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Cabernet Sauvignon: The Ultimate Guide

An oak barrel with 'whiskey' crossed off and Cabernet written in.
A barrel of Cabernet. Photo by Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular wine varietal in the world. It is grown in almost every wine-growing region on the planet and is often used in blended wine- including the famous and exclusive Bordeaux blend, among others.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the child of two already famous grape varietals, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc- so you might say that it was destined for greatness. This variety has been around since around the 17th century.

This article will cover almost everything that you have ever wanted to know about Cabernet Sauvignon, including its characteristics, its history, the climates in which it thrives, how to pair it with wine, and even our go-to recommendations for a great bottle of the varietal.

General Information about Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon first became popular thanks to its prominent role in the famous Bordeaux blend, and since that time it has only gained more and more traction. This is generally attributed to a number of reasons, one of which is the ease at which the grape Cabernet Sauvignon grows. In fact, it grows so easily and so well that it has been known to be called the ‘Colonizer of Wines’ thanks to the amount of space it takes up in vineyards across the globe.

Cabernet Sauvignon is so easy to grow because the fruit has very thick skin, and the plant blooms relatively late in the year. This late bloom means that the grapes avoid issues that other varietals face with late frosts and other cold weather-related issues.

Interestingly, the grape itself is also resistant to many existing issues that other varietals struggle with, including rot and insect issues. The grape holds a strong and very recognizable flavor which has also been a big factor as to why it has spread so well over the world- it’s very familiar to consumers, and people buy what they recognize. Of course, the more that Cabernet Sauvignon is sold in shops, the more that people recognize it.

The oh-so recognizable flavors and characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon include a very full body, a high level of tannins, and also a very noticeable line of acidity. This is true for all Cabernet Sauvignon of all climates- and makes the wine an excellent choice for anyone who wants to age a bottle of wine at home or be able to pick up a good choice from a list of vintages.

Despite these strongly held characteristics, Cabernet Sauvignon does vary according to the climate it is grown in. The way that the climate widely affects the wine is the fruit that you will be able to smell in the aromas.

A cold climate growth offers ‘greener’ aromas- things such as bell pepper, cedar, and so on. In contrast to this, a slightly warmer climate varietal will have a structured berry aroma- things such as blackberries and perhaps plums. A warm or even a hot climate that grows Cabernet Sauvignon will produce a wine that is positively jammy- and places like Australia have found their Cabernet Sauvignons offer hints of eucalyptus.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine with excellent aging potential- which is yet another reason for its rise in popularity during the 19th century- both before and after the sale. During the production process, it is often aged or even fermented in oak barrels, which help to bring through secondary aromas of tobacco, vanilla, and spices. The degree of oak influence that a winemaker chooses to use for their wine will change the wine and its characteristics a great deal.

History of Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon first appeared in the 17th century as a hybrid between the well-known grape varieties Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. However, the parentage of this varietal was not known for many years and was only discovered through DNA testing in the year 1996.

The varietal originates from South-Western France- thought to be the Bordeaux Region, very close to where the Merlot varietal was first discovered and made popular. As the grape grew in popularity in France, it was quickly cultivated in Spain. Thanks to Bordeaux’s close proximity to the ocean, this provided an easy worldwide trading route for the wine region across the world.

Included in the worldwide trading that the Bordeaux region was enjoying, was, of course, the Cabernet Sauvignon plant. As these trades began, the varietal spread quickly across Europe, and into the New World wineries.

Once it had arrived in the New World, Cabernet Sauvignon began to spread across the United States like wildfire. Through Californian Cruz Mountains and the Napa Valley up to Washington State. It even passed through Chile and its finest wine-making regions, putting in roots and settling down to stay.

On the other side of the planet, Cabernet Sauvignon was busy making a name for itself in New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. It didn’t take too long before Cabernet Sauvignon became the most widely grown grape varietal on the planet- and it stayed that way for the majority of the 20th century- being briefly overtaken by Merlot in the 1990s- only to reclaim its crown in 2015.

Even today, the grape works to build itself up, having fathered and mutated into a few different varieties that are reasonably popular today. These varieties include Marselan, a red wine variety grown in France, Cygne Blanc, an Australian bred white grape mutation that shares the same DNA with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Another mutation in Cabernet’s history in Australia led to a ‘Bronze Cabernet’- or Malian, which mutated once again into a white Cabernet, which is now sold under the name Shalistin. There are several other mutations and crossbreeds that have resulted in popular wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, a large number of which have come from Australia- but there are a few more from outside.

