Though a handful of wine grapes compete for the title of most popular variety, one rules year after year: Cabernet Sauvignon. But why?
A cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, for many the grape surpasses its parents with its potential for structure, concentration, intensity and tannins.
These same factors allow it to produce great wine. Growers love it because Cabernet Sauvignon does well in a host of climates, soils and styles.
In Bordeaux, the grape’s spiritual home, it rarely shows up to the party alone. It’s often blended with other regional red grapes, such as Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Known as a Bordeaux-style red blend, percentages of each variety can vary.
In the region’s Left Bank, which is home to the vineyards of the Haut-Médoc and Médoc, Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant player in Bordeaux-style red blends, producing wines that fetch some of the highest prices in the world.
Though many global winemakers emulate the Bordeaux-style red blend, even more choose to produce world-class Cabernet Sauvignon as a single-variety bottling.
Cabernet Sauvignon can tolerate warm climates, but it can lose its trademark freshness. Instead, it will develop luscious, rich fruit flavors that border on overripe. However, as the grape is a late-ripening variety, cooler climates can have issues with producing a well-ripened crop.
To understand how Cabernet Sauvignon tastes, set up a flight from three key categories: Old World versus New World; cool climate versus warm; and young wine versus old.
Old World vs. New World
While techniques are now shared and emulated, a dividing line between Old World and New World wines still exists through classic regional styles.
The “Old World” is generally defined as European and Asian countries that are home to native Vitis vinifera grape varieties and thousands of years of winemaking tradition and culture.
Notable Cabernet-producing regions in this area include France’s Bordeaux. Red blends from Bordeaux’s Left Bank enjoy a greater concentration of Cabernet Sauvignon than the Merlot-dominant Right Bank. Italy’s Bolgheri region also makes esteemed Cabernet Sauvignon.
Old World vs. New World Cabernet Sauvignon Flight
Wine 1: A classic Old World example of Cabernet Sauvignon is Pauillac from Bordeaux.
Wine 2: A Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley typically demonstrates flashy New World flare.
The New World comprises everything outside this area, even countries with centuries of winemaking history like Chile. They have a younger wine culture, tend to rely on imported grape varieties and have serious climatic differences.
Significant New World regions for Cabernet Sauvignon are California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys; Margaret River, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia; as well as Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
Old World Cabernet Sauvignon evokes tones of graphite, gravel and blackberry typically, brightened with a leafy freshness derived from organic aromatic compounds called pyrazines. Meanwhile, New World examples typically taste fruit-driven, with notes of blackcurrant, cherry, blueberry, blackberry, plum, licorice and spice.
Typically, Old World Cabs are more savory, with lower alcohol and higher acidity. New World bottlings are rounder and riper. Wine reviewers use words like “restraint” and “elegance” about the Old World, but styles in both camps are evolving.
Cool Climate vs. Warm Climate
In the past, Old World winemakers couldn’t produce a rich, ripe, high-alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon in a place like Bordeaux. The grape needs sunny days, warmth and a long, dry season to grow, conditions that don’t exist there. Traditionally, Old World wine regions had cooler, rainier climates and shorter growing seasons than the New World.
Producers can now blur the lines. New World winemakers can mimic elegance and restraint when they harvest grapes earlier and plant on cooler sites. A top Napa Cabernet Sauvignon might even evoke Haut-Médoc.
Cool Climate vs. Warm Climate Cabernet Flight
Wine 1: For a cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon, try examples from Margaret River in Western Australia.
Wine 2: The warm climate of the Barossa Valley in South Australia yields prime examples of rounder, richer Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Cool climate” and “warm climate” wines don’t simply mean Europe versus the rest of the world.
What makes a cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon distinct compared to one from a warmer climate? At the extreme end, the wine shows higher acidity, bright and tart fruits, an earthy tone and lower alcohol. Tannins in cool-climate wines are grippier, even astringent, with aromatics marked by a pungent herbal character due to pyrazines.
In a warmer climate, wines lose acidity faster and develop riper, dark fruit flavors like luscious cassis, blackberry and blueberry. They also tend to have higher alcohol, a fuller body and softer, rounder tannins.
These climate distinctions are especially relevant to Cabernet Sauvignon since its texture and flavor profile mirror its environment. Australian Cabernet Sauvignons are especially demonstrative on this front, since producers there grow the grape in both warm and cool climates.
Young Wine vs. Older Wine
Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent grape to teach wine maturity. Imagine the dense, inky, tannic wines of a young Napa Cabernet compared to one aged for a decade.
For those with access to aged Bordeaux labels, the greatest wines evolve beneficially in the bottle for decades. For the rest of us, even a few years can mean the difference between a glass of tannins and a harmonious wine.
Three critical factors are necessary for the grape to improve with time in bottle. The first is acidity. Cabernet Sauvignon can retain its acidity in warm climates, but even more so in cooler climates. This acidity gives the wine structure and acts as a preservative.
Second, a wine must have good fruit concentration so that it doesn’t feel thin or lacking in flavor intensity.
The third component of ageability in Cabernet Sauvignon is tannin. While plenty of plump wines taste pleasant in youth, without a firm tannic structure they will soon lose their shape or framework.
Young Wine vs. Older Wine Cabernet Flight
Wine 1 and Wine 2: Ask your retailer to find two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, ideally from the same producer, however the same region will also work. The vintages should be at least 4-5 years apart.
To compare young wines with older bottles, first consider color. A deep, opaque ruby hue indicates youth. Pale, faded brown and brick hues, often evident on the rim or edge of the wine, indicate that aging has begun.
On the nose, a young Cabernet will smell fresh and intense, with aromas that range from blackberry, cassis, gravel, pencil shavings and cedar to leafy herbal aromas. Older wines lose their primary fruit aromas and offer a range of tones from leather and tobacco to dried fruits and nuts.
The palate tells the rest of the story. Young Cabernet Sauvignon has firm, burly tannins that may overpower the fruit and other components of the wine. Older wines aged appropriately gain harmony and complexity as tannins smooth out into a finer, softer weave. This happens in stages, and consumers can enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon across all of them.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a great medium to see how maturation effects appearance, aroma and palate, especially when examined through the lens of the same producer, or with two wines of differing vintages from the same region.