The Dirt On (and Under!) Cabernet Sauvignon

The Who, What, Why, Where, When and How of This Mighty Black Grape

Cabernet Sauvignon has been around and has been a success for a long, long while. But, its origins were only recently discovered. A University of Davis duo discovered just twelve years ago that its parents are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Chances are the cross arose in the 17th century in Bordeaux, when field blends were the norm. (A field blend refers to a vineyard planted with many different varieties that are also picked and vinified together.) You can see the family resemblances:

·     Green bell pepper from Mom (Sauvignon Blanc)
·     Lean structure from Dad (Cabernet Franc)
·     Weediness when picked too early = both the folks

This also explains why Cabernet Franc was well-established in the vineyards of southwest France and mentioned in Bordelais literature long before Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Global Devotion
(Addendum, January 2014: Cabernet Sauvignon is now the most planted grape variety in the world. No original text below changed.)

Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most planted black grape variety in the world. France is the leading producer, and Bordeaux – not surprisingly – leads the plantings. However, Merlot has topped the charts for black grapes since the 1970s when the Français realized Merlot ripened more easily. Cabernet Sauvignon now represents around 20% of Bordelais vines.

The variety is, however, very well traveled. Pretty much every country that makes wine makes Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s planted in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, China, India…really, all over!

Madonna, Fabio, and Oprah   
The global devotion to this variety is so fervent that we often refer to Cabernet Sauvignon as simply Cabernet. There’s never confusion, except possibly when standing in a Loire vineyard. There, decorum calls for using the full names of father and son. Also, unlike many other grapes where the name changes with the country or region (consider the aliases of Grenache: Garnacha, Cannonau, Alicante, and many more), Cabernet Sauvignon does not. Other monikers exist, but their usage is rare, and frankly a bit démodé: Petit-Cabernet, Vidure, Bouchet, Sauvignon Rouge.

The fruit character of Cabernet Sauvignon is decidedly black. Hall-of-fame descriptors are blackcurrant and cassis; blackberry and green olive are runners-up. On the other side of the tasting coin are the non-fruit descriptors. Green bell pepper (mentioned before), eucalyptus, cedar, tobacco, cigar wrapper, spice box and licorice are commonly found. Cabernet is highly structured. Good examples show full body, firm tannins, bright acidity and medium to high alcohol. And, before you get to the palate, you notice the impressive color of Cabernet: deep, occasionally opaque, and often inflected with blue and purple hues.

It’s quite incredible that winemakers have to work really hard to produce a wine that distorts Cabernet-ness. Even in lesser regions or when grown for high volume wines, Cabernet maintains its flavor and structure remarkably well. This may be partially due to the small size of the berries, which help concentrate flavors, tannin and color.

Vineyard Upkeep
In the vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon is incredibly polite. It grows easily and plays well with many different climates (hence it’s ubiquity in the world’s vineyards). Though not as prolific as Merlot, it’s not stingy with its output. Its vigor means it needs leaf canopy management but its thick skins and loose bunches helps it avoid disease. It buds late and avoids hassling the farmer with worries of spring frost damage. However, it does prefer heat, becoming cranky (and eschewing full ripeness) in cooler climates, even at home in Bordeaux. It also doesn’t like “wet feet”, preferring well-drained soils like the gravels of Left Bank Bordeaux to the clay soils of the Right Bank. As a late-ripener, it’s the life of the party, lingering on the vine and causing stress in areas where weather at harvest is unpredictable. But, it’s hard wood makes it possible to machine harvest (though top wines are generally hand-harvested.) That hard wood also helps it resist winter freeze in harsh climates.

Winery TLC
In the winery, Cabernet plays well with other varieties. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are frequent companions, sometimes with Petit Verdot joining along. On the US Central Coast, in Australia and in Provence, Syrah is often at its side. In Argentina, there’s Malbec; in Chile, there’s Carmenère; in Tuscany, there’s Sangiovese; and in Spain, there’s Tempranillo. Why, there’s a grape in every port! Cabernet is malleable with regard to oak aging, too, and works equally well with French and American oak. It’s even easy-going with vinification techniques, having taken on carbonic maceration (for quaffer-style wines) with aplomb in Bordeaux and beyond.

In the Spotlight
Bordeaux takes the spotlight with regard to fame, price and longevity. Of course, it is always blended there. Napa was the first to have a go at the gold, winning the (in)famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting.

However, more and more, producers and consumers seem to be growing disillusioned with this bruiser. It takes over vineyards arguably better suited to local varieties and makes marketers swoon with its consumer magnetism. Does Cabernet Sauvignon really the noblest red wines in the world, or do we simply think it is because we drink so much of it (because it is so widely planted…and because we can pronounce it)? This is a question each palate must determine separately. So, go worth, taste and ponder the wines of Cabernet Sauvignon!