Like Chardonnay—but far more dependably—you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon nearly everywhere wine grapes grow.
Because it can.
Stick some Cabernet Sauvignon wood in the ground and out pop leaves—in Bordeaux, famously; in California and Italy, famously and infamously; and in Washington State, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Spain, even Uruguay and Mexico. (And many other places, too.)
What Cabernet Likes
About the only thing that Cabernet Sauvignon needs is warmth. Too cool a soil or climate and the wines it makes are vegetal-tasting and green, with flavors such as bell pepper or asparagus. (Too warm, and it comes off jammy and limp, its fruit tasting like overcooked red berry jam.)
Other more moderate places, because of marginal coolness or spikes of warmth during the day, give Cabernet Sauvignon hints of mint, or black pepper, or eucalyptus, or pencil lead.
Some say all that temperature gauging is hogwash. With Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s always the soil.
Above all, Cabernet Sauvignon loves gravel. That’s what gave it a foothold in Bordeaux, especially in Graves (of course) and the Médoc. Gravel both drains well and holds heat—things Cabernet Sauvignon adores. In other climes, in other soils, it will settle for mere warmth.
What It’s Like
The salient characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape, are its very high ratio of pip to pulp, its thick, blue-black skin, and its high phenolic content. Wine from Cabernet Sauvignon—even at above-average yields—is dense, dark, tannic, and capable of long aging both in barrel and bottle.
Indeed, it is its aging potential that lures wine drinkers and collectors to Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines made of it undergo a beautiful metamorphosis from flavors and aromas of blackcurrants, black cherries and plums, to more mature notes of pencil shavings, cedar and tobacco. All in all, though, Cabernet Sauvignon is more Rex Harrison than Oliver Hardy—high-toned, severe, even rigid.
For all its forceful idiosyncrasy, Cabernet Sauvignon is rarely found alone as a wine. In Bordeaux, its austerity is fleshed out with Merlot—Oliver Hardy—and its fruitiness bolstered by Cabernet Franc (from which, married to Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is supposed to have evolved).
Many other Cabernet Sauvignon producers worldwide copy this famous “Bordeaux blend”, although the percentages of the ancillary grapes may be much lower. In other countries, indigenous grapes well might be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon—in Tuscany, with Sangiovese; in Australia, with Shiraz; and in Spain, with Tempranillo.
While Cabernet Sauvignon ages long and (sometimes) gracefully, that does not mean that all of it should be drunk at 10 or 20 years old. Even young Cabernet Sauvignon from many areas in the world—lesser appellations of Bordeaux, for example, or South America—are delicious in their youth. (True, even these wines can age quite a while.)
Classic food combinations with Cabernet Sauvignon include Bordeaux and roast leg of lamb (or any preparation of lamb, for that matter); or Cabernet Sauvignon-Sangiovese blends or California Cabernet Sauvignon with grilled Porterhouse steaks or venison.
Any hearty dish—even mushroom-based vegetarian dishes—would benefit from a young but gentle Cabernet Sauvignon. Because its most notable feature at table is its tannin, Cabernet Sauvignon pairs well with fatty, hard cheeses such as Vella Monterey Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gruyère.
~ Bill St John