Heralding from Bordeaux in France’s southwest, if Burgundy’s Chardonnay is the big hitter of white grapes, then Cabernet Sauvignon is its red better half.
Along with Cabernet Franc and Merlot to help blend the wines, Cabernet Sauvignon is the weapon of choice for the most famous red wine houses in world. The Premier Cru (First Growth) wines of The Médoc in Bordeaux (Châteaux such as Lafite, Latour and Margaux, along with Château Haut-Brion from Graves) are amongst the most expensive in the world and were designated the pinnacle of wine making at the Bordeaux Official Wine Classification of 1855.
Small grapes with thick skins mean lots of colour, flavour and tannins. Just as it does a sales person, thick skin protects the grapes on the vine and helps make Cabernet Sauvignon easy to grow. The vines are also resistant to rotting and frosts, which are a real threat to production in colder climates.
Cabernet Sauvignon is also a very consistent grape. Unlike Chardonnay, whose characteristics are highly influenced by geography and winemaking practices, the base flavours and character of Cabernet Sauvignon change little wherever it is grown. With all of these factors in its favour, it is easy to see why Cabernet Sauvignon is grown all over the world!
Although a noble grape of the highest order, Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a cross between the very noble Sauvignon Blanc and the decidedly less noble Cabernet Franc: Cabernet Franc + Sauvignon Blanc = Cabernet Sauvignon
We will discuss crossing grape varieties at a later stage but it is interesting to observe the most common flavour profiles of the Cabernet Franc (Blackberries) and the Sauvignon Blanc (grassiness) grapes present in Cabernet Sauvignon.
Common flavours to look out for in your next bottle:
The typical pronounced fruit flavours associated with Cabernet Sauvignon. Most prominent in warmer climate examples, and those where maximum flavour has been extracted from the grapes (read on…)
Herbaceousness / Green Capsicum
Too much of this grassiness can suggest immature grapes, whose flavours have not fully developed. Mint flavours can be present in cooler climates where there is still sufficient and sun and warmth to fully ripen the grapes.
Warm spice / Vanilla / Leather / Tobacco
These indicate the wine has been oak aged and the prominence of the characteristics can provide clues as to the age of the oak used, size of the barrels, degree of charring, etc.
Typical treatments of Cabernet Sauvignon to be aware of:
Shiraz is the Cabernet blend most known in these parts and is in fact Cabernet Sauvignon’s original pairing partner (as Syrah of course). The traditional Bordeaux blend however is Merlot and Cabernet Franc, but also including minor Bordeaux grapes Malbec and Petit Verdot. The purpose of blending is either to add features to the wine that it will augment its natural style, or to compensate for the shortcomings of the main grape when bad weather has wreaked havoc on the crop or vintage.
It takes a minimum of 1,500 hours to for grapes to ripen and in Bordeaux all the red wines are blended to achieve the desired finished product. The most common example is the blending of Merlot. With its thin skin, Merlot ripens easily and can therefore be a great way to boost the fruit and sugar content when the Cabernet Sauvignon crop hasn’t seen as much sunshine as it should.
In the warmer climates, blending is therefore less of a necessity, but many winemakers continue to make wines using the traditional Bordeaux grapes, which also permit Malbec and Petit Verdot into the blend. Look out for them on your labels!
Maceration is the process of leaving the must (unfermented grape juice) in contact with the skins and thus extracting a much colour, flavour and tannin from the skins are possible. The process can also be continued through fermentation and whilst high tannins can render a young wine undrinkable, but are an absolute necessity for longevity. None of the great Bordeaux reds could be drunk for pleasure when young, however over time, their tannins will mellow and help the maturing wine develop layers and complexity.
For a quick drinking wine (and the vast majority are), the period of maceration is reduced from a few weeks to as little as a few days. Bearing in mind the colour and much of the flavour in a wine comes from the skins too, how then does a winemaker produce deeply coloured, full flavoured Cabernet Sauvignons for less tannic early drinking?
Cabernet Sauvignon loves oak. This is partly due to the complimentary flavours the oak imparts to the wine, but also because although oak can add soft tannins to the wine, the slow process of oxidisation that takes place in oak, means that a period of aging will also reduce the harsher tannins extracted from the skins and stalks during the production process.
The type of oak (e.g. new American vs old French) and the size of barrel (greater or lesser ratio of wood to wine) will also affect the final outcome. Newer oak and a higher wood to wine ratio leads to more pronounced (and less subtle) effects on the finished product and many winemakers will use both to achieve the desired blend.
Along with helping to clear a wine of debris, fining can also help reduce tannins in a wine during the filtration process, just prior to bottling. Gelatin and egg whites (think of turning stocks into consommé) attract tannin molecules, which can then be filtered out of the wine.
Famously in 1976, at the Judgment of Paris wine tasting event, California’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars beat the best of Bordeaux in their own backyard when blind tasted by a panel of French wine experts. With Australia also bringing notable Cabernets to the international market, the path was well and truly beaten for South America, New Zealand, South Africa and less revered old world wine producers, such as Bulgaria to achieve success with the world’s most widely recognised grape variety.
Look out for some Cabernet Sauvignon wine reviews in the near future, where we’ll be looking for some of those tell tale characteristics that can tell us so much about the wine.
Next, we’ll be taking a closer look at Riesling – often dismissed as medium towards sweet and therefore assumed to be unsophisticated. How wrong can you be!