Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world's most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. It is grown in nearly every major wine producing country among a diverse spectrum of climates from Canada's Okanagan Valley to Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon became internationally recognized through its prominence in Bordeaux wines where it is often blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. From France, the grape spread across Europe and to the New World where it found new homes in places like California's Napa Valley, Australia's Coonawarra region and Chile's Maipo Valley. For most of the 20th century, it was the world's most widely planted premium red wine grape until it was surpassed by Merlot in the 1990s.
Despite its prominence in the industry, the grape is a relatively new variety, the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc during the 17th century in southwestern France. Its popularity is often attributed to its ease of cultivation - the grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy and resistant to rot and frost - and to its consistent presentation of structure and flavours which express the typical character ("typicity") of the variety. Familiarity and ease of pronunciation have helped to sell Cabernet Sauvignon wines to consumers, even when from unfamiliar wine regions. Its widespread popularity has also contributed to criticism of the grape as a "colonizer" that takes over wine regions at the expense of native grape varieties
For many years, the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon was not clearly understood and many myths and conjectures surrounded it. The word "Sauvignon" is believed to be derived from the French sauvage meaning "wild" and to refer to the grape being a wild Vitis vinifera vine native to France. Until recently the grape was rumoured to have ancient origins, perhaps even being the Biturica grape used to make ancient Roman wine and referenced by Pliny the Elder. This belief was widely held in the 18th century, when the grape was also known as Petite Vidure or Bidure, apparently a corruption of Biturica. There was also belief that Vidure was a reference to the hard wood (French vigne dure) of the vine, with a possible relationship to Carménère which was once known as Grand Vidure. Other theories were that the grapevine originated in the Rioja region of Spain.
While the period when the name Cabernet Sauvignon became more prevalent over Petite Vidure is not certain, records indicate that the grape was a popular Bordeaux planting in the 18th century Médoc region. The first estates known to have actively grown the variety (and the likely source of Cabernet vines for other estates) were Château Mouton and Château d'Armailhac in the Pauillac.
The grape's true origins were discovered in the late 1990s with the use of DNA typing at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, by a team lead by Dr. Carole Meredith. The DNA evidence determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc and was most likely a chance crossing that occurred in the 17th century. Prior to this discovery, this origin had been suspected from the similarity of the grapes' names and the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon shares similar aromas with both grapes--such as the black currant and pencil box aromas of Cabernet franc and the grassiness of Sauvignon blanc.
Cabernet Sauvignon has a long history in Italian wines, being first introduced to the Piedmont region in 1820. In the mid-1970s, the grape earned notoriety and controversy as a component in the so-called "Super Tuscan" wines of Tuscany. Today the grape is permitted in several Denominazioni di origine controllata (DOCs) and is used in many Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) wines that are made outside DOC perimeters in certain regions. For most of its history the grape has been viewed with suspicion as a "foreign influence" that distracts from the native grape varieties. After decades of experimentation, the general view of Cabernet Sauvignon has improved as more winemakers find ways to complement their native grape varieties with Cabernet as a blending component.
In Piedmont, the grape was sometimes used as an "illegal" blending partner with Nebbiolo for DOC classified Barolo with the intention of adding color and more fruit flavors. In the DOCs of Langhe and Monferrato, Cabernet is a permitted blending grape with Nebbiolo as well as Barbera. Wines that are composed of all three grape varieties are often subjected to consider oak treatment to add a sense of sweet spiciness to compensate for the high tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo as well as the high acidity of Barbera. There are varietal styles of Cabernet Sauvignon produce in Piedmont with qualities varying depending on the location. In other regions of northern Italy, such as Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the grape is often blended with Merlot to produce Bordeaux style blends. In the Veneto region, Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes blended with the main grapes of Valpolicella-Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella. In southern Italy, the grape is mostly used as a blending component with local varieties-such as Carignan in Sardinia, Nero d'Avola in Sicily, Aglianico in Campania and Gaglioppo in Calabria.
