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A Little Background on the Queen of Reds

By Liza B. Zimmerman

Cabernet Sauvignon is considered a classic Old World grape and has been grown for several centuries in Bordeaux. It is one of the five classic red Bordeaux grapes and features most prominently in the earthy, tannic and long-lived wines of the region’s Left Bank. Famous Bordeaux appellations where it is grown include Margaux and Saint-Estephe.

It is also found in other French regions such as the Southwest France’s Languedoc-Roussillon. In Northern Italy its use in Sangiovese blends, has been at heart of the creation of the “Super Tuscans.” Big labels like Ornellaia and Sassicia have been producing wines based on native grape Sangiovese, along with small or big amounts of Cabernet.

It is also found all over the New World from Australia to South Africa and Chile. It has long been the leading grape in some of the most important domestic wines, and is the base for many of the “Cult Cabs,” from Napa Valley. It is also grown with good results in mid California regions such as Paso Robles and contributes to some great wine production in Eastern Washington and Walla Walla. Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon in the New World are almost always varietally labeled, whereas the French rarely share (or know) what percentage goes into each wine.

Style and Structure

Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be a tight, intense and tannic grapes. When bottled on its own, it often needs time for aging so it can loosen up and evolve into true greatness. The American public has long had the bad habit of drinking hot climate California Cabernets way before their time to disastrous effects.

If consumed too young these wines won’t show well or pair nicely with food. The tendency to drink newly bottled Cabernets in California has also lead to a dearth of older vintages on the market.

Many styles of this wine are made for everyday drinking, such as some wines from larger producers in California or France’s Languedoc, are ready for early and easy consumption. They will show many of the luscious dark fruit berry, black current and vegetal characteristics of the grape but often lack the complexity of prolonged oak aging.

Domestic wine producers, and their customers, have been learned to appreciate and accept blends more than ever before. They are seeing how changing up the mix year-to-year gives winemakers flexibility to create a “house style,” like in Champagne, and produce the best wines that they can in problematic harvests. The wines made with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot—along with along red Bordeaux grape varietals—are called Meritage, and are growing n popularly. These types of wine can also age more graciously than 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines and are often more elegant and supple when consumed young.

Plating and Pairing

These generally big, heavy-hitting wines are best served somewhat cool when they come to the table, at around 65 to 70 degrees, otherwise their tannins and high alcohol levels will be too prominent. They are a great way to wrap up a meal unless you are having cheese (if so please go back to white).

The intense pepper notes and smoky tannins make them good partners with meats, particularly grilled ones. Beef might be the ideal choice but wild game, like boar, if made with a wine-friendly sauce might also pair well. Most delicate fish and vegetables will be overwhelmed by these wines, so structure a meal so they are your finale at the end.