Cabernet sauvignon is the big boy, the bruiser, the bully, the wise old man and the body builder of the red wine world. If the grape varietal were a woman, it would be Marlene Dietrich; if a man, Clint Eastwood gets the role. If it were a composer, Beethoven comes to mind. In its most important version, the grape yields a wine of fierce tension in its youth, and in its maturity is capable of long and satisfying conversation. In Bordeaux, Napa and Tuscany it can be a status symbol; in other parts of world such as Spain, Chile and Australia, it’s a good drink.
As the world’s most widely planted ‘important’ grape variety, cabernet sauvignon’s foremost claim to fame is as the base for some of the world’s most expensive wines – the likes of the Latours and Lafites – as well as the fancy “cult cabernets” of the Napa Valley.
Many wine regions, insecure about explaining and defending their native, hard-to-pronounce local varieties, have looked to this French grape to help capture the attention of world wine drinkers. The Italian Sassicaia, a cabernet, was first produced in 1976, ushering in the revolutionary Super Tuscan category, and afterwards, plantings of this easy-to-grow grape proliferated world-wide.
Oddly enough, this red wine master might be the spawn of white sauvignon blanc and red cabernet franc. No matter who the varietal’s parentage, once it took up residence in late 18th century Bordeaux, the wine world was never the same.
A VARIETAL OF PROPERTIES
Cabernet is fairly easy to grow, but for best results, it thrives with steady warmth and sunlight. If the grape gets what it likes, it could become a wine with flavors from a wheel of possibilities: black olive, tea, mint, eucalyptus, intense wild berries, plums, and sparks of lovely minerality. If the growing season brings clouds, rain and chilly temperatures, the wine will show some ‘green’ flavors, like bell pepper and perhaps oregano or thyme.
While a big splash of in-your-face fruity flavor isn’t usually the cabs calling card, the grape does turn up wines a whole lot fruitier when grown in Californian, Chilean or Mediterranean sun. In those locations, you’re likely to meet up with a burst of black cherry, other tree fruits and lots of ripe, jammy notes.
Another important feature is the grape’s tannin. To some, especially those weaned on wishy-washy merlot and all fruit cabs, ‘tannin’ is a bad word. But this property, expected in most Old World wines, contributes much to a long-lived wines structure. When tannins mellow with age, they sweeten up, helping wine to step up to the next level of complexity. The wine with evolved exotic spices becomes fascinating, every sip bringing another revelation. As a result, there is more structure in a well-made Bordeaux than a Victorian boned corset.
It is because of this tannin that the classic combo of steak and young Bordeaux is such a winner. The wine thrives when protein softens the tannins and so a vintage can become even better with food than without. Cabernet, whether old or young, new world or old world, this is a wine for food.
OLD WORLD VS. NEW WORLD,
INTERNATIONAL VS. TRADITIONAL
Just because a cabernet is made in France, Italy or even Lebanon doesn’t mean it can’t be made in the international or new world style. International styling is more of a state of mind than a country. This way of producing wine starts with grapes picked as late as possible, so even though the grape is the earthier cabernet, it is fruity and jammy. The drawback here is that acidity – one of the crucial aspects to food-friendly and long-lived wines – is often sacrificed. In line with this winemaking philosophy, the resultant wine is likely to be fleshy and high in alcohol, probably made with a heavy foot on the oak pedal creating flavors and aromas of vanilla- coated black cherry along with a dose of espresso and toast.
Conversely an “Old World” style cabernet leans towards gentle fruit and prominent earthy flavors, a touch of mint, black olive and underlying berries. At its best, the wine would often need a bit of aging to tame its fierceness, would have an elegant structure, and oak would never be a dominant feature. You will only be able to tell which wine is which by reading between the lines on the label. See the words “toasty oak, “vanilla,” “espresso,” “jammy,” “bursting with fruit?” Think international.
WHERE THE GRAPE GROWS
Wines from the Bordeaux region are categorized into right bank and left bank of the Gironde River. Merlot rules the right. The left, where the first growths of the world come from, is cabernet-based and will always hold the gold standard for this grape. But other grapes also find their way into the classic Bordeaux blend: cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, and petite verdot. The general wisdom is that, historically, cabernet sauvignon doesn’t ripen fully here and so the blending grapes help to round out the wine. Thanks to global warming, though, since 1995, these wines are richer and riper. Does this mean that they are better or just different?
