Cabernet Sauvignon - around the world

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Holm Oak - Cabernet

Holm Oak - Cabernet

Cabernet Sauvignon is the world's most renowned, but relatively recent, grape variety for the production of fine red wine. From its power base in Bordeaux, where it is almost invariably blended with other grapes, it has been taken up in other French wine regions and in much of the Old and New Worlds, where it has been blended with traditional native varieties and often used to produce pure varietal wine.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Cabernet Sauvignon is its ability to produce a wine that is so recognizably Cabernet. And what makes Cabernet Sauvignon remarkable to taste is not primarily its exact fruit flavour - although that is often likened to blackcurrants, its aroma sometimes to green bell peppers - but its structure and its ability to provide the perfect vehicle for individual vintage characteristics, wine-making and elevage techniques, and, especially, local physical attributes, or terroir. In this respect it resembles the equally popular and almost as ubiquitous Chardonnay, to whose `vanilla' Cabernet Sauvignon is often compared as `chocolate'. What differentiates the two varieties, however, is that Chardonnay can be grown in much cooler climates. Late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon must be grown somewhere relatively warm, and can in some years fail to reach full ripeness even somewhere as mild as the Medoc.

A great reputation

It is Cabernet Sauvignon's remarkable concentration of phenolics that really sets it aside from most other widely grown vine varieties. It is therefore capable of producing deeply coloured wines worthy of long maceration and ageing for the long term. Over the centuries it has demonstrated a special but by no means exclusive affinity for densely textured French oak. The particular appeal of Cabernet Sauvignon lies much less in primary fruit aromas (with which other varieties such as Gamay and Pinot Noir are more obviously associated) than in the much more subtle flavour compounds that evolve over years of bottle ageing from complex interaction between compounds derived from fruit, fermentation, alcohol, and oak. It is also true, however, that so distinctive is Cabernet Sauvignon's imprint on the palate memory that part of the reason why it is so widely planted is that even when irrigated to greedily high yields and hastily vinified without even a glimpse of wood, it can produce a wine with some recognizable relationship to the great Bordeaux growths of the Medoc and Graves on which its reputation has been built.


Cabernet Sauvignon's origins for long remained shrouded in mystery. There was speculation that, because one of its early synonyms, well established by the 17th century, was Bidure, it was the direct descendant of the vine called Biturica by Pliny. Bidure and Vidure were alternatively thought to be corruptions of vigne dure, a reference to the hardness of the vine's wood (which today makes it such a suitable candidate for mechanical harvesting, and gives it good resistance to winter freeze).

The mystery of Cabernet Sauvignon's origins was solved in 1997, thanks to the relatively new technique DNA `fingerprinting'. Bowers and Meredith of the University of California at Davis showed beyond all reasonable doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon's parents are none other than Cabernet Franc and the Bordeaux white wine grape Sauvignon Blanc, a crossing that is thought to have happened spontaneously in one of the many vineyards planted with a mixture of different vines in the old days. This neatly explains why Cabernet Sauvignon can smell like either or both of its parents, and why Cabernet Franc is mentioned in the literature long before Cabernet Sauvignon, and was already well established in Bordeaux by the end of the 18th century.

There are no early references to Cabernet Sauvignon in the literature of wine and the variety only started to make any significant impact on the vineyards of Bordeaux at the end of the 18th century, when the great estates were built up and wine with real longevity emerged. Baron Hector de Brane, once owner of Ch Mouton, together with his neighbour Armand d'Armailhacq, is credited with its promulgation, if not introduction, in the Medoc.

The blue grape

The distinguishing marks of the Cabernet Sauvignon berry are its small size, its high ratio of pip to pulp (one to 12, according to Peynaud, as opposed to one to 25 for Semillon), and the thickness of its skins, so distinctively blue, as opposed to red or even purple, on the vine. The pips are a major factor in Cabernet Sauvignon's high tannin level while the thickness of its skins accounts for the depth of colour that is the tell-tale sign of a Cabernet Sauvignon in so many blind tastings-as well as the variety's relatively good resistance to rot.

