If Chardonnay is the queen of wine grapes, then Cabernet Sauvignon is the undisputed king. It's the world's most planted grape variety, and the driving force behind some of the most prestigious winegrowing regions, like Bordeaux and the heart of the American wine industry, Napa Valley. According to Vivino data, 11.1% of all wines in the world contain Cabernet Sauvignon in them.
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But Cabernet Sauvignon wasn't always so tenacious a colonizer. Thanks to DNA testing, its origins have been traced to Bordeaux where it was first cultivated in the 17th century—the offspring of an unintended and curious crossing between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
It would seem that Cabernet Sauvignon has combined the best attributes of its parents. As a vine, it buds late, artfully dodging spring frosts in more marginal climates. And its bunches are loosely clustered, sparing the berries from rot and insect infestation. To top it off, Cabernet has a thick skin, a very useful trait that protects the grapes from the deleterious effects of sunburn and wind.
Add to all of this the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon has naturally high levels of tannin, high acidity, and relatively high alcohol, and you've got a wine that handles oak like a dream, with tons of aging potential. It's no surprise that Cabernet has dominated the world's stage.
The impacts of climate and terroir are perhaps less obvious than they might be with a lighter-bodied red like Pinot Noir, but there are still noticeable differences in style. Here's a quick and very general overview to get you started:
Moderate Continental and Maritime Climates
Grown in a maritime climate like the Haut-Médoc in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon possesses firm tannins and moderate alcohol levels (usually above 13.5% but below 15%). In moderate climates, Cabernet expresses blackcurrants and cassis, but also complex aromas of violets, licorice, pencil lead, cedar, and tobacco. If the vintage year is too cool or too wet, troublesome herbaceous notes of green bell pepper can be an issue, a trait Cabernet shares with its parent, Sauvignon Blanc.
Key regions with continental climates: New World regions include the Columbia Valley in Washington State, Canada's Okanagan Valley, and Mendoza in Argentina. Ningxia, China is an up-and-coming region to watch. Old World regions include Szekszárd and Villány in Hungary and higher-elevation zones of the Rioja.
Key regions with maritime climates: Bordeaux, including sub-appellations Margaux, St.-Julien, Pauillac, St.-Estèphe, and Pessac-Léognan, along with Sonoma County, Santa Cruz, and Monterey in California. You might also explore Hawke's Bay in New Zealand as well as the Yarra Valley in Australia.
Speaking of Australia, keep an eye out for Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra. Less than 15 km in length, Coonawarra is small, but defined by its unique red soil known as terra rossa that produces Cabernet with distinctive notes of eucalyptus and mint.
Hot Mediterranean Climates
Cabernet grown in hot climes are typically full-bodied and jammy in flavor, often sporting high levels alcohol that may exceed 15%. They can be quite decadent, brimming over with blackberries, black cherries, black olives, roasted meat, leather, and spice.
Key regions with hot mediterranean climates: Tuscany, California's Napa Valley region along with Constantia and Stellenbosch in South Africa, the Maipo Valley in Chile, Margaret River in Australia, and Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.