One of the most notable of these outsiders is Sauvignier Gris, a German who created a hybrid between the varietal and the white German grape Bronner in 1983. This is, at the time of writing, the most recent hybrid cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and any other wine variety.

A bottle of cabernet on a rack against a white background.
A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on a rack. Image by clarali from Pixabay.

Climate and Terroir of Cabernet Sauvignon

Since Cabernet Sauvignon is so widely grown it may not surprise you to discover that it is also a very versatile grape. Unlike some, it does not have very specific growing conditions that need to be abided by, or else the crop is ruined. This is partially because the grape is grown with very thick skins, which help to protect the fruit.

It is also because the grape blooms later than is normal for grapes, which means that the spring frosts that can (and do) damage and even ruin many other types of grapes are long gone by the time the fruit appears on the vines. Once the grapes do start to blossom, another growth advantage appears as they are resistant to many times of insects and rot that can claim the prosperity of other grapes.

The ease of growth without too much consideration for the climate or the terroir is one of the reasons why Cabernet Sauvignon is such a popular grape for winemakers. While the climate alters the different fruits that you may find in the aromas, Cabernet Sauvignon differs greatly from other variants such as Merlot when considering differences in environmental growth factors and how they affect the flavor of the wine.

Merlot is heavily influenced by the terroir it is grown in, and the climate that it experiences as it grows. As a consequence of this, it is possible to find Merlots that have a light body, a full-body, and everything in between. The differences in aromas, the body, and the notes found between different growing regions- especially in comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon- are astonishing.

Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand is steady in its body, its tannin levels, and its levels of acidity. The only thing that can really alter the way that a Cabernet tastes in a significant way is the weather that it is grown in. In fact, the weather also greatly influences whether the wine will be a suitable choice for a blend or a varietal wine.

This is because the warmer weather that the grape experiences will allow it to ripen fully. Cabernet Sauvignons produced in Australia for example will enjoy a day in day out sunshine, and the fruit will bloom to its full potential.

However, grown in its native region of Bordeaux, there is not always enough sunshine for the grapes to reach the full ripeness that allows the wine to express itself fully. This is why in the Bordeaux region it is such a popular choice for a blended wine as blending the wine will help to fill out the wine and give something wonderful to drink.

Cabernet Sauvignon Regions

As mentioned, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in almost all wine-growing regions in the world. Some of these regions are famous for exactly that, but others are less well known. This section will focus on the more well-known regions that grow Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bordeaux

Where Cabernet Sauvignon originated from and one of the most famous regions in the world for wine- and the home to the famous Bordeaux blend, although originally Cabernet was blended with Syrah. While the Bordeaux blend is increasingly popular, it originated out of necessity instead of desire.

This is because at the time Bordeaux was experiencing a string of increasingly cold years, which meant that the grapes couldn’t ripen to the optimum flavor. It was a choice of blending the wines, putting out a sub-par year, or wasting the crop. While it took a few years to reach the blend that is so well known and loved by wine enthusiasts, they made it, and to this day the Bordeaux Blend is one of the most prestigious on the market.

Italy

Cabernet Sauvignon was first introduced into Italy in 1820, giving the two a long and fruitful history together- despite the wariness that follows a foreign grape variety into the depths of Italy’s rich and complex wine industry.

The wariness that Italians feel about external grape varieties can be perfectly summarized when you consider the controversy that followed the wine being included in a ‘Super Tuscan’ blend in 1970, and being used illegally to create blends in the Piedmont region- where it was first introduced.

While Italy doesn’t have the strongest influence of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, it does have one of the most interesting and turbulent histories of any countries interaction with the grape.

California

California is one of the most influential producers of Cabernet Sauvignon since it garnered itself notable popularity in the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting event. Since then, Californian Cabernet Sauvignon has successfully created a reputation for a characteristic style, taste, and aroma and is grown in many of the famous regions across the state, including Napa Valley, Stag’s Leap District, and Sanoma’s Alexander Valley.

Chile

Chile is a particularly interesting place to observe the differences between the varietals of the wine. This is because in Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, more notably than other countries and varietals, you can taste the subtle nuances between each region. This is because Chile has a greater difference in things such as climate, soil types, and altitude.

Grapes grown along the river valleys are influenced heavily by the weather, but as the altitudes rise, so does the needs of the plant, and suddenly the type of soil that it is grown in has a much bigger effect on the nuances in the wine than before.

