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Great Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon

An authoritative guide to wine styles, major regions and benchmark producers
Bruce Sanderson
Posted: May 15, 2007

Wine begins with grapes, so understanding wine involves learning how and where grapes grow, and the ways these factors influence a wine's character, flavor and structure.

Our "Great Grapes" series aims to spotlight the most important wine grape (Vitis vinifera) varieties. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive yet accessible introduction, exploring the major regions where the featured grape is grown, explaining its most important wine styles, evaluating recent vintages and spotlighting benchmark producers and wines. This is the third installment in the series; prior chapters covered Riesling (Dec. 15, 2005) and Pinot Noir (May 15, 2006). Depending on the grape, we'll discuss the influence of soil, climate, viticulture and vinification on wine style and quality. History, price and food matching will also be addressed.

In this issue, we look at Cabernet Sauvignon. Often heralded as the king of red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon remains the preeminent benchmark for red wine quality despite strong competition lately from other red varieties, such as Syrah and Pinot Noir.

From its traditional home in France's Bordeaux region, Cabernet Sauvignon has spread to all corners of the winemaking world. The people and places behind the best Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines from Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Chile, Washington and Italy are explored in the following pages.

For many wine lovers, Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red grapes. From its historical base in Bordeaux, where it established a reputation more than two centuries ago, to adopted homes in California's Napa Valley, Tuscany and elsewhere, Cabernet makes wines of power and longevity.

Cabernet's character and quality is unmistakable, whether it's bottled as a 100 percent varietal wine or as the dominant portion of a blend. Cabernet Sauvignon brings color, structure, refinement and complexity to the wines it makes.

Cabernet-based wines arguably live longer than any other red table wines, showing the best gain in complexity and harmony over decades. As early as the 18th century, Cabernet-based Bordeaux wines such as those from Châteaus Lafite, Latour and Margaux were highly regarded, cellared by aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Properly stored bottles from the 19th century can still be delicious today.

Because of their quality and longevity, red Bordeaux and the best Cabernet-based wines from Napa Valley and Tuscany are the blue-chip investments of the wine world. They make up the core of most wine auctions, and prices have risen strongly over the past decade. Napa Valley's Screaming Eagle 1992, one of California's cult Cabernet Sauvignons, sells for almost 100 times its $50 release price. A case of 1982 Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac, which sold for $450 on release in 1983, had increased in value by more than 3,000 percent by 2006.

Cabernet's strong varietal character stands out in a blind tasting even when the grape is blended with other varieties. Depending on ripeness and winemaking style, the fruit flavors echo cherry, plum, black currant and cassis. Violet, cedar, tobacco, mineral, chocolate, lead pencil and tar are also common descriptors of Cabernet nuances.

Terroir and climate contribute distinctive elements too. Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in California, Chile and Australia often show mint, eucalyptus, chocolate and more jammy fruit flavors. Cabernet blends from Bordeaux tend to be more reserved and elegant, with a complex range of cherry, black currant, herbal and spice notes. If planted in an area too cool to ripen it, or if farmed poorly (especially in terms of excessive yields), Cabernet can show a vegetal side, typically coming through as green bell pepper flavors.

Cabernet-based wines are often aged in new oak barrels (primarily French but sometimes American or Eastern European), adding vanilla and coffee accents that turn to cedar and cigar box complexity over time.

Cabernet Sauvignon's ability to age is a result of its formidable structure. The thick-skinned grapes possess high amounts of polyphenols, a family of compounds that includes tannins and anthocyanins (pigments). These are contained in the skin and pips. In the 19th century, yields in Bordeaux were much lower than today's, and the harvests were earlier, resulting in significantly higher levels of tannins and acidity in the wines. Thus, years and even decades of aging were required to soften the tannins and bring the wines to maturity.

Legendary bottlings such as the Lafite Rothschild 1870 spurred the desire to recreate such monumental wines in other regions around the world. As both new and traditional growing areas developed, it was generally understood that producing a great Cabernet-based red was a prerequisite to establishing any locale as a world-class winegrowing region.

Visionaries in various countries made an impact on the wine world with excellent Cabernets: Mario Incisa della Rochetta, with Italy's Sassicaia, André Tchelistcheff, the force behind Beaulieu Vineyard's Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Georges de Latour Private Reserve in California, and Spain's Miguel Torres, maker of Gran Coronas Mas La Plana Black Label, are a few such vintners.