Bordeaux comes at a variety of price points from mass marketed but still appealing wines at $8 retail to first growth Chateau at $800. Is there that much of a difference? By all means. The better the wine, the better the quality of grapes, and those better grapes are usually given more careful, costly supervision, more oak aging and bottle aging. The general rule to know is: the more ‘important’ the wine, the longer it should age before the cork is popped. Lesser wines might have lower tannins and weaker structure, and while they can be very, very enjoyable, they’re not really built to last more than five or six years.
Cabernet also flourishes just south of Bordeaux, most notably in Cahors, the Languedoc and north of it, just west of Paris in the Loire. In the Loire, things get confusing. Red wines here are best known for their cabernet franc, but wines can be labeled cabernet whether it’s a franc or a sauvignon. Tricky.
When Antinori bottled a 100% version of cabernet sauvignon in Tuscany, the land dominated by sangiovese, and called it Sassicaia, a genre was born spawning many wannabes. Now you never know where the grape will pop up in Italy, and it is many times blended with sangiovese or, like Sassicaia, in a full blooded, one grape version.
Cabernet does seem to do very well in Tuscany and wineries such as Banfi – known more for their Brunello -make lovely, if expensive examples. In Trentino and Friuli, where the northern Italian climate is closer to Bordeaux than Napa, the wines are more structured with a characteristic juiciness. From this part of the boot, there are some excellent and drinkable values.
While many states try to grow cabernet, (e.g. New York & Virginia) they shouldn’t. It’s easy to grow but to grow beautifully, cabernet deserves the right conditions. However, for better or worse, California cabernets, and specifically those from Napa, have changed the world. These are made in a range from intense and concentrated wines with a blast of heavy oak to a richer, rounder, edgier cabernet, laced with touches of mint and eucalyptus.
Napa cabernets and the so-called “cult” cabs can be beastly expensive, but not necessarily better. Cult cabs are those small batches of cabernet made in 800-2000 cases and priced high that some scorers have placed near the 100 point zone. They sell, but are controversial and hard to source. Can Napa cabernet be excellent? Are they world palate pleasers? Yes. And whether they are actually worth the money, they are great sellers on many wine lists. A major complaint about some of these wines is that they can be big and heavy, that they pair dreadfully with food as they overpower everything except a piece of smoked mozzarella. Sonoma winemakers often offer less pricey cabs of high quality.
Sister region to Napa, Sonoma is generally cooler and tends to produce wines in a non-blockbuster style, usually more elegant versions of cabernet. One big problem with California cabernets is how hard it is to find drinkable wines that can be priced near $20. It’s gotten so a $30 bottle of California cab looks affordable.
So, with high prices as a drawback, why not look at alternatives in Washington State? Though more known for merlot and syrah, some cabernets are absolutely first rate. The wines are often deeply satisfying, offering full texture and that right undercurrent of fruit. Though there are a slew of cabs in the pricey category, the under $20 category is plentiful and tasty.
IBERIA AND BEYOND
Cabernet also thrives in Spain where tempranillo, the grape of Rioja, reigns. Sometimes the two mix. Look in the regions of Penedes and Navarra. Cabernet is also one of the most important red grapes in Eastern Europe. While the wines from Moldova and Bulgaria haven’t stormed the wine scene, stay tuned. Greece is one of those countries producing beautiful wines from native grapes, but, seeking ‘respect,’ many growers plant cabernet along with other French varietals. As a result, most everything named cabernet is made in a very oaky, international style with very little sense of place. Really, why go to cabernet when their indigenous agorgitiko or xinomavro are so terrific.
In the 90’s, Chile flooded the world with inexpensive cabernets that tasted more like vanilla-scented and peppery oak juice than wine made from grapes. Things have changed. They’ve pulled back on the added make up and are now producing fleshy wines that, while definitely New World in attitude, have more supple qualities.
In Australia, cabernet often gets blended with shiraz. Look to Western Australia for more elegant cabs, and look to the red soils of Coonawara for earthy heft and a touch of eucalyptus. While New Zealand has been promoting its sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, some elegant cabernets have been made and some are starting export.
Some savvy sommeliers are looking to the Middle East for their cabernet. There are at least two great wineries producing cabernet-based blends there. Chateau Musar is a cult classic and worth the effort to nail down. It is strictly old world, spicy, yummy, wild, and full of warm weather flavors. Chateau Kefraya produces both international and old world styled-wines, also delicious. Just across the border into Israel, a nubile wine industry is still looking for its identity; in the meantime, what they’re producing are very worthy, clean examples, often tasty cabernets that balance herbs with warm fruit.
From South Africa, expect a little cool weather elegance, bell pepper and raspberry and moderate tannins. Over the past years availability has been sketchy, but quality is high.