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16. GRAPE VARIETIES Number 5: Cabernet Sauvignon


Cabernet Sauvignon's home is the Medoc, the heart of Bordeaux's red wine vineyards. Here are the famous châteaux that have made claret the pre-eminent fine wine commercially in the world today (claret is red wine from the Bordeaux region). However, it has now travelled all over the world.


  It is a variety that needs a long growing season, with a warm September, to ripen properly. It also needs very well-drained soil, and doesn't flourish in clay – hence its starring role in the Medoc, which has free-draining gravel soils, while on the Right Bank (Pomerol, St. Emilion, etc.), where there are soils with a high clay content, it is comparatively rarely seen. Claret is virtually always a blend of several grape varieties, and in the Medoc wines will typically be made up of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, the balance coming from Merlot, with three other varieties, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, often making small contributions. It is a thick-skinned variety, giving wines with deep colours, often black in their youth. Compared to its common blending partner, Merlot, it produces wines that are more tannic, firmer, more austere; flavours to be found include blackcurrant, cedar, cigar boxes, tobacco, and, particularly in Australian examples, mint and eucalyptus.


  Cabernet Sauvignon is also grown in the Loire, producing considerable quantities of Cabernet d'Anjou, which is a dull, sweetish rosé, and also some reds, which I recommend avoiding because they usually taste green, stalky and unripe – it just isn't warm enough in the northerly vineyards of the Loire to give sufficient ripeness. You will find it all over southern France in all sorts Vins de Pays, where it is often very tasty and reasonably priced, and in one or two grander wines with an international reputation, such as Domaine de Trévallon in Provence and Mas de Daumas Gassac, as well as in the wines of other serious producers around Provence.


  It is grown widely in Australia, where it is often blended with Shiraz with excellent results, and in California, Chile, and less extensively in Argentina and South Africa. For a while in the 1980s Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon was a best seller, though it seems to have more or less disappeared from the shelves of shops since then.


  There has been a huge amount of research into the parentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, and after all the time and resources poured into the research, it has now been discovered that the French might have known something when they christened it Cabernet Sauvignon, since it appears that it is the progeny of a crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc!