What Is Cabernet Sauvignon: A Beginner’s Guide

We’ll give you three clues. It is one of (if not the) the world’s most widely recognized red wine grape. It’s grown in (nearly) every wine-producing region from California to Cape Town. There are over 341,000 hectares (3,410 km2) of it under vine worldwide. Can you guess what it is yet? Yes, that’s right, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon of course. 

What Is Cabernet Sauvignon?

To say this grape is immensely popular is an understatement. To give you an idea of how beloved the grape is, it even has its own holiday, celebrated internationally every 30th August. The taste profile is one that is adored the world over – think medium to full body wine with black fruit notes of black cherry, tertiary notes of green pepper, and spice notes of vanilla. Added to that, the thick skin proves that it is hardy in most climates and the high tannin factor is ideal for fine wines that are made for ageing. It’s truly everyone’s favourite – producers, amateurs, and professionals alike. It’ll be one of your favourites, too, if you’re into investing. It’s easier than ever now with a wine investment app.

So how did this humble grape come to be on top of its game, oenologically speaking? 

Well, what we’re going to have to do is go back. All the way back to the 17th century, when a happy accident occurred in southwestern France. A farmer mistakenly planted a red Cabernet Franc vine next to a white Sauvignon Blanc one, and the two fused together to bear what is today the most popular grape on the planet. 

The new-fangled grape, named Cabernet Sauvignon after its parents, was found to be particularly suited to Bordeaux’s clay, gravelly, and limestone terroirs. Although it has the amazing ability to adapt to most soil (hence its popularity), it favours the “Goldilocks” way of thinking – i.e. not too hot and not too cold. 

The thick skin that is so durable against the elements is one of its most covetable assets. The skin is also high in tannin, thus making highly concentrated red wine of quality that evolves and ages in the bottle exceptionally well. Additionally, Cabernet Sauvignon is known for taking on the flavour of the oak, meaning the initial tannic astringency can be softened by the barrel, ergo making the wine more approachable at a young age. In short, it really is the wonder grape that keeps on giving. 

As Cabernet Sauvignon’s popularity grew around the globe, producers began to play with blending. It was found to marry particularly well with Merlot and hence the” Bordeaux Blend” was born. This was truly the turning point for the grape, producers began to get creative, blending not only Merlot with Cab Sav but also Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carménère, all of which are today included in a classic example of blended Cabernet Sauvignon.

To get a good idea of which grapes are grown where have a look at our guide on French wine regions.

What Is the Difference Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon?

. For most of the 20th century Cab Sav’s reigned supreme. But even the bests get knocked off the top spot from time to time. Changing tastes and producer trial and error in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant that by 1995 it had slipped to just 8th place as the world’s favourite, with Merlot in the top spot. By 2015 the grape was back on form, back in the number one position. And it doesn’t look like it will be relinquishing it any time soon.

Like the Britpop war between Oasis and Blur in the mid-1990s, the Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot battle has been going on for 30 years. To the naked (and untrained) eye, both wines initially look very similar; the same ruby red colour in the glass, although Merlot leans to a lighter hue. Cabernet Sauvignon has all the characteristics of the left bank (high tannin) and excels when grown closer to the maritime influence of the Atlantic. Merlot favours the right bank’s terroir, which is higher in clay and enjoys a warmer climate. This makes Cabernet Sauvignon very rich and robust, while Merlot wines are much softer, with fewer tannins and a much lower acidic profile. Both wines are considered dry, although Merlot is slightly sweeter, and therefore a bit easier on your palate, especially in its youth. 

What Does Cabernet Sauvignon Taste Like?

Cabernet Sauvignon’s big, bold and some say, brash flavour profile means that when it is not blended with another wine, it can be overbearing. Hence why the Bordeaux Blend has become so popular. The added Merlot softens the tannic taste and adds lightness, although again, this depends on where the grape is grown. Some South African and Californian wine regions for example produce 100% Cab Savs, unsoftened by Merlot or Cabernet Franc, as their terroir lends itself to a lighter tasting varietal of grape. Terroirs in France are not so lucky.

Because for now, we are concentrating on the original Cabernet Sauvignon grape – aka the one grown in France. The main flavour profile here is one of dark fruit – black cherry, blackberry, black currant. Next come spicy secondary flavours – anise, clove, and nutmeg. Critics often describe Cabernet Sauvignon as having graphite tertiary tastes; think of those 2B pencils you used to sharpen at school and you’ll get the idea. Because of Cabernet Sauvignon’s ability to absorb the flavours of the barrels in which it is aged (notably in new oak), the wines can also smell and taste cedar, cigar boxes, and, sometimes, tobacco.

