Cabernet Sauvignon Grape
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Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon

To many, Cabernet Sauvignon is red wine. Its distinctive aroma and flavours of blackcurrant and cedar wood have made it a grape that is instantly recognisable to wine drinkers across the world. However, many people do not realise that Cabernet Sauvignon's home base is in Bordeaux in France, where it is invariably blended with other grapes in the famous red wines of that area.

From Bordeaux, the grape has become a truly international traveller, finding its feet in places like Australia, California, Chile, Argentina and Italy. It is at least as widely travelled as its jet-setting French counterpart Chardonnay.

It is an easy vine to grow and undoubtedly this is one of the reasons for its popularity, but its robust flavours and affinity for oak have made it popular with wine consumers all over the world and demand has been growing year-on-year.

Ultimately, there are very few top-quality expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon across the world, but it does easily make acceptable wine in many places, be they warm, cool, damp or dry. Even at high yields, it can produce broadly acceptable wines, while retaining at least some of the distinctive Cabernet character that made the vine famous.

Origins

In 1997, Sauvignon Blanc was identified, through DNA profiling, as the one of the "parents" of Cabernet Sauvignon along with Cabernet Franc, another Bordeaux grape variety. It probably happened through a simple cross-fertilisation in a vineyard, almost certainly in Bordeaux.

It is likely that this crossing did not happen until the late 18th Century and therefore Cabernet Sauvignon is a relative newcomer to the wine world. However, it quickly established a foothold in Bordeaux, especially as it was around this time that the great estates of the Médoc and Graves were being established.

As many estates internationally sought to improve their wines, their first point of call was Bordeaux, which was (and still is) revered as one of the world's great expressions of red wine. Here they found Cabernet Sauvignon and exported it to their own vineyards to "improve" their own wines and hence the vine became an international phenomenon.

Viticulture

Broadly, Cabernet Sauvignon is an easy vine to grow. It has small berries of a distinctly blue colour with very thick skins. It also has a high pip to pulp ratio, which is one of the reasons (along with the thick skins) for the high tannin levels.

Cabernet Sauvignon is also a very vigorous vine and is often grafted onto low-vigour rootstock to keep this in check. It buds and ripens late, making it useful in areas at risk of spring frosts, but it does need a relatively warm climate to ripen fully, especially given its propensity to develop a considerable canopy. Therefore, careful management of the canopy is required, especially in cool regions, such as the Loire or New Zealand, to ensure that the grapes are given the right environment to ripen fully.

The vine is susceptible to powdery mildew but there are effective treatments for this disease and therefore it is relatively easy to grow.

Vinification

First and foremost, Cabernet Sauvignon started and shows (at least one of) its greatest expressions in Bordeaux. Here it is hardly ever produced as a single varietal wine, the Bordelais much preferring to blend the gape with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and sometime Petit Verdot.

There were some limited examples of single varietal wines produced in the early '70s, but these showed up the limitations of Cabernet Sauvignon. It does have an aggressive character, especially tannins, when young, it can take an age to mature and sometimes have a "hollow" mid-palate, especially when grown in cooler climates. Consequently, the finest expressions of the grape are now invariably blends.

Cabernet Sauvignon also has a real affinity with wood and again is usually aged in oak. And that is usually French oak. Wines are often matured for 18 to 24 months in new oak, which if carelessly done, can accentuate the tannins and tip the wine over the edge of acceptably. However, with a judicious hand, it can add complexity and depth to the wine.

In the new world and in parts of southern France, a number of inexpensive wines are made to accentuate the blackcurrant fruit and "rustic" tannins and sometimes are not aged in oak at all. However, with the predominance of oak chips and staves, especially in the new world, it is rare to find a Cabernet Sauvignon wine without any trace of oak.

At the premium end of the market, most wines, be they from Australia, California or Italy will follow the Bordeaux model, including increasingly the trend of blending the wine with other varieties.

Wine Styles

To maintain the theme here, the first examples we should look are from Bordeaux. Here the wines are a blend, but from the Médoc and Graves, the wines will have a high proportion (70% to 80%) of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (note wines from St. Emilion, Pomerol and the other "right bank" appellations are mainly Merlot and probably won't contain much if any Cabernet Sauvignon; it doesn't ripen well on the right bank). They are invariably aged in wood and are built for the long-term, often requiring 10 to 20 years in bottle to reveal their true majesty. But when they do, they offer a sublime mix of sweet blackcurrant fruit and an aroma of cigar box or cedar wood and freshness rarely found in new world wines. These wines are made for food and make great partners for lamb especially.

In other parts of Europe and the new world, premium producers seek to emulate this style with their premium wines. And they have had considerable success, especially in parts of Italy, Australia and especially in Calfiornia, where probably the greatest expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon exist outside of Bordeaux. These premium wines are now often blended with the "traditional" Bordeaux varieties. This is also the case with other premium Cabernet wines, which are blended with Sangiovese in Italy or Shiraz in Australia for example.

Some would argue that certain producers in the new world especially have gone too far, producing over extracted, over-ripe and over tannic wines to impress the critics and show well in blind tastings. While this is great for one glass, these wines can often become tiring and one dimensional and their ability to age successfully is questionable. Many producers are asking super-human prices for theses small production wines too.

Ultimately, Cabernet Sauvignon spans the whole gamut of the red wine world, from immediately fruity but concentrated examples through to some of the world's greatest wines.

For a description of wine styles and examples of each style in the West Mount Wine catalogue, please look at our section on Cabernet Sauvignon wine styles

Conclusions

International jet-setting is often not all it's cracked up to be. However, in the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, it has had pretty happy travels. It has established a foot hold as extensively as Chardonnay and is almost as recognisable to the wine consumer.

From its homeland in France, it does produce some of the world's greatest red wines and this has also translated to great wines being produced in California, Australia and now increasingly Chile and Argentina, all from Cab. Sav.

With its distinguished past assured and new and exciting wines being produced from the grape every year, Cabernet Sauvignon appears to be at the top of its game, with little sight of a fall in the near future. Hoorah!

If you would like to learn more about Cabernet Sauvignon through one of our tasting workshops, please do contact us and we'd be pleased to help.

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