Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety of red grape mainly used for wine production, and is, along with Merlot, one of the most widely-planted of the world’s grape varieties. If current trends continue, it may soon be the most planted of any grape variety.
The principal grape in many Bordeaux wines, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in most of the world’s wine regions (except the very coldest), although it requires a long growing season to ripen properly and gives low yields. Many of the red wines regarded as among the world’s greatest, such as Red Bordeaux, are predominantly made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. World-class examples can improve for decades and remain drinkable for a century.
The particularly thick skin of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape results in wines that can be high in tannin which provides both structure and ageability. This varietal, while frequently aromatic and with an attractive finish, also tends to lack mid-palate richness and so is often blended with lower tannin, but “fleshy” tasting grapes, particularly Merlot and, especially in Australia, Shiraz / Syrah. Cabernet Franc is often used in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon to add aromatics. As a group, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are generally full-flavored, with a stronger flavor than Merlot for instance, and with a smooth and lingering “finish”.
Old vine Cabernet Sauvignon at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. As the grapes mature they will darken to a purple hue.Cabernet Sauvignon has a well defined aroma. In Old World wines, particularly those made in Bordeaux, this is characterised by a smell of violets, blackcurrant, cedar and spice. New World wines of this grape can often share the aromas of their Old World counterparts, but are more often dominated by aromas of chocolate, ripe jammy berries, oak, pepper and earth. In Australia, there is often a strong smell of eucalyptus, particularly in wines made in Coonawarra. One of the most characteristic aromas of warm-climate examples is cassis (blackcurrant), while cherry and other red berry notes are not uncommon. Cooler-climate examples often reveal greener, herbaceous notes, such as eucalyptus or green pepper/capsicum. There is, however, a great deal of variation in flavor depending on the region, winemaking technique, seasonal weather, and bottle age. Nonetheless the wines retain a remarkable ability to be recognizably Cabernet.
Cabernet Sauvignon, like all noble wine grape varieties, is of the species Vitis vinifera, and genetic studies in 1997 indicated it is the result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
In 1961, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache produced the French wine grape Marselan.
In 1977 a vine producing ‘bronze’ grapes was found in the vineyards of Cleggett Wines in Australia. They propagated this mutant, registered it under the name of Malian and have sold pale red wines under that name. In 1991 one of the Bronze Cabernet vines started producing white grapes. Cleggett registered this “White Cabernet” under the name of Shalistin.Compared to the Cabernet parent, Malian appears to lack anthocyanins in the subepidermal cells but retains them in the epidermis, whereas Shalistin has no anthocyanins in either layer. It has been suggested that a gene involved in anthocyanin production was deleted in the subepidermis of Malian, and then subepidermal cells invaded the epidermis to produce Shalistin. It is not unusual to have these kinds of ‘gris’ and ‘blanc’ mutants of ‘black’ grapes - the Pinot and Grenache families are examples, although the ‘Malian’ deletion is bigger than the mutation found in Pinot blanc.
Cabernet Sauvignon is most directly associated with the wines of Bordeaux, and especially those of its Left Bank, which includes the top tier appellations of St.-Estephe, Pauillac, St.-Julien, and Margaux, among others. It makes up the majority portion of the blends of all of the Grand Cru wines of the 1855 classification.
In Bordeaux, though, blending is common with the other allowable varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pettit Verdot, and Malbec.
Cabernet Sauvignon is also cultivated in other areas in France, notably Languedoc-Rousillon, and has great acclaim the world over.
Traditionally, Italian wine-makers have long regarded the Cabernet Sauvignon grape with suspicion, despite a long history there, and it appears in very few of Italy’s DOCs. In Tuscany in the 1970s however, a number of top winemakers deliberately introduced Cabernet Sauvignon into their wines, despite knowing that it fell outside of the DOC system, and produced the top class wines that are often known as “Super Tuscans”. Famous examples include Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Saffredi, Vigna d’Alceo, Guisto di Notri and Solaia.
A bottle of Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, a California Cabernet.
California is, after Bordeaux, the world’s largest grower of Cabernet Sauvignon, most notably in the Napa Valley and warmer AVAs of Sonoma County. In California the area of Cabernet Sauvignon planting doubled in the 1990s, precipitously lowering prices and disrupting the health of the wine industry. As in Bordeaux, it is often blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc to produce world-class wines. More commercial versions may be blended with Ruby Cabernet or other varietals that provide more structure and richness than Cabernet Sauvignon can provide. The grape has also found a home in Washington, though it requires the warmest vineyards such as the Red Mountain AVA in the lower Yakima Valley for it to ripen fully.
Other New World Producers
The grape’s most notable success over the past decade has been its use in the wines of the “New World”. The consistently optimal climates (more so than in Europe), strong investment and innovative winemaking techniques have allowed countries such as Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia to produce very good and at times, outstanding, quality Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines at competitive prices. Cabernet Sauvignon is also the most planted grape in Israel and other Mediterranean countries.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Health
In late 2006, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology published the result of studies conducted at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine that showed the beneficial relationship of Cabernet Sauvignon in reducing the risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The study showed that resveratrol, a compound found in all red wine, can reduce levels of amyloid beta peptides, which attack brain cells and are part of the etiology of Alzheimer’s. Resveratrol has also been shown to promote the clearance of amyloid-beta peptides. It has also been shown that non-alcoholic extracts of Cabernet Sauvignon protect hypertensive rats during ischaemia and reperfusion.