However, when grapes are harvested at less than full maturity, the wines can taste green (herbaceous) or underripe. If the grapes were harvested past their optimal maturity, the alcohol content is probably high – usually 15% or over – although this can be a stylistic choice of the winemaker and not necessarily an error in judgment. 

If you fancy yourself as a bit of a wine taster, then be sure to read our wine tasting terms!

How to Drink Cabernet Sauvignon?

How to Serve Cabernet Sauvignon?

Before getting to this specific part, we recommend reading the how to taste wine basics, so you can fully appreciate a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet Sauvignon’s strong wine flavours benefit better than almost any other wine by decanting. Even just opening the bottle three hours prior to drinking will start the oxygenation process, allowing the wine to open up. Decanting will also bring the wine to the ideal temperature, as well as remove any sediment. This is especially important if you have been storing your wine in a climate-controlled cellar. 

Now comes the complicated bit – which glass to use. Gone are the days of the chubby, squat, round wine glasses, so beloved by red-cheeked waiters in red-checked tableclothed restaurants. Today the glass you use to put your Cabernet Sauvignon in is (almost) as important as the bottle it comes out of. Thankfully much has changed, and glass manufacturers have woken up to the fact that different varieties need different vessels. For Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ll want a glass with a large glass and height that creates distance between the wine and the drinker. This will cause the ethanol to dissipate on the nose and allow more oxygen to encourage tannins to soften. A long stem is ideal too, so as not to heat up the contents of the glass with your hand.

What to Pair with Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cab Sav’s big, strong taste needs a big, strong meal to go with it. The high tannins need something fatty to cut through that “itchy mouth” syndrome, so indicative of a good Cabernet Sauvignon. The ideal partner to your perfect bottle of La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou is going to be something meaty – steak, hamburger, stew. The fats in the meat cut the tannin and make sweet love on your palate. 

But herein lies a problem. Cabernet doesn’t match our lifestyle anymore. We’ve moved away from meat and two veg types of meals and today favour a much more plant-based diet. This does not necessarily mean the end of Cabernet Sauvignon – au contraire. Because of its exceptional ageing potential, we predict older Cab Sav’s will become more commonplace on the secondary market. Producers might also start experimenting with other grapes with softer tannins – such as cabernet franc, malbec, Gamay, barbera, and pinot noir, perhaps better suited to today’s tastes.  

Best Cabernet Sauvignon

In terms of investability, Cabernet Sauvignon will always be king. Its intense tastes, superb age worthy wine, and wealth of superstar producers mean that this is one wine variety that will never go out of fashion! Here are some of our favourites: 

1. Château Pontet Canet

Chateau Pontet Canet is the wine that everyone should know about. It is big, bold and powerful and makes a mockery of its Fifth Growth classification. Today, Pontet Canet is one of, if not the most, popular Bordeaux wine distributed worldwide. Wine guru Robert Parker gave both the 2009 and 2010 a perfect score of 100 points, provoking a mini-crash in the investable wine market. It’s increasingly popular and should be snapped up if you can.

2. Château Lynch Bages

It may not be the easiest name to pronounce (lunch bags? Linch barges? Or in Cantonese, Lan Chi Pat) but Chateau Lynch Bages is one of the wines that deserve a 21st-century reclassification. A fifth growth (fifth!), Lynch Bages is famously “very superior to its classification”. Widely considered as one of Bordeaux’s best wines, it is arguably the region’s greatest success story of the last century. 

3. Château Cos D’Estournel

This is a Cabernet Sauvignon with class. It is the leading estate of the St. Estephe region, and many say it challenges its neighbours in Pauillac. The 2eme Crus Classe produces strong, intense, and powerful wines from its 100-hectare terroir, north of Lafite. The strong clay content in the soil means wines have an exceptional capacity for ageing.

4. Château Montrose

Both one of the youngest and one of the most famous Bordeaux wines, Chateau Montrose is a St Estephe legend in its own right. Named after the pinkish hue of the heather that covers the hills (“rose” referring to the colour, not the flower), production only began in 1815, yet the wine was already so good, so quickly that it was given a “Super” Second status (a modern term- the official term is Second Growth) in the 1855 classification. Today the estate is owned by the French billionaires Bouygues family, who have their sights very firmly set on turning their wine from an excellent one to an exceptional one.

5. Château Lafite Rothschild

Where can you begin with Lafite? Is it with the years of history, dating back to 1234? That it was the first of all the first growths and has retained its place at the top for over 150 years? Or is it that it has consistently produced wine that is so refined, so compelling, so elegant that it would be no understatement to say that it is the iconic Bordeaux for the modern generation. Is it bottled perfection? Yes, it’s all of those things. It’s Lafite. Add it to your portfolio now. Full stop.

Continue reading on the 5 best French wines.

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