Cabernet Sauvignon takes up 5% of the world’s total vineyard acreage. That may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that there are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon came by its “King of Grapes” nickname honestly, occupying more acreage than any other grape on the planet, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV).
But, unlike Zinfandel, which has been cultivated in some form since 6000 B.C., Cabernet Sauvignon is a relative newcomer, making its stratospheric rise to dominance even more impressive. The birth of Cabernet Sauvignon is believed to have happened in the 1600s in France, when Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc got together. By the 1700s, it was already planted widely in Bordeaux, but, according to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, Cab’s monarchical rise truly began in the 1990s, when it was then “just” the world’s eighth-most planted grape. Since then, Cabernet’s empire of acreage has more than doubled.
It’s easy to see why: Cabernet Sauvignon is so in demand, it consistently fetches ever-higher prices on the market. This year, the average price for Cabernet Sauvignon in California was up 13.8% year-over-year, according to the California Grape Crush Report.
Cab’s ubiquity prompts the question: what makes this grape so treasured and sought after?
In tastings and conversations with producers across what many consider to be the best regions for Cab, as well as regions in which Cab is emerging as an up-and-coming option, several sentiments emerged: First, Cabernet Sauvignon on its own and in blends is distinct in flavor and structure, and more recognizable across terroirs and aging regimens than most grapes, with signature aromas of blackberry, blackcurrant, black cherries, blueberries, chocolate, tobacco, cedar, and eucalyptus as its calling cards. Secondly, it is brimming with tannins, which give its wines excellent structure. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Cabernet Sauvignon can showcase both a region’s unique characteristics, and a winemaker’s style. A contradiction? Not when it comes to this grape.
Read on for insight from producers from a range of styles, starting with Cabernet’s more opulent and lush side, down to lighter, fruitier, and more transparent interpretations of this grape.
Fly To Napa and Sonoma, California
Napa, for decades, has been the promised land of Cabernet Sauvignon, commanding ever-steeper prices by the ton and bottle. Sonoma, in recent years, has been right on its heels.
Bob Pepi of Robert Pepi Winery in Napa Valley helped propel the grape to the top of every wine wish list in the 1980s and 90s, until selling the property in 1994. In 2000, he founded Eponymous Wines (a winery with his name was already taken, prompting the pun), with the goal of highlighting the crème de la crème vineyards of Napa and, later, Sonoma.
“In Bordeaux, it’s traditional to blend different grapes to achieve balance,” Pepi explains. “I am looking for the same results, but instead of blending different grapes, I blend Cabernet Sauvignon from the best vineyards and regions.”
The proportions vary vintage to vintage, but his Cabernet Sauvignon is always heavy on fruit from Mount Veeder, with input from Howell Mountain, Coombsville, and Atlas Peak. The high elevation sites, he says, add the “complexity and freshness” he favors. He ages the grapes for 20 months in 100% French barrels, 60% new, with a dash of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (usually around 2%) as needed.
Fly to Mendoza, Argentina
When most people think of Argentinian wine, they think Malbec, no doubt because it is, by far, the most cultivated and exported variety in the country. But Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon should not be overlooked.
Francisco March, U.S. and Canada’s regional manager at Bodegas Bianchi, which has 1,200 acres worth of vines in both the Uco Valley and San Rafael, is a big proponent of Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina.
“San Rafael, where we grow our Cabernet Sauvignon, is warm, with sandy soils,” March says, explaining that the east-west orientation of mountain ranges allows cool air to funnel in from the Andes mountain region, locking in freshness and giving the grapes longer hang times, which ensures optimal balance, even amid warming temperatures.
“The prices of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon are so high right now, Cab lovers are looking for alternatives,” he says. “The flavor and character you get in our Cabernets, which come from vines between 40 and 70 years in age, are hard to beat, especially considering our prices.”
The Famiglia line, made from 40-year-old vines and aged for 10 months in neutral oak, retail for around $18. The Particular line, made from 70-year-old vines and aged on a mix of new and neutral oak, run about $30.
Fly to Sierra Foothills, California
The Sierra Foothills are an inside secret in the world of winemakers: Lodi crushes more than 20% of the grapes in California. And, while some of it ends up in bottles made by vintners in the AVA, a lot of it ends up being sold to bulk out premium brands’ pricey Cabernets, or in industrial-style blends labeled “California” wine.
But the country’s largest wine-growing area also has several incredible pockets, explains Joan Kautz, sales and marketing manager at Ironstone Vineyards, which has 7,000 acres of grapes under vine throughout the appellation.
“The Delta is a mass of waterways that acts as a funnel for cool ocean breezes, which balance out the higher temperatures during the day,” she says. “In the Sierra Foothills sub-appellation, we have the added benefit of our high, 2,400-foot elevation vineyards, which adds complexity and depth to the fruit.”