Cabernet Sauvignon has had a controversial history in Tuscan wine, particularly for its role in the arrivals of "Super Tuscan" in the mid 1970s. The origin of Super Tuscans is rooted in the restrictive DOC practices of the Chianti zone prior to the 1990s. During this time Chianti could be composed of no more than 70% Sangiovese and had to include at least 10% of one of the local white wine grapes. Many Tuscan wine producers thought they could produce a better quality wine if they were not hindered by the DOC regulations, particularly if they had the freedom to use Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend and not require to use white grape varieties. The marchese Piero Antinori was one of the first to create a "Chianti-style" wine that ignored the DOC regulations, releasing a 1971 Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend known as Tignanello in 1978. Other producers followed suit and soon the prices for these Super Tuscans were consistently beating the prices of some of most well known Chianti. Other Tuscan wine regions followed suit, blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Sangiovese and even making varietal versions of the grape. Gradually the DOC system caught on and began allowing more regions to use the grape in their DOC designated wines. Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany is characterized by ripe black cherry flavors that can give a perception of sweetness as well as strong notes of black currant. The wines typically reach an alcohol level around 14% but can still maintain notable levels of acidity. When blended with Sangiovese in significant quantities, Cabernet Sauvignon can dominate the blend with most Tuscan producers aiming to find a particular balance that suits their desired style.
Viticulture and winemaking
While Cabernet Sauvignon can grow in a variety of climates, its suitability as a varietal wine or as a blend component is strongly influenced by the warmth of the climate. The vine is one of the last major grape varieties to bud and ripen (typically 1-2 weeks after Merlot and Cabernet franc) and the climate of the growing season affects how early the grapes will be harvested. Many wine regions in California give the vine an abundance of sunshine with few problems in ripening fully, which increases the likelihood of producing varietal Cabernet wines. In regions like Bordeaux, under the threat of inclement harvest season weather, Cabernet Sauvignon is often harvested a little earlier than ideal and is then blended with other grapes to fill in the gaps. As global warming has increased the number of warm vintage years, the possibility of creating varietal Cabernet in Bordeaux has also increased, making the decision to blend based more on ideology and tradition. In some regions, climate will be more important than soil. In regions that are too cool, there is a potential for more herbaceous and green bell pepper flavours from less than ideally ripened grapes. In regions where the grape is exposed to excess warmth and over-ripening, there is a propensity for the wine to develop flavours of cooked or stewed blackcurrants.
The Cabernet grape variety has thrived in a variety of vineyard soil types, making the consideration of soil less of concern particularly for New World winemakers. In Bordeaux, the soil aspect of terroir was historically an important consideration in determining which of the major Bordeaux grape varieties were planted. While Merlot seemed to thrive in clay and limestone based soils (such as those of the Right Bank regions of the Gironde estuary), Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to perform better in the gravel based soil of the Médoc region on the Left Bank. The gravel soils offered the benefit of being well drained while absorbing and radiating heat to the vines, aiding ripening. Clay and limestone based soils are often cooler, allowing less heat to reach the vines, delaying ripening. In regions where the climate is warmer, there is more emphasis on soil that is less fertile, which promotes less vigor in the vine which can keep yields low. In the Napa Valley wine regions of Oakville and Rutherford, the soil is more alluvial and dusty. Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon has been often quoted as giving a sense of terroir with a taste of "Rutherford dust". In the South Australian wine region of Coonawarra, Cabernet Sauvignon has produced vastly different results from grapes vines planted in the region's terra rosa soil-so much so that the red soil is considered the "boundary" of the wine region, with some controversy from wine growers with Cabernet Sauvignon planted on red soil.
In addition to ripeness levels, the harvest yields can also have a strong influence in the resulting quality and flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon wine. The vine itself is prone to vigorous yields, particularly when planted on the vigorous SO4 rootstock. Excessive yields can result in less concentrated and flavorful wine with flavors more on the green or herbaceous side. In the 1970s, a particular clone of Cabernet Sauvignon that was engineered to be virus free was noted for its very high yields-causing many quality conscious producers to replant their vineyards in the late 20th century with different clonal varieties. To reduce yields, producers can plant the vines on less vigorous rootstock and also practice green harvesting with aggressive pruning of grape clusters soon after veraison.
