Whenever I am asked that question: “if you were stranded on an island and could only have one bottle of wine, what would it be,” my answer is always the same – a great bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Cab is always satisfying – big, rich, tannic with complex fruit and a wonderful accompaniment to meats and strong cheeses. A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon on a cold night near a warm fire is almost a comfort food.
But I am not alone in loving cab, because it is now the number one selling red varietal in the U.S. market (Neilsen, Nov. 2011 WBM). So what makes cabernet sauvignon so special? Some of the answers may arise in its special characteristics while others can be found in the amazing styles of cab from around the world.
Parents and Characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon
In France in the 1700’s it is believed that Cabernet franc (father) and Sauvignon blanc (mother) were crossed to create what many refer to as the King of grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed cab does possess the dark fruit and pencil lead notes of cab franc and the herbal nuances of Sauvignon blanc. The union also created a varietal that is quite healthy and resilient, because Cabernet Sauvignon can be grown in many climates around the world. Its thick skin and resistance to rot and frost make it easy to cultivate and therefore is a favorite of grape growers. Furthermore, it’s ability to create wines with strong typicity in terms of consistent cab flavors, it’s affinity for oak, and the fact that it can demand high prices make it the darling of many winemakers.
Cabernet sauvignon is the dominant red varietal in some of the most famous and expensive wine labels in the world. Examples include Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1869 from Bordeaux, France which sold at a Hong Kong auction in 2010 for $232,692 a bottle, and Napa Valley’s 1992 Screaming Eagle which sold for $62,500 per bottle at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 2000 ($500,000 for a six liter bottle made by famous winemaker Heidi Barrett).
Cabernet Sauvignon from Around the World
The generic markers of Cabernet Sauvignon include black currants (cassis), dark berries, cedar, leather, and herbs. Color ranges from a dark red to opaque red black. Acid, tannin structure and alcohol level are determined by climate and winemaking practices. Cabernet Sauvignon is almost always aged in oak for a period of time, and is often blended with other red varietals such as the classic Bordeaux blend of merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and malbec.
Experts suggest that cabernet sauvignon from different parts of the world have distinctive markers. Following is a list of some of the more famous regions where cab is grown and some of the attributed markers – though these vary by vintage and producer.
Napa Valley – elegant, opulent red and black fruit, velvety tannins, rich
Sonoma/Alexander Valley – powerful, dark fruit, herbs, coffee, structured tannins
Washington State – deeply concentrated, ripe purple fruit, large plush tannins
Pauillac – power and elegance, fine-grained tannins, led pencil, rich, rounded, cassis, herbs
Margaux – softer, most feminine wine of Left Bank, floral, berry, lifted perfume
St. Julien – rich dark fruit, velvety texture, cigar box, elegant, leather, in between Pauillac and Margaux in mouthfeel and texture.
Pessac-Leognan – minerality, elegance, gravel, mocha, spice, more integrated tannins
St. Estephe – austere, marked acidity, darker, more intense, gravel, cedar, herbs, very firm tannins
Italy/Tuscany/Bolgheri – powdery tannins; velvety, cassis; deep; dark; rich; slightly more astringent
Chile – sweeter, deeply concentrated, some boysenberry flavors, herbal notes
Australia/Coonawarra – minty, firm tannins, dark fruit; dark chocolate
Australia/Barossa – warmer fruit forward style, can be jammy berry, complex
South Africa – leaner but with concentrated fruit, herbs, similar to Bordeaux in style
Argentina- ripe dark fruit, leather, fine grained tannins
NOTE: This article was originally published on Women for WineSense Napa/Sonoma Blog