The vine is susceptible however to powdery mildew, which can be treated quite easily, and the wood diseases eutypa dieback and excoriose, which cannot. It is extremely vigorous and should ideally be grafted on to a weak rootstock to keep its vigour in check. It both buds and ripens late, one to two weeks after Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the two varieties with which it is typically blended in Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon ripens slowly, which has the advantage that picking dates are less crucial than with other varieties (such as Syrah, for example); but this has the disadvantage that Cabernet Sauvignon simply cannot be relied upon to ripen in the coolest wine regions, especially when its energy can so easily be diverted into producing dangerously shady leaves, such as in Tasmania or New Zealand, unless canopy management is employed. Cabernet Sauvignon that fails to reach full ripeness can taste eerily like Cabernet Franc (just as unripe Semillon, coincidentally, resembles Sauvignon Blanc).

Even in the temperate climate of Bordeaux, the flowering of the vine can be dogged by cold weather and the ripening by rain, so that Bordeaux's vine-growers have traditionally hedged their bets by planting a mix of early and late local varieties, typically in the Medoc and Graves districts 75 per cent of Cabernet Sauvignon plus a mixture of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and sometimes a little Petit Verdot.

A good blend

A practice that had its origins in canny fruit farming has proved itself in the blending vat. The plump, fruity, earlier maturing Merlot is a natural blending partner for the more rigorous Cabernet Sauvignon, while Petit Verdot can add extra spice (if only in the sunniest years) and Cabernet Franc can perfume the blend to a certain extent. Wines made solely from Cabernet Sauvignon can lack charm and stuffing; the framework is sensational but tannin and colour alone make poor nourishment.

As demonstrated by the increasing popularity of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and even Petit Verdot cuttings, newer wine regions have begun to follow the Bordeaux example of blending their Cabernet Sauvignon with other varieties, although the Medoc recipe is by no means the only one. In Tuscany it is commonly blended with Sangiovese. In Australia and, increasingly but with very different results, in Provence it is blended with Syrah (Shiraz).

Plantings around the world

Cabernet Sauvignon is by quite a margin the most planted top-quality vine variety in the world (if one excludes Grenache, which, in its most common form Garnacha, rarely performs at the peak of its potential). In fact as the world's wine regions have been introduced to the demands of the modern international market-place, one of the first signs of `modernisation' of a wine region has been its importation of and experimentation with Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings. Only those regions, such as England, Germany, and Luxembourg, disbarred for reasons of climate, have resisted joining this particular club on any significant scale. Cabernet production has become almost a rite of passage for the modern wine-maker wishing to make his mark.

French plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon increased enormously in the 1980s so that by 1988 there were 36,500 ha/90,000 acres, of which two-thirds were in the Bordeaux departement the Gironde (although within the Gironde the agriculturally more dependable Merlot has been consistently and considerably more popular). The vine's stronghold is the left bank of the river Gironde, most notably the famously well-drained gravels of the Medoc and Graves crus classes, whose selling price can well justify the efficacious luxury of ageing their wine in small, often new, oak casks. Chx Latour and Mouton-Rothschild, two of the most famous wine farms in the world and both of them first growths in Pauillac, are famous for their high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon: approximately four vines in every five, although nowadays planted in parcels of individual varieties rather than ready-blended in the vineyard. The wines of both, although differing in character, are known for their solidity and longevity.

Cabernet Sauvignon, although little planted north of the river Dordogne, is now much more common in the Entre-Deux-Mers between the Gironde and Dordogne rivers as less profitable white varieties have been uprooted. Such is the size of the Entre-Deux-Mers district that there is more Cabernet Sauvignon planted there, 11,000 ha recorded in 1988, than in any other Bordeaux district, including the Medoc (although there is considerably more Merlot in Entre-Deux-Mers than Cabernet Sauvignon).

The vine is also planted over much of South West France, often as an optional ingredient in its red, and occasionally rose, wines. Only in Bergerac and Buzet does it play a substantial part. In more internationally styled wines, however, it may add structure to the Negrette of Gaillac and Cotes du Frontonnais, and the Tannat of Bearn, Irouleguy, and Madiran. It is also increasingly used to add substance to the red Cotes de St-Mont.

Plantings in the Languedoc-Roussillon increased substantially in the 1980s to a total of more than 12,000 ha by 1997, but Cabernet Sauvignon has not been nearly so successful here as Syrah, which covered a total of 25,000 ha by the same year. Cabernet Sauvignon does not tolerate very dry conditions without more substantial irrigation than is condoned by the French authorities. Varietal Cabernet Sauvignon wines made in the Languedoc-Roussillon have tended towards herbaceousness and suffered lack of substance.