The result is fruit that serves up rich flavors, but is still bright and approachable. Like many Lodi wines, it’s also a bargain buy.
Fly to Tuscany, Italy
Cabernet may rule Planet Earth, but Sangiovese is still king in Tuscany. And yet even the most dedicated Tuscans admit that Cabernet Sauvignon possesses super-powers.
The first Super Tuscan, composed of Sangiovese with a healthy serving of Cabernet Sauvignon, and a sprinkling of Cabernet Franc, was created in 1971 by Antinori.
At Cortonesi, most of the winery’s 138 acres of vineyards in Montalcino is dedicated to Sangiovese, says third-generation winemaker Tommaso Cortonesi.
“But we realized we needed a Super Tuscan,” Cortonesi says. “Our Super Tuscan, the Leonus, is our only wine not made from a single vineyard. We use Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The Cabernet Sauvignon adds balance, freshness, and supple texture.”
It is also—by far—their least expensive option at $19.99. Their single-vineyard Sangioveses retail for $25-$99.
Fly to Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara has become synonymous with world-class Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay, but Michael Lewellen is bullish on Cabernet Sauvignon’s future there.
In 1996, his father Royce Lewellen’s friend, viticulturalist Louis Lucas, founded Lucas & Lewellen, aiming to focus on premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When they had the opportunity to buy a vineyard near Solvang planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, they jumped on it, but planned to replant it.
“That first year, the buyer we had lined up for the Cab pulled out, so we sent the fruit to Jed Steele, who helped steer Kendall Jackson in the 1980s,” recalls Michael. “He made the wine, and it was incredible. He told us not to pull it, and we didn’t.”
Instead, they’ve expanded their plantings from 10 to 25 acres, and find that it hits the sweet spot many modern wine lovers are looking for “between Napa and Bordeaux. It’s not too opulent, but it has serious structure and body, while still being approachable,” he says.
Fly to Bordeaux, France
Cabernet was born in Bordeaux, and so was the concept of the ideal blend. Typically, a red wine from the region comprises primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere are also traditional additions in smaller proportions.
But rules and conventions can be flouted—as they are with great delight at Famille Bouey, founded in 1821, and one of the last remaining family-run and owned wineries in Bordeaux.
“Cabernet Sauvignon is king on the Left Bank, where we are, but we have found that our estates in the Médoc are more suited to Merlot, so we go a different way for the most part,” says Jacques Bouey. “But we do love Cabernet. And, as a tribute to the king of grapes, and also as a way to decompose the classic elements of the blend, we created La Cuvee 20, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced 60 kilometers south of our estate, in Entre-deux-Mers, a much sunnier part of Bordeaux that creates a nicer and friendlier Cabernet, ready to drink on release.”
A fresh and fruity single-varietal Bordeaux that doesn’t require a decade or more in the cellar essentially overturns centuries of tradition, no?
“We like to do things differently,” Bouey says, eyes a-twinkle.
Fly to McLaren Vale, Australia
McLaren Vale has a Mediterranean climate, with cooling influences from the ocean. The soil varies considerably, but the vineyard from which Kim Longbottom sources her grapes for Henry’s Drive Shiraz and Cab blend is rich in red clay and loam, and the vines are 70 years old.
Winemakers in France discovered the incredible power of Shiraz and Cabernet blends in the 1800s, but the appellation system nixed them. Thankfully, Australian vintners were not restrained by rules, and pioneers began creating these blends in the late 1800s. Max Schubert catapulted them to international acclaim with the iconic Penfolds Grange.
At Vintage Longbottom, this particular blend displays Cabernet’s elegance, while the Shiraz offers fresh, ripe fruit flavors, and lushness.
Fly to Willcox, Arizona
More than 70% of the grapes grown in Arizona come from the Willcox AVA. While it is still flying decidedly under the radar, it is a region to watch. With vineyards up to 4,400 feet in elevation, a serious shift from day to night temperatures, and volcanic and alluvial soils, it has the ingredients for a serious winemaking region.
At Chateau Tumbleweed, co-owner and winemaker Joe Bechard, says the terroir allows them to produce Cabernet Sauvignons that “walk the razor’s edge between New World and Old World. We don’t make big, rich, opulent Cabs like Washington or California.”
Instead, Tumbleweed’s Cabernet Sauvignons tend to be more “red fruit driven, spicier, and somewhat leaner, while still having decent tannins,” he says. Part of this comes from the terroir, but it’s also the farming and aging decisions.
“We try not to pick too ripe to keep the fruit and spice fresh and vibrant, and alcohols low,” Bechard explains. “We also try to keep new oak to no more than 20-25%.”
Cabernet Sauvignon will never blend in, even in a blend. But, thanks to the creativity and resourcefulness of producers across the world, it can span a gamut of terroirs and styles, without losing its essence.