Today, Cabernet is a significant grape variety in California, Washington, Italy, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Spain, South Africa and Eastern Europe. It has even found a home in less hospitable regions such as Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where it is a component of the red blend from Château Musar.

The wines of the top Bordeaux châteaus of the Médoc, including the five first-growths, comprise predominately Cabernet Sauvignon today, with the grape generally making up two-thirds or more of the blend. But this was not always the case. In fact, compared with the thousand-year pedigree of Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Cabernet is a relative newcomer in Bordeaux. It probably emerged in the early 18th century, supplementing the more widely planted Malbec and many other grape varieties before going on to achieve dominance after the phylloxera scourge in the latter half of the 19th century.

By that time, Cabernet was already a world traveler. It reached Australia in the early 1800s and California in the 1850s. It was documented in Italy in 1855 as Bordò Nero, "Bordeaux black." Wealthy Chilean aristocrats had introduced Cabernet Sauvignon to the Maipo and Colchagua areas near Santiago by 1850.

In 1997, Carole Meredith of the University of California, Davis, examined Cabernet Sauvignon's DNA. She was able to determine that the variety is the offspring of a late 17th century cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. The creation of this noble grape was probably accidental, since vine breeding was not well understood at the time.

As a plant, Cabernet Sauvignon is winter hardy; it used to be known as Vidure in Bordeaux, a contraction of vigne dure, or "hard vine." Cabernet Sauvignon's thick skin makes it full of color and resistant to rot. Compared with other grapes, it contains a high ratio of pips to pulp in each berry. This is a significant source of its tannins.

Nonetheless, it ripens late and needs a warm climate to mature fully (especially important in 100 percent varietal versions). It also needs plenty of sunlight; when underripe, Cabernet tastes weedy and herbal, showing bell pepper notes and astringent, green tannins.

It is vigorous, and therefore needs devigorating rootstock or poor soils in order to achieve balanced yields. The gravel outcroppings of the Médoc, poor in nutrients and with good capacity for drainage, are ideal. In more fertile soils, like the valley floors of Napa and Chile, Cabernet is farmed differently to reduce its vigor. The vines are much larger, often with divided canopies to promote better balance and increase sunlight. Grass may be grown between the rows of vines to compete for available nutrients.

Whereas Pinot Noir tends to suffer in relation to its thin skin, Cabernet is prone to diseases affecting the woody parts of the plant. The fungal disease eutypa is particularly damaging; a degenerative malady, it eventually kills the vine.

After harvesting, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are typically sorted, destemmed and gently crushed. Fermentations occur with both indigenous and cultured yeast; the choice of yeast doesn't follow a simple New World/Old World dichotomy, but seems more a winemaking decision related to the volume of wine being made.

During maceration, most Cabernet producers "pump over" to manage the floating cap of skins, extract color and tannins and aerate the must. In Italy, however, Fausto Maculan in Veneto and Paolo di Marchi of Isole e Olena in Tuscany "punch down" the cap. Aurelio Montes in Chile and Paul Hobbs in California add a prefermentation cold maceration to the regimen. Hobbs feels the smaller color molecules are best extracted in an aqueous solution at the beginning of fermentation.

Regardless of technique, Cabernet's prolific tannins require gentle handling. "You just can't beat up Cabernet," says Alex Golitzin of Washington's Quilceda Creek. "You have to be careful not to overextract. We do almost everything by gravity."

Practices differ with the malolactic, or "secondary," fermentation. Some vintners encourage the malic acid to be converted to lactic acid in tank; others prefer that to happen once the wine has been pressed and put into small barrels. This decision also seems to be largely a question of volume. The malolactic fermentation is less risky in tank or vat. Proponents of malolactic in barrel cite a better integration of oak and wine.

"For purists, if we do the malolactic fermentation in barrel there's better integration," says Philippe Melka, a Bordeaux native who began his career there and now makes wine in California. Once in barrel, top quality Cabernet Sauvignon is aged from 18 to 24 months, sometimes longer. It is often aged in new oak or a combination of new and used barrels. Because of its high tannin content, Cabernet is racked several times, commonly from five to seven times, during the maturation. This allows oxygen to react with the tannins, causing them to form larger molecules, which feel softer. (By contrast, Pinot Noir, with much less tannin, is more susceptible to oxidation. It therefore is handled more reductively, racked only twice at most during a similar period.)

