Grape of the Week: Cabernet Sauvignon


I hope you like this idea. I’ll do a post on a different variety every week, which means after awhile we’ll be looking at some varieties that aren’t so familiar – could be a lot of fun!

I want to start with the undisputed King of Grapes here in Napa Valley – Cabernet Sauvignon. Here goes:

Cabernet Sauvignon – AKA: Cabernet, Cab Sav, Cab, Petite Cabernet, Vidure, Petite-Vidure, Bouche, Petite-Bouche, Bouchet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Rouge, Burdeos Tintos (these last several arcane synonyms courtesy of the UC Davis website.)

Like all the other varieties, this grape appears in many guises, depending upon where it’s grown and the winemaking techniques employed. But, overall, you can expect this grape to produce a substantial, deeply colored red wine that’s noticeably tannic and very rich in black fruit flavors: blackberry, black cherry, black currant; plus it may show earth, cedar, bell pepper, green olive or any number of other descriptors, depending, again, on where it’s grown and how the wine is made. When the winemaker chooses new barrels for aging the wood may add vanilla, spice, smoke, grilled bread, mocha, nutty character or a sense of  toastiness (see more on this in “Notes from the Tasting,” below). And since tannin comes from the grape skins, and the Cabernet grape has thick skin, you’ll come to expect firm tannins from your Cab, which can help make it age worthy, in varying degrees.

Origins  The Cabernet grape has its origins in Bordeaux, France, and has been the central ingredient in some of the most sought-after wines in the world. Most of us have never tasted Chateau Latour or Chateau Lafite, but perhaps you have heard of them. Latour and Lafite are among an elite group of five wineries called “the first growths of Bordeaux,” supposedly the best (they’re certainly some of the most expensive). And, from the Bordeaux region in France, Cabernet has traveled the world! In fact, today the most widely grown variety in Bordeaux is not Cabernet, but Merlot! But if you buy Bordeaux from the what’s known as the “left bank” (of the Gironde River) Cabernet will be the dominant variety.

As a variety, Cabernet Sauvignon is a new kid on the block compared to the ancient Pinot Noir of Burgundy or the Syrah of the Rhone. It wasn’t important in Bordeaux until the late 1700s. It’s the child of two older grapes of the region: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. We assume the Cabernet Franc gives it its beautiful black currant character and the Sauvignon Blanc lends the hint of bell pepper. When it’s grown in a warm climate, like Napa Valley, it accentuates the generou black fruit, and from a cold climate, like Bordeaux, the herbaceous and earthy character may be more noticeable along with the fruit.

An international variety   Since Cab is grown all over the world, and with tremendous success, you can look forward to tasting Cabernet from Coonawara or the Barossa Valley in Australia, from Chile, from Washington State, even from Lebanon – with so many to choose from, it’s impossible to become bored!

Bordeaux varieties  Cabernet Sauvignon loves to be blended and quite often it’s done with a goal of softening the tannins. When you see a reference to Bordeaux varieties or a Bordeaux blend Cabernet’s red buddies from Bordeaux are: Merlot (which has a rounding effect on the tannin and plumps the mouthfeel), Cabernet Franc (adds a floral/herbal perfume and elegance), Malbec (lends color and power) and Petit Verdot (adds color and a Rubenesque mouthfeel). In Australia it’s common to blend Cabernet with Shiraz, AKA Syrah.

Conversely, it’s common to add Cabernet to a Merlot-based blend in order to provide greater structure (tannin).

What are your favorite brands? And, should we go through the rest of the Bordeaux varieties next (there are Bordeaux whites, too!)

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