Updated: Sep 1
Grown on 341,000 hectares worldwide, Cabernet Sauvignon is maintaining its 1st place at the top of the most planted wine grape varieties in the world (1). From its botanic birthplace around Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon has conquered the world's wine lovers, winemakers and vine growers. Here is story of the grape, where it grows, how it's turned into wine, how it tastes and where to find just a few examples in Bangkok.
As the name suggests, Cabernet Sauvignon is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. His daddy, Cabernet Franc was a bit of a "Don Juan" back in the days... DNA testing revealed that Cabernet Franc is also the genitor of Merlot (after having fooled around with Madeleine Noire des Charentes) and the father of Carménère (cross-fertilizing with his own grand-child Gros Cabernet - itself conceived with Hondarrabi !!! (I know... gross!)
The earliest written evidence of Cabernet Sauvignon dates back from the late 1700's in an inventory of grape varieties planted in Pauillac by Dupré de Saint-Maur. With its pronounced flavor profile balanced with a firm structure and its affinity with oak, it was an ideal grape for long-lived wines and it soon became the star of the left bank. Because of its historical connection with Great Britain's aristocracy, Bordeaux wines gained international exposure throughout the Second British Empire and beyond. By the end of the 1800's, every ambitious grower and winemaker of the New World tried to imitate the Cabernet-based Bordeaux style. As the Bordelais rested on their laurels, quality improved so much in the New World that by the late 1970's, many producers, from California to Chile and Australia produced outstanding examples that surpassed the quality produced in France. A wake-up call was needed in Bordeaux and it happened: Thanks to new world challengers, Bordeaux producers upgraded their game and with a little help of wine critiques, science and global warming, top quality was back in the Bordeaux Chais.
Where does it grow?
Who is the largest producer of Cabernet Sauvignon today? China is: Depending on sources, statistics report between 50,000 and 60,000 ha (some estimate twice as much!). I suspect that not much of it is exported yet. At least, I don't see much in Thailand. In second place, France grows 48,000 ha two third of which is planted in Bordeaux and most of the rest in the Languedoc. Chile has 43,000 ha of Cabernet between the Central Valley, Colchagua and Maipo. In the United States 41,000 ha are concentrated in CA, with some plantings in Columbia Valley, WA.; Australia has 25,000 ha in Coonawarra, Margaret River, Yarra, Clare and Barossa Valleys, and McLaren Vale. With 20,000 ha Spain grows it in most regions. Both Italy & Argentina have 15,000 ha and South Africa grows 12,000 ha.
One of the reasons why Cabernet Sauvignon is popular with grower (beyond its market appeal) is the fact that it is hardy and give reliable yields on moderate and warm climates.
In the moderate climate of Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on the gravelly, well-drained soils of the Médoc & Graves - the "left bank". In fact, it wouldn't ripen fully on the cooler limestone soils of Saint-Emilion or the clay of Pomerol, which is why Merlot is preferred on the "right bank". Under warmer latitudes, the soils are perhaps less of an issue, judging by the fabulous results obtained on the alluvial soils of Rutherford and Oakville or the terra rossa soils of Coonawarra. Controlled yields by water stress or green harvest seem to produce the best results.
Winemaking & Maturation
In the winery, the small berries and thick-skin of Cabernet Sauvignon can be made in a soft, easy-to drink wine (using carbonic maceration), but most will chose long maceration at fairly high temperature, resulting in deep dark wines with high tannicity. In Bordeaux, where Cabernet Sauvignon may struggle to ripen on cool vintages, to balance the structural elements and/ or make the wine drinkable earlier, oenologists will use blending with softer/ rounder merlot and mature the wine in the 225l barriques. Other grapes are used to spice-up the Bordeaux recipe, these include Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carménère and even Syrah. New oak is common practice in Bordeaux, the Napa Valley and other New World regions but the proportion of new oak is less abused today than in the nineties.
Cabernet-based wines are typically deep in color. From purple to ruby in their youth and toward garnet with age. On the nose, typical scents include cassis (blackcurrant), black cherry, blackberry, blueberry with underlying notes of capsicum and herbal notes like mint and eucalyptus (derived from the methoxypyrazines inherited by its parents). Other typical flavors include graphite/ pencil shaving/ cigar box/ cedar wood/ tobacco. When slightly overripe, fresh black fruit become jammy or stewed.
On the palate, a typical Cabernet is dry with firm acid-tannin structure, balanced with generous black fruit flavors and oaky notes, making a medium to full body impression that can linger beyond acidity and tannin. With age (and Cabernet can do that!) tannins soften and primary flavors break down into more earthy notes and forest floor.
If you are looking to celebrate Cabernet Sauvignon's International Day (On September 1st, 2022) here are just a few recommendations by your local distributors:
The historical 1945 vintage of Château Mouton Rothschild is at the Wine Merchant as well as Château Latour 2009 and Château Cos d'Estournel 2015
Garage Wine Co.'s San Juan de Pirque Vineyard (Maipo) is at available at Wine Garage
Alta Vista Estate's Premium Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza) Valentine Wines
From the USA Napa Valley's Caymus and Joseph Phelps are found at the CA Wine Company
Jordan Winery's Alexander Valley Cab. (Sonoma) is at Valentine Wines
Philip Togni (Napa) and Eisele Vineyard (California) are at Wine Gallery
The Prisoner & Shrader (Napa) are distributed by Italasia From Australia
Heirloom (Coonawarra) and Timo Mayer (Yarra) are at Wine Garage
Mitolo Jester (McLaren Vale) is at Valentine Wines
Elderton (Barossa), Mount Mary Quintet & Yeringberg (Yarra) are at Enoteca
Cabernet Sauvignon's pioneer in Spain, Jean Leon, Marqués de Riscal and Carlos Falco's Marqués de Griñón are available at Soul Wines
Antinori's Solaia; Guado al Tasso, Bolgheri and Il Bruciato Bolgheri are availaible at Italasia
From South Africa
Leeu Passant (Franschhoek District) is available at Wine Garage
To learn more about grape varieties, enroll one of our upcoming WSET Course
Kyoto is in fact the most planted grape variety in the world, but rarely turned into wine. Table grapes are excluded from these data.
Anderson K. & Nelgen S. (2020) Which Wine grape Varieties Grow Where? A Global Empirical Picture Revised Edition Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure International Organization of Vine and Wine. (2017) Distribution of the world’s grapevine varieties Paris: OIV
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine. New York: Oxford University Press Inc
Robinson, J., Harding & J. Vouillamoz, J. (2013) Wine Grapes London: HarperCollins Ltd.