Different Styles of Cabernet Sauvignon

As with many different types of wine, the two major styles are defined and differentiated predominantly by where the wine is produced. Old World wine has very particular characteristics that are made during the production process, and likewise, New World wine follows a slightly different process that creates different notes and perhaps, more importantly, different secondary and tertiary aromas.

Fact: Old World wine is a wine that is grown and made somewhere where wine has been made for over 400 years. This means places in Europe, like France, Italy, and Germany, and also places in Northern Africa and even in the Middle East. New World wine is a wine that is grown and produced in a place that has been producing wine for less than 400 years. This can include places such as North America and Canada, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Old World Cabernet Sauvignon / Early Harvest

Old World / Early Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon is most typically from Bordeaux, and as we all know, makes up a key component in the famous Bordeaux Blend. The flavors of this wine will be relatively vegetable-like- thanks to the pyrazine chemical that is found in the wine. This is because the harvesting tends to happen relatively early in the season.

New World Cabernet Sauvignon / Late Harvest

A later harvest will bring out more of a blackcurrant flavor to the wine. The later in the harvest the crop is picked, the more of a jammy flavor you can expect. This is typical of New World wines because the climate in these areas can generally be much warmer than it is in France. A cool summer in Chile, for example, is around the same temperature as a warm summer in France.

Blended Harvest

Some wine-makers prefer to harvest part of their crop early to capture the Old World flavors, but then harvest the rest of the plants closer to the end of summer. This gives the finished wine a more deeply complex flavor and a certain uniqueness.

Vintages

As Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the few wines that can be aged thanks to its high tannins and acidity, it’s important to consider the differences in vintages. While different vintages will naturally have different characteristics, you can know more about Cabernet Sauvignon by its age than you may think.

Young Cabernet Sauvignon

Young Cabernet Sauvignon has a much more apparent line of acidity and the tannins will be much drier and more noticeable than their aged counterpart. It will have strong flavors of plums and cherries with a distinctive blackcurrant smell.

Aged Cabernet Sauvignon

One of the reasons why Cabernet Sauvignon became so popular is because of its ability to age. More and more, Cabernet Sauvignon is created specifically to age- whether it’s a few years or over 100.

An aged Cabernet Sauvignon will have much more robust tannins and the acidity will have mellowed out over time. It is also much more likely to have complex notes of vanilla, cedar, and tobacco that become apparent over time- also known as the secondary and tertiary flavors of the wine.

Typical Flavor Characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon

As mentioned before, a Cabernet Sauvignon maintains pretty solid attributes wherever it is grown. A Cabernet Sauvignon grown in France will have full-body, heavy tannins, and high notes of acidity- and a Cabernet Sauvignon that is grown in Australia will equally have a full-body, heavy tannins, and high notes of acidity. It’s this reliability that has set the grape ahead in the worldwide market- there are few surprises for the buyer.

However, as you become more accustomed to wine and its flavor profiles you will notice that Cabernet Sauvignon, no matter which style was used in its production and where the grape was grown, the overwhelming aromas that follow it are of a blackberry.

While these blackberry scents will alter and even perhaps give way to other aromas depending on how the grape is harvested and of course, how long it is left to age.

While the full-body, heavy tannins, and high notes of acidity mentioned above are characteristic of all young Cabernet Sauvignons, it is these characteristics that make it so perfect for aging. The more that a bottle of wine is aged, the more that these characteristics begin to soften and give way to other, more subtle charms.

An aged Cabernet Sauvignon will have much more mellow characteristics. The longer time that the wine has been stored the more that the harsh tannins will mellow into something soft and complimentary. Equally so, the acidity will relax over time and allow the drinkers of an aged Cabernet to enjoy the much more subtle notes that are now visible- notes like vanilla, cedar, tobacco, and so on.

The reliability of Cabernet Sauvignon and its characteristics are something that has greatly aided in the increasing popularity of the grape. This is because even from unknown vineyards, buyers can be almost sure of what they are purchasing- with only slight alterations on the type of fruit that can be felt with the primary aromas of the wine.

How to Pair Cabernet Sauvignon With the Perfect Dish

When it comes to wine pairing with Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s important to consider the general rules of pairing flavors first. Initially, consider what different flavors exist and what they pair well with. The flavors are:

  • Salty
  • Sweet
  • Spicy
  • Umami (a savoury flavor that doesn’t quite fit in with other categories- things like mushrooms)
    Bitter
  • Sour

If you think about all the flavors you have tried together in your life, you can probably be sure that certain ones don’t go well together. Flavors like bitter and spicy, sour and spicy, and bitter and sour.