The most obviously successful southern French Cabernet Sauvignons are those used as ingredients in low-yield blends with Syrah and other Rhone varieties, such as Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Herault or, further east in Provence, Domaine de Trevallon and Ch Vignelaure.

Provence and the southern Rhone are no more impervious to the winds of fashion than they are to the famous local mistral and by 1988 there were already 900 ha of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Var, 500 ha in the Bouches-du-Rhone, and 400 ha in the Ardeche. The variety has also been gaining ground and reputation in Corsica.

Cabernet Sauvignon's only other French territory is the Loire, but, despite the freedom allowed by most appellation regulations to choose either Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon or both for local reds, and Cabernet Sauvignon is de rigueur for the swelling ranks of truly ambitious wine producers in the Loire, most vine-growers prefer the regularity of the former to the risks involved with growing the latter in relatively cool conditions. Of the Loire departements, only the Maine-et-Loire Anjou Saumur has any substantial area of Cabernet Sauvignon (1,000 ha in 1988)-far less than of Cabernet Franc, or even than of Grolleau or Gamay.

Russian red

According to the most accurate estimates available, there were approximately 30,000 ha/75,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Soviet Union before it was broken up, with some of the most impressive bottle-aged examples coming from Moldova. The variety is widely planted in Russia and Ukraine, although in Russia's cooler wine regions the cold-hardy hybrid Cabernet Severny is becoming increasingly popular. Cabernet Sauvignon is also grown in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Another country with an important area planted with the world's noblest black grape variety is Chile, whose grand total of, ungrafted, Cabernet Sauvignon grew from 12,000 to 16,000 ha between 1991 and 1997, making it the country's most important vine variety. Here the fruit is exceptionally healthy and the wine, if made carefully in one of the more modern wineries, almost rudely exuberant. See Chile for more on Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.

Not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon also flourishes in the rest of South America's vineyards: in Argentina, where in terms of quantity it is dwarfed by Malbec; in Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia.

Cabernet Sauvignon, even less surprisingly, has been the bedrock of that construct called California collectable, and such has been the quality of some of these wines that northern California could fairly be said to have proved itself Cabernet Sauvignon's second home. In 1996 the state could boast more than 40,500 acres/16,200 ha of it, very slightly less than of the most widely planted black grape variety Zinfandel, and trailing only Chardonnay-if by a wide margin. Late in 1991 the pendulum of American consumer preference swung back with a vengeance from white wine towards red, however, and plantings subsequently increased apace.

Although Cabernet Sauvignon was no stranger to California, it was during the wine boom of the 1970s and early 1980s that plantings multiplied rapidly, especially in the premium North Coast sites of Sonoma and, especially, Napa. During this period, little expense was spared in replicating what were commonly thought to be the wine-making methods of a top Bordeaux chateau, although it was only from the mid 1980s that tannin, fruit, and alcohol levels were brought into harmony on a wide scale, and blending with Merlot and Cabernet Franc became at all common. For more detail on the golden state's Cabernet achievements, see California.

Cabernet Sauvignon is also one of Washington state's two major black grape varieties, even if it fell firmly into second place during the 1990s mania for Merlot. The state's total plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon were just over 2,500 acres/1,000 ha in 1996. Cabernet Sauvignon's vigour and late ripening make it unattractive to growers in damp, cool Oregon but it has been most successful in other American states including Arizona and Texas. Even the wine industry in Canada with its natural climatic disadvantages persists with the variety.

If Californians decided early on that the Napa Valley was their Cabernet Sauvignon hotspot, Australians did the same about Coonawarra. They, however, have for decades employed a much less reverential policy towards blending their Cabernet. Cabernet-Shiraz blends (a recipe recommended in Provence as long ago as 1865 by Dr Guyot) have been popular items in the Australian market-place since the 1960s. The richness and softness of Australian Shiraz is such that it fills in the gaps left by Cabernet Sauvignon even more effectively than the French Syrah recommended by Dr Guyot can do. The classic Bordeaux blend is still very much rarer, on the other hand, as one might expect from wine producers more determined than the Californians to go their own way independently of Europe. Australian Cabernet Franc and Merlot plantings together totalled only 1,800 ha by the late 1990s, while plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon were nearly 9,000 ha/22,200 acres, nearly a third of it too young to bear fruit. See Australia for more detail on Australian Cabernet Sauvignon.