In general, Cabernet Sauvignon has good resistance to most grape diseases, powdery mildew being the most noted exception. It is, however, susceptible to the vine diseases Eutypella scoparia and excoriose.
The "green bell pepper" flavor
There are a couple of noted Cabernet Sauvignon flavors that are intimately tied to viticultural and climate influences. The most widely recognized is the herbaceous or green bell pepper flavor caused by pyrazines, which are more prevalent in under-ripened grapes. Pyrazine compounds are present in all Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and are gradually destroyed by sunlight as the grape continues to ripen. To the human palate this compound is detectable in wines with pyrazine levels as low as 2 nanograms (ng) per liter. At the time of veraison, when the grapes first start to fully ripen, there is the equivalent pyrazine level of 30 ng/l. In cooler climates, it is difficult to get Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ripen fully to the point where pyrazine is not detected. The green bell flavor is not considered a wine fault but it may not be desirable to all consumers' tastes. The California wine region of Monterey was noted in the late 20th century for its very vegetal Cabernet Sauvignon with pronounced green pepper flavor, earning the nickname of "Monterey veggies". In addition to its cool climate, Monterey is also prone to being very windy, which can have the effect of shutting down the grape vines and further inhibiting ripeness.
Two other well known Cabernet Sauvignon flavors are mint and eucalyptus. Mint flavors are often associated with wine regions that are warm enough to have low pyrazine levels but are still generally cool, such as Australia's Coonawarra region and some areas of Washington State. There is some belief that soil could also be a contributor to the minty notes, since the flavor also appears in some wines from the Pauillac region but not from similar climate of Margaux. Resinous Eucalyptus flavors tend to appear in regions that are habitats for the eucalyptus tree, such as California's Napa and Sonoma valleys and parts of Australia, but there has been no evidence to conclusively prove a direct link between proximity of eucalyptus trees and the presence of that flavor in the wine.
The style of Cabernet Sauvignon is strongly influenced by the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. When more on the unripe side, the grapes are high in pyrazines and will exhibit pronounced green bell peppers and vegetal flavors. When harvested overripe the wines can taste jammy and may have aromas of stewed black currants. Some winemakers choose to harvest their grapes at different ripeness levels in order to incorporate these different elements and potentially add some layer of complexity to the wine. When Cabernet Sauvignon is young, the wines typically exhibit strong fruit flavors of black cherries and plum. The aroma of black currants is one of the most distinctive and characteristic element of Cabernet Sauvignon that is present in virtually every style of the wine across the globe. Styles from various regions and producers may also have aromas of eucalyptus, mint and tobacco. As the wines age they can sometimes develop aromas associated with cedar, cigar boxes and pencil shavings. In general New World examples have more pronounced fruity notes while Old World wines can be more austere with heightened earthy notes.
Ability to age
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a large part of Cabernet Sauvignon's reputation was built on its ability to age and develop in the bottle. In addition to softening some of their austere tannins, as Cabernet wines age new flavors and aromas can emerge and add to the wines' complexity. Historically this was a trait characterized by Bordeaux with some premium examples in favorable vintages having the potential to last for over a century, but producers across the globe have developed styles that could age and develop for several decades. Even with the ability to age, some Cabernet Sauvignon wines can still be approachable a few years after vintage. In Bordeaux, the tannins of the wines tend to soften after ten years and can typically last for at least another decade-sometimes longer depending on the producer and vintage. Some Spanish and Italian Cabernet Sauvignons will need similar time as Bordeaux to develop but most examples are typically made to be drunk earlier.
While New World Cabernets are characterized as being drinkable earlier than Bordeaux, premium producers such as the Californian cult wines will produce wines that need time to age and could potentially develop for two to three decades. Overall, the majority of Californian Cabernets are meant to be approachable after only a couple of years in the bottle but can still have the potential to improve further over time. Similarly many premium Australian Cabernet will also need at least ten years to develop though many are approachable after two to five years. New Zealand wines are typically meant to be consumed young and will often maintain their green herbal flavors even with extended bottle aging. South American Cabernets have very pronounced fruit flavors when they are young and the best made examples will maintain some of those flavors as they age. South African wines tend to favor more Old World styles and typically require six to eight years' aging before they start to develop further flavors.