Humans are naturally adverse to bitter flavors. It’s an evolutionary technique that developed to avoid certain poisons and so on. However, we can grow to like it. Things like coffee, for example, are very bitter but they are still immensely popular. Tea is another good example. When a teabag has been left in a cup of water for too long it becomes very bitter. This is because of the naturally occurring tannins in the teabag.

The tannins that are present in a teabag are also present in a glass of wine- particularly one of a Cabernet Sauvignon. It is this that may make you suck your cheeks a little if you try a particularly dry wine. The acidity is also present, contradicting a general rule of taste that bitterness and acidity do not go well together.

However, these rules do stand true as you begin to pair your Cabernet Sauvignon with a dish of food. To pair it with something spicy would be quite painful as the properties of the wine would exacerbate the spice of the food and the properties of the wine. This would leave you with an extremely spicy dish, and a very bitter and acidic wine.

One of the best things to do when pairing a Cabernet Sauvignon is to work with something very fatty and very full of flavor. The flavor will mean that the dish can stand up to the wine. The fat is due to a particular quality that stands out in tannins- it binds to the fat of food. This not only neutralizes the strength of the tannins, but it also brings out more complex flavors in the dish, making it a win win for both.

Of course, this does not mean that a Cabernet Sauvignon is inaccessible for vegetarians or vegans- or even for those who just want to miss a meaty dish or starter for the day. When pairing Cabernet Sauvignon with a meat-free dish, it is best to pair with a dish that has a heavy umami flavor- things such as mushrooms and particular cheeses.

Here is a list of suggested dishes to pair with your Cabernet Sauvignon:

Steak

Steak is the go-to pairing choice for Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is important to make sure that the steak you choose is both high in flavor and in fat. This is important because the high intensity flavor of the wine runs the risk of overpowering a steak that isn’t as flavorful.

Equally, a steak that is high in fat will complement your Cabernet beautifully. This is because the tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon bind to the fat in the steak. This binding will mellow out the tannins, while increasing the depth of the flavor of the steak- making them a truly exemplary pairing.

Lamb

Lamb, much like steak, is a red meat and therefore a great choice when pairing your Cabernet Sauvignon. Lamb also has a naturally high fat content which will help to mellow out the tannins in the wine. It’s best to choose a roasted lamb for this pairing, as sauces can really alter the way that you pair a dish.

Braised Venison

The nature and the flavors of this dish means that it requires a wine with strength to pair with- something like Cabernet Sauvignon. The dish is naturally very rich and so to choose a wine that may not measure up won’t do either dish or drink any favors.

Portobello Mushrooms

A great choice for any vegetarian or vegan, portobello mushrooms are very versatile. This versatility means that you can bake, grill, or fry them. You can stuff them, or just sprinkle with oil and garlic and roast them. However you choose, they will be equally as delicious, and pair perfectly with a good cabernet sauvignon.

Burgers

If you find yourself craving a high quality burger then Cabernet Sauvignon could answer your calling. Steer clear from cheaper meats if you are opting for a burger pairing, and try to go for a medium rare burger so that the juices are still there to give the maximum flavor.

Cheese

While not technically a dish, cheese is still an important side to wine, and Cabernet Sauvignon makes a great all-round choice. It fares particularly well with harder cheeses, but also works extremely well with certain blue cheeses- which are notoriously difficult to pair with, Cabernet Sauvignon does it beautifully. Try to avoid softer cheeses.

Best Cabernet Sauvignons to Try & How to Choose for Yourself

If you are new to the world of Cabernet Sauvignon then it may be best to start your journey with a bottle from somewhere where the weather is typically warmer. This is because this wine will be slightly more fruity and can generally appeal to a wider audience than a cooler climate Cabernet.

As well as looking for a warmer climate Cabernet, you should also try to look for somewhere where they have been growing the vine for a reasonable amount of time. This will ensure that the vineyard knows what it is doing and has had a good amount of practice. A good example of this kind of wine would be one grown and bottled in Argentina.

However, as the grape originated in France and is a part of the notable Bordeaux Blend, as you start to drink wine more and appreciate it more, you should consider trying a wine from this region or close to it. Afterall, France has been producing the cabernet grape for far longer than other regions or areas- and they certainly know how to craft an exquisite wine.