Southern vines - New Zealand, Australia and South Africa

Cabernet Sauvignon has long played a quantitatively important part in the New Zealand wine industry; it was the country's fourth most planted vine variety in the 1990s. It took mastery of canopy management techniques in the early 1990s to imbue New Zealand Cabernets with any real colour and substance, however, and even today New Zealand's Pinot Noir is a more obvious candidate for export than its Cabernet Sauvignon, which in most sites has to struggle to reach full ripeness.

Cabernet Sauvignon is equally revered within South Africa and it is increasingly being blended with other Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc-although here, as in Australia and New Zealand, there is a domestic tendency to view Cabernet-Merlot blends as inherently inferior to wines made chiefly or wholly of Cabernet Sauvignon, with concomitant effects on choosing wines for blends and pricing.

Cabernet Sauvignon has been an increasingly popular choice for internationally minded wine producers in Spain where it was planted by the Marques de Riscal at his Rioja estate in the mid 19th century, and could also be found in the vineyards of Vega Sicilia. It was otherwise virtually unknown on the Iberian peninsula until the 1960s, when it was imported into Penedes by both Miguel Torres, Jr, and Jean Leon. It is fast broadening its base in Spain, not just for wines dominated by it but for blending, notably with Tempranillo. In Portugal it is rare but could already be found by the mid 1980s, blended with indigenous grape varieties in a handful of lush red wines made in the Lisbon area.

Italy, where Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced, via Piedmont, in the early 19th century, now has a very substantial area of Cabernet vineyard, although Italians have been somewhat cavalier about distinguishing between the two very different sorts of Cabernet either on the label or, sometimes, in the vineyard. The 1990 vineyard survey identified just 2,400 ha of Cabernet Sauvignon (a considerable increase on the 1982 figure) as compared with a total of nearly 6,000 ha of Cabernet Franc. Remarkably few of the denominations which begin with the word Cabernet specify which should be used and in what proportions. Cabernet Sauvignon is much more difficult to ripen than the sometimes grassy Cabernet Franc in Friuli, but the variety, which continues to spread southwards through Italy and even as far as the islands, features in many of Italy's more cosmopolitan producers' most cherished wines. Cabernet Sauvignon has played a considerable role in the emergence of Supertuscans, and can be found as a seasoning in an increasing proportion of Chianti. It is officially sanctioned, and individually specified, in such DOCs as Carmignano in Tuscany; Colli Bolognesi in Emilia-Romagna; in Trentino; in Lison-Pramaggiore in the Veneto, and in Friuli Colli Orientali, Collio, Grave del Friuli, Isonzo, and Latisana. Cabernet Sauvignon is a major ingredient in such Tuscan wines as Solaia, Sassicaia, Venegazzu, and Castello di Rampolla's Sammarco, and is increasingly common (occasionally blended with Barbera grapes) in the Nebbiolo territory of Piedmont in such bottlings as Darmagi from Gaja and Alberto Bertelli's I Fossaretti.

East of Italy there are many thousands of hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, which plays an important part in the wine industries of Bulgaria in particular, Romania, and what was Yugoslavia. Even when expected to produce relatively high yields, eastern European Cabernet Sauvignon is unmistakably Cabernet, and the best Romanian and Bulgarian wines have real depth of flavour as well as colour. There are smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Hungary, Austria, and Greece, where it was first planted, in modern times at least, at the Carras domaine.

Perhaps the most tenacious Cabernet Sauvignon grower has been Serge Hochar of Ch Musar in the Lebanon, and there are other, rather less war-torn, pockets of Cabernet Sauvignon vines all over the eastern Mediterranean in Turkey, Israel, and Cyprus, as well as a little in Morocco. In Asia there have also been experiments with the vine, notably in China and Japan where its strong links with the famous chateaux of Bordeaux are particularly prized.

Wherever there is any vine-grower with any grounding in the wines of the world, and late ripening grapes are economically viable, he is almost certain to try Cabernet Sauvignon-unless he inhabits one of Bordeaux's great rival regions Burgundy and the Rhone.

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