Most estates blend the different grape components after maturing them separately for a year, although some prefer to make the assemblage earlier.

Fining is common in the traditionally minded Médoc, but most New World producers prefer filtration to fining, and many do no fining or filtering at all. "Given enough barrel time (20 months at minimum), the wines do not require forced clarification by fining or filtration," explains Tony Soter of Etude. "The only reason to consider filtration is in the case of having known undesirable spoilage organisms present, such as brett [brettanomyces]. Learning to cope with these situations is possible, and a certain biological quiescence is the goal. Once this equilibrium is attained, we can safely bottle the wine without filtration."

Still, most winemakers agree that careful filtration generally does little harm to Cabernet Sauvignon and is much preferable to sending biologically unstable wines to the market.

In terms of ripeness, California's Napa Valley leads the pack, with typical alcohol levels in the 13.5 percent to 16 percent range by volume. Cabernet-based reds from the Médoc average about 13 percent alcohol by volume; their Tuscan counterparts fall into the 13.5 percent to 14.5 percent range.

Most of the world's great grapes are typically bottled as 100 percent varietals. Cabernet is the exception.

As important as Cabernet Sauvignon is to the wines of the Médoc, its interplay with other grape types is equally important; nearly all top Bordeaux reds are blends. Bordeaux's more fickle climate relies on multiple grapes as a hedge against the vagaries of weather in any given harvest. For instance, the proportion of late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon increases or decreases, balanced by the early-ripening Merlot. In very hot years, the racy acidity of the Petit Verdot can give freshness to a blend.

In warmer winegrowing regions, Cabernet ripens more consistently, and thus can be bottled on its own. Yet Cabernet can be austere and firm, lacking in charm and flesh when young. Many winemakers balance these characteristics by adding other grapes to their blends, often the traditional Bordeaux grapes, sometimes more exotic varieties. Increasingly, with riper fruit and more mature tannins, this is less of an issue. But many winemakers still consider a blend greater than the sum of its parts and continue to include small portions of other grapes.

In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon's partners are Merlot (which adds flesh), Cabernet Franc (aromatic complexity) and Petit Verdot (color and black fruit flavors, in ripe years). Malbec, now more common in Argentina, can add flesh and color.

In Tuscany, the native Sangiovese is often blended with Cabernet, although others opt for a more traditional Bordeaux mix, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot. And leave it to the Australians to follow their own path and blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Shiraz.

Once bottled, the best Cabernets demand five, seven or even 10 years to reach their peak drinking-plateau, where they remain for another 10 or 20 years. The very best from great vintages are capable of evolving for 50 or more years.

The flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon pair wonderfully with food. When young, a Bordeaux or fruity Cabernet from Washington or California demands fresh, boldly flavored foods, such as grilled steak or lamb chops. In a mature Cabernet, tannins have mellowed and primary fruit flavors have turned to a preserved essence accented by spice and woodsy notes; these require long-cooked dishes, either roasted or braised. In Bordeaux for example, roasted local lamb is a favorite foil for a mature Pauillac.

Robert Bohr, wine director for Cru, a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant in New York, focuses on Cabernet's structure when pairing with chef Shea Gallante's dishes. "We do take into account the different [wines'] origins with regard to pairing with food, but generally, I focus on acidity and tannin when sketching out my thoughts on food and wine pairing." Higher acidity dishes require higher acidity wines, while fattier, braised meats can stand up to richer fruit and full, ripe tannins.

In the best vineyards from Bordeaux to Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is a true aristocrat among grape varieties. Top-quality Cabernet wines command extraordinary prices around the world. Despite its humble beginnings, its future path is paved in gold.

Cabernet Sauvignon Acreage In Major Growing Regions

CHILE 99,889
Bordeaux 72,000
Médoc 20,160
Trentino/Alto Adige 1,149
Tuscany 2,590
Veneto 8,037
California 76,756
Napa 18,206
Washington 6,050

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