WINES WITH THIS VARIETY
One of the world’s most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. It is grown in nearly every major wine producing country among a diverse spectrum of climates from Canada’s Okanagan Valley to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon became internationally recognized through its prominence in Bordeaux wines where it is often blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. From France, the grape spread across Europe and to the New World where it found new homes in places like California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, Napa Valley, New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, Australia’s Margaret River and Coonawarra regions and Chile’s Maipo Valley and Colchagua. For most of the 20th century, it was the world’s most widely planted premium red wine grape until it was surpassed by Merlot in the 1990s.
Despite its prominence in the industry, the grape is a relatively new variety, the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc during the 17th century in southwestern France. Its popularity is often attributed to its ease of cultivation—the grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy and naturally low yielding, budding late to avoid frost and resistant to viticultural hazards such as rot and insects—and to its consistent presentation of structure and flavours which express the typical character (“typicity”) of the variety. Familiarity and ease of pronunciation have helped to sell Cabernet Sauvignon wines to consumers, even when from unfamiliar wine regions. Its widespread popularity has also contributed to criticism of the grape as a “colonizer” that takes over wine regions at the expense of native grape varieties.
The classic profile of Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be full-bodied wines with high tannins and noticeable acidity that contributes to the wine’s aging potential. In cooler climates, Cabernet Sauvignon tends to produce wines with blackcurrant notes that can be accompanied by green bell pepper notes, mint and cedar which will all become more pronounced as the wine ages. In more moderate climates the blackcurrant notes are often seen with black cherry and black olives notes while in very hot climates the current flavors can veer towards the over-ripe and “jammy” side. In parts of Australia, particularly the Coonawarra wine region of South Australia, Cabernet Sauvignon wines tend to have a characteristic eucalyptus or menthol notes.
many aspects, Cabernet Sauvignon can reflect the desires and personality of the winemaker while still presenting familiar flavors that express the typical character of the variety. The most pronounced effects are from the use of oak during production. Typically the first winemaking decision is whether or not to produce a varietal or blended wine. The “Bordeaux blend” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet franc, with potentially some Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carménère, is the classic example of blended Cabernet Sauvignon, emulated in the United States with wines produced under the “Meritage” designation. But Cabernet Sauvignon can be blended with a variety of grapes such as Shiraz, Tempranillo and Sangiovese. The decision to blend is then followed by the decision of when to do the blending—before, during or after fermentation. Due to the different fermentation styles of the grapes, many producers will ferment and age each grape variety separately and blend the wine shortly before bottling.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape itself is very small, with a thick skin, creating a high 1:12 ratio of seed (pip) to fruit (pulp). From these elements the high proportions of phenols and tannins can have a stark influence on the structure and flavor of the wine—especially if the must is subjected to long periods of maceration (skin contact) before fermentation. In Bordeaux, the maceration period was traditionally three weeks, which gave the winemaking staff enough time to close down the estate after harvest to take a hunting holiday. The results of these long maceration periods are very tannic and flavorful wines that require years of aging. Wine producers that wish to make a wine more approachable within a couple of years will drastically reduce the maceration time to as a little as a few days. Following maceration, the Cabernet must can be fermented at high temperatures up to 30 °C (86 °F). The temperature of fermentation will play a role in the result, with deeper colors and more flavor components being extracted at higher temperatures while more fruit flavors are maintained at lower temperature. In Australia there has been experimentation with carbonic maceration to make softer, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
The tannic nature of Cabernet Sauvignon is an important winemaking consideration. As the must is exposed to prolonged periods of maceration, more tannins are extracted from the skin and will be present in the resulting wine. If winemakers choose not to shorten the period of maceration, in favor of maximizing color and flavor concentrations, there are some methods that they can use to soften tannin levels. A common method is oak aging, which exposes the wine to gradual levels of oxidation that can mellow the harsh grape tannins as well as introduce softer “wood tannins”. The choice of fining agents can also reduce tannins with gelatin and egg whites being positively-charged proteins that are naturally attracted to the negatively charged tannin molecules. These fining agents will bond with some of the tannins and be removed from the wine during filtration. One additional method is micro-oxygenation which mimics some of the gradual aeration that occurs with barrel aging, with the limited exposure to oxygen aiding in the polymerization of the tannins into larger molecules, which are perceived on the palate as being softer.
The style of Cabernet Sauvignon is strongly influenced by the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. When more on the unripe side, the grapes are high in pyrazines and will exhibit pronounced green bell peppers and vegetal flavors. When harvested overripe the wines can taste jammy and may have aromas of stewed blackcurrants. Some winemakers choose to harvest their grapes at different ripeness levels in order to incorporate these different elements and potentially add some layer of complexity to the wine. When Cabernet Sauvignon is young, the wines typically exhibit strong fruit flavors of black cherries and plum. The aroma of blackcurrants is one of the most distinctive and characteristic element of Cabernet Sauvignon that is present in virtually every style of the wine across the globe. Styles from various regions and producers may also have aromas of eucalyptus, mint and tobacco. As the wines age they can sometimes develop aromas associated with cedar, cigar boxes and pencil shavings. In general New World examples have more pronounced fruity notes while Old World wines can be more austere with heightened earthy notes.