Cabernet Sauvignon is a major “gateway drug” into the joys of drinking wine. Some styles emphasize the rich black currant, cassis, plum and/or berry fruit and de-emphasize the grape’s huge tannins. It’s those very tannins that can help a Cab age into something with even greater complexity and range of flavors but that often keep it from being something enjoyable to drink in the short term.
Cabernet Sauvignon was the result of a natural cross between a white grape, Sauvignon Blanc, and a red grape, Cabernet Franc. This cross must have occurred sometime in the 1600s in Bordeaux, as there was no mention of the grape in the literature prior to the 17th century, but it became widely planted in that region by the late 1700s.
Cabernet Franc and Merlot were the dominant grapes in Bordeaux prior to the arrival of Cab Franc’s offspring. These grapes continue to be the major blending grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, providing ripe and lush fruit (Merlot) and fragrance (Cabernet Franc) to complement Cabernet Sauvignon’s high levels of tannin and phenolics, i.e., the compounds that give the wine flavor.
Cabernet Sauvignon has smaller berries than most major black grapes, with thick skins, giving a higher ratio of skins to fruit, which imparts deeper color to wines made from those grapes and helps contribute to the grape’s exceptionally high level of phenolics. The grape also has larger than average pips, which are a source of its high tannin levels.
The tannins and high phenolics are what make Cabernet-based wines spectacular for their aging ability, as the tannins soften with time and the phenolics develop, leading to an array of secondary and tertiary flavors, from mushroom and truffle to leather and cigar box.
Cabernet Sauvignon, like Chardonnay—the white grape I wrote about in my last post on styles of wine—is one of the world’s most widely planted grapes. Because it’s a late ripening variety—budding and ripening at least a week or two after Merlot and Cabernet Franc—it requires a fairly warm regions to excel. In France, it’s the second most widely planted red grape after Merlot; in California, it’s second to Chardonnay. It’s number one in Chile and China, where vast quantities of the grape have been planted in recent years. It’s also one of the top grapes of South Africa, Argentina and Lebanon, and Cabernet plantings have grown in Italy and Spain in recent years, where it is typically blended with indigenous red grapes, like Sangiovese in Italy and Tempranillo in Spain.
So what are the different styles of Cabernet Sauvignon? Much depends on the climate in which it is grown. Unripe Cabernet has a high level of pyrazines, which are the same compounds that give green bell pepper its distinctive odor. Those pyrazines decline as the fruit gets more ripe, but herbaceous, bell pepper and even weedy flavors tend to dominate in Cabernet grown in cooler climates, like Bordeaux in cooler years, or the Santa Cruz Mountains or Monterey County in California.
In warm climates, like Napa, Paso Robles and South Africa, the distinctive cassis, or black currant, flavor shows up in ripe Cabernet Sauvignon, along with blackberry and ripe plum. Jammy or stewy black fruit flavors arise if the fruit gets overripe.
The elevation at which the grapes are grown also influences the style. I find Cabernet grown at high elevations, like Napa’s Howell Mountain and Mt. Veeder, to have added complexity and depth compared to fruit grown on the Napa Valley floor. Mountain grown Cabernets also typically require longer aging periods for their tannins to soften and their flavors to fully develop. Other spots, like the famous Martha’s Vineyard in Napa and particular locations in Australia, yield Cabernet with distinctive mint and eucalyptus flavors.
Another major determinant of style in Cabernet is the type and level of new oak used. Cabernet’s high level of phenolics and tannins stand up well to new oak, and the black currant and plum flavors go well with the vanilla and spice notes that derive from oak. Oak aging for two to three years also helps gradually expose the wine to air, softening the fruit tannins and adding in softer oak tannins. Silver Oak is a well known example of a popular Cabernet that spends two years or more in American oak barrels, followed by a year or so further aging in bottle, to help further soften its tannins before release. Unfortunately many California Cabs, such as Rubicon and Spottswoode, have become excessively oaky.
Styles can change over time. Bordeaux used to be known for very ageworthy, tannic and high acid Cabernet-dominated blends that required decades of bottle age to fully develop. In recent years, however, many producers have waited longer to pick at maximum ripeness levels, and employed techniques like micro-oxygenation to help soften the tannins, to be able to release wines that are more voluptuous and drinkable soon after release.
The typical Cabernet coming from most California producers has also changed very much from what was produced up through the 1970s. Those earlier Cabernets had higher acidities and lower alcohols than most California Cabernets do now, and were often tremendously ageworthy. A few developments, including a great deal of replanting with clones that ripened earlier and earned very high scores from a major critic (Robert Parker) who favors very ripe and rich Cabernets helped lead to the typical Napa-style Cab we see today, which tends to be plush and hedonistic, with ripe blackberry and black fruits.
Some of the best U.S. Cabernets in the ripe, rich, high octane style include Napa’s Araujo, Harlan and Shafer, and Washington State’s Quilceda Creek. California Cabs in the more traditional, lower alcohol, higher acid style are Mount Eden, Chateau Montelena and Ridge’s Monte Bello.