If you enjoy a bold flavor, with punchy tannins and a clear line of acidity in your wines then opt for something young, but if you prefer something that is more mellow and a little more relaxed, you should choose something that has been aged for a little while.
Here are some great Cabernet Sauvignons for you to indulge in:

Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 – $21

Great for: Beginners, People on a Budget

This wine is remarkably successful thanks to its low budget. It scores highly in wine ratings and provides drinkers with a lovely well rounded experience, which is especially impressive because of the price. If you are looking for a bottle to take to a dinner party, this is it.

Château Pape Clément Pessac-Léognan 2016 – $110

Great for: Really impressing someone, A taste of vintage

This wine has been voted to be in the top 1% of wines worldwide, and it comes from an impressive historic background. It is grown in Pope Clements personal vineyard which has been active for over 700 years. From this wine you can expect deep, complex flavors and plenty of secondary and tertiary aromas. Drinking this wine will truly be an experience.

Lail Blueprint Napa Valley 2016 – $80

Great for: Aging, enjoying alone

This is another high scorer, and the wine offers an exquisite complexity. You will enjoy notes and flavors of spices, chocolate, and oak. This is a fantastic wine that has a lasting finish and leaves an excellent taste in your mouth.

Rodney Strong Reserve 2015 – $50

Great for: Trying a good vintage, aging at home

A lovely lush wine, this vintage offers herby and vanilla flavors as secondary aromas, with primary aromas settling around blackcurrant, violets, and cassis. This wine is an excellent choice either to drink today or to age yourself for another 5 years or so.

Cabernet Sauvignon Facts

Learn some interesting facts about Cabernet Sauvignon:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape in the world, including in Napa Valley, China, and Chile. In fact, the grape is grown in every continent (except Antarctica).
  • Cabernet Sauvignon’s widespread cultivation has earned it the nickname of the ‘colonizer of grapes’.
  • It is the son of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, making it the half brother of Merlot.
  • The heritage of Cabernet was only discovered in 1996, after researchers at UC Davis set out to discover the heritage of popular wines with mystery parentage.
  • It has its own holiday, which was started back in 2010 under the hashtag #CabernetDay thanks to marketing genius Rick Bakas. It’s the Thursday before Labour Day!
  • It is included in some of the most famous blends in the world- including the Bordeaux and the SuperTuscan blend.
  • It’s one of the few wines that is known to age well thanks to its high tannins and high acidity.
  • Certain mutations in the blood of Zebrafish are named after wine types, including Cabernet.
  • The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold was a Cabernet.
  • There are even Cabernet plants to be found in Gobi.

Cabernet FAQs

Answers to the most frequently asked questions about Cabernet Sauvignon:

Is Cabernet Sauvignon Sweet?

Usually no, Cabernet Sauvignon is a dry red wine.

What is Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely drunk red wine in the world. It is full-bodied with heavy tannins and a noticeable line of acidity.

What Does Cabernet Sauvignon Mean?

Cabernet refers to a dry red wine, and Sauvignon comes from the French word for wild.

What Color is Cabernet?

Cabernet is a very dark purple color.

What Does Cabernet Taste Like?

Cabernet is a dry red wine with heavy tannins and acidity. It is also very characteristic of the wine to have a strong flavor of blackberries, though it can have notes from green bell pepper all the way to jam, depending on how and where it was produced.

What are the Ingredients of Cabernet Sauvignon?

Grapes, and perhaps some chemicals to stabilize the wine and to ensure that it doesn’t go bad in the bottle.

What Kind of Grapes are in Cabernet Sauvignon?

Wines are named after the grapes that are used to make them. So, Cabernet Sauvignon wine is made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Are All Cabernet Wines Red?

No, there is a mutation of the Cabernet grape that produced a Cabernet Gris, a white wine.

Final Notes

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely drunk wine in the world- and for good reason. It’s delicious, it grows easily in many different climates, and it’s dependable. It goes well in a blend but it also stands up for itself in a varietal. It has been known to be the perfect pairing for a thick juicy steak, and it goes well with different kinds of cheese.

It is also a full-bodied red- making it just one of the nine different types of wine that are available on the market today. To discover more about the different types of wine and potentially discover your new favorite, indulge yourself in our article, which breaks down the what, the how, the good, the bad, and the ugly, of all different types of wine.

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