main characteristics are, and how it found a second home in the vineyards in St. Helena.
The Origins of Cabernet Sauvignon
Prior to the 18th century, we don’t have mention of Cabernet Sauvignon. However, we do have mention of its parent grapes: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Some may be surprised to find that these grapes simultaneously crossed to make the grape we love today, but if you look closely, you see similarities. All three grapes have high acidity and are marked by a distinctive herbaceous character.
Cabernet Sauvignon is native to Bordeaux, France. In Bordeaux alone, over 7,000 producers make wine with the grape. And while Cab is grown all over Bordeaux, it is most famous for being the predominant grape in the blends from the left bank of the Gironde Estuary and Garonne River. The left bank is known for having cooler summers with lots of cloud cover; and when this happens, Cabernet makes a wine with more savory, green notes. Other local grapes are blended in to soften and add fruit to the flavor profile. These blends have become some of the most sought-after, expensive wines in the world.
The grapes that are most often blended with Cabernet in Bordeaux are:
The best Cabernet Sauvignon brings intense structure to a wine. High tannins, phenolic content, and acidity give the wines the power to age for decades. During this time, the wine morphs into something unique and distinctive, creating aromas and flavors that can only come with time.
Cabernet Sauvignon brought this age-ability power to the vineyards in St. Helena, where it retains a fresh, bright acidity and powerful, complex flavors of dark fruit and graphite.
What does Cabernet Sauvignon taste like?
In California and around the world, Cabernet is made into varietal wines, which showcase the grape. But it’s also blended with local grapes, or made into a rosé with unique depth. In Tuscany, Cabernet is blended with the star Italian grape, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Franc to create what are called “Tuscan Blends.” These blends emulate the character of Bordeaux blends. The style was pioneered in the 1990s when a winemaker noticed that the local soil was similar to that of Graves, in Bordeaux.
And while there are many expressions of this grape, no matter where you are, there are some markers that are unmistakable Cabernet. The wines are dry, bold, and deeply pigmented thanks to the high phenolic content on the skins of the grapes.
Common flavors and aromas that you’ll find in a glass of Cabernet include:
Green bell pepper
Red wines made from Cab are medium to full-bodied and often aged in oak barrels. Aging Cabernet Sauvignon in oak softens the structure and adds aromas of clove, tobacco, cocoa, and vanilla.
Cabernet tastes different in different climates.
Cabernet has the ability to tell a story about where it comes from. The place of origin is reflected in the wines of Cabernet, and perhaps this is why it is such a widely grown grape. You might get an idea of where your Cabernet grapes were grown based on the ripeness of the fruit, the presence or absence of herbaceous aromas, weight, or alcohol levels.
A Cabernet from a warmer climate may have riper fruit, reminiscent of jam or compote. Wines from a cooler climate may have more bell pepper and mint, with less pronounced fruit. The alcohol levels may be more subtle, and the wine will carry a lighter weight. Of course, there is always an exception to the rule. For example, grapes grown at elevation in a warm climate, like Napa Valley, will make a wine with fresh acidity, and this might fool a novice blind taster.
So where does the best Cabernet Sauvignon come from? That’s up to you to decide. Gather your friends and arrange a tasting of Cabernet from around the world. Be sure to include a blend from the left bank of Bordeaux and a wine from St. Helena.
Cabernet in the vineyards in St. Helena
St. Helena is located at the narrowest point of the Napa Valley. Here, the Myacamas and the Vaca mountains almost touch, creating not only an hourglass shape but a microclimate that makes distinctive Cab not found elsewhere in the valley. Cabernet Sauvignon simply thrives here.
The grape first arrived in Napa Valley in the 1880s. Between 1960 and 1990, plantings of the grape exploded, and before long, Napa was synonymous with Cabernet. The grapes grown here in the vineyards of St. Helena exhibit structure, power, and elegance. They’re marked by dark fruit flavors, graphite, and ripe tannins.
Because the laws in California are much more relaxed than in Bordeaux, winemakers have plenty of room for creative expression, innovation, and experimentation. You’ll find plenty of varietal bottlings as well as adventurous blends.
Food pairings for Cabernet Sauvignon
The classic pairing of Cabernet Sauvignon and steak never fails, but Cab lovers have so many more options when it comes to food pairings. Burgers, barbeque, and lamb meatballs hold up beautifully with Cabernet’s structure. Vegetarian dishes like eggplant parmesan, portobello mushrooms, and three-bean chili will be pleased with a Cabernet on the table.
Whatever you’re making for dinner, Cabernet is a tried and true grape that never goes out of style.