Cabernet Sauvignon

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The progeny of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, is the world's most famous red wine grape, and most planted of any colour. The "chocolate" to Chardonnay's "vanilla", Cabernet is much more positively flavoured than Chardonnay, and ripens much later, so tends to be planted in rather warmer areas. The great distinction of the wine it produces is that it has a very powerful and recognisable aroma of blackcurrants wherever it is grown and, if matured in newish oak, can smell of cedar, cigar boxes and, sometimes, tobacco. Cabernet Sauvignon is also notable for being deep purple in youth and, while it is not especially alcoholic, it can be extremely long-lived. This is because Cabernet Sauvignon's small, thick-skinned grapes have a very high ratio of solids rich in colouring matter and tannins to juice. If the grapes are anything less than fully ripe, however, the wine can smell of crushed green leaves, "herbaceous", or more like Cabernet Franc. All of this means that Cabernet can make great wine, but that it is not necessarily the best grape for wines to be drunk young, particularly when grown in cooler climates.

Cabernet Sauvignon has long been planted all over the wine growing world. Contrary to popular belief Cabernet Sauvignon is not Bordeaux's most planted vine (for which see Merlot). Because it is relatively late ripening, it needs a warmer, drier environment than most of Bordeaux can provide to stand a commercially interesting chance of ripening fully. In Bordeaux, therefore, it is grown in the Entre-Deux-Mers region as well as in the well-drained gravels of the Médoc and Graves where it is invariably the chief constituent, but always blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and some­­times with Petit Verdot, in the world-famous classed growths. Even today, when the grapes for such wines are being picked later and later, Bordeaux Cabernets tend to taste quite dry (as opposed to sweet) and can be inky and austere even until seven or eight years old. But underpinning all that structure (in a good example) is an extraordinary intensity of subtly layered fruit that can take 20 years to develop into a bouquet of haunting interest.

In the Médoc Cabernet is the main varietal component in Saint-Estèphes that are taut and austere in youth (although they are getting riper and more welcoming with every vintage); in the dense, mineral-scented Pauillacs; in many a lush, silky Margaux; and in the beautifully balanced yet long-lived Saint-Juliens. It brings crispness and long life to the wines of Graves and the suggestion of warm bricks common to several from Pessac-Léognan.

It is planted all round the greater Bordeaux region in those appellations grouped together as constituting south-west France, out-tannined only by the Tannat grape of Madiran. Bergerac and Buzet are its chief strongholds.

Elsewhere in France there are growers who persist with it in the Loire (although Cabernet Franc is much easier to ripen), although most of the rest is in the south. In Provence it can blend beautifully with the spicier Syrah to make ambitious, oak-aged wines for the long term. In the Languedoc it all too often ripens less satisfactorily than in, say, the Médoc and tends to yield rather lean, hollow, country wine, although an increasing proportion of seriously fine wine is made.

Cabernet Sauvignon has been responsible for some of Italy's most ambitious wines. Tuscan producers have long been trying to get the proportions of their manifold Cabernet/Sangiovese blends just right, and many of them, led by Sassicaia, have shown that Tuscany is probably the most likely third candidate for Cabernet paradise on earth, after Bordeaux and California. Tuscan Cabernet tends to be marked by firm structure, a certain but not unattractive bitterness, and a distinctly savoury flavour. There are also bottlings from as far afield as Piemonte and Sicily. (Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in fairly hot regions as it retains its acidity well throughout its slow final ripening stage.) Bottles from north-east Italy described simply as "Cabernet", however, almost certainly contain Cabernet Franc, rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant Cabernet planted widely and enthusiastically in central Europe, however. It clearly has great potential in Moldova and the Ukraine, although Cabernet Severny's cold-resistance can make it more useful in Russia. Cabernet Sauvignon is extremely important to the wine industries of Bulgaria and Romania, and to a much lesser extent, Austria, Hungary and the Balkans.

Cabernet is rare in Portugal and but has been planted so enthusiastically in Spain that it is the fourth most planted red wine grape there, particularly in Somontano and Navarra where it has shown how well it blends with Tempranillo (even though the two varieties have rather similar structures). In the hills of Penedès it has won considerable acclaim.

This late-ripening variety does particularly well in the warmer Mediterranean regions, notably in Lebanon and Israel. One of the most distinctive Cabernets of all is that produced by Château Musar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Here it is blended with Cinsault to produce a unique, long-living cough syrup of a wine with enough wily charm to confound all but the most prejudiced wine drinkers. Many of South Africa's traditionally most revered wines, and a few of her best, are Cabernets which have shown some satisfying regional variations. Cape winemakers, however, have tended to make 100% Cabernets, unsoftened by Merlot or leavened by Cabernet Franc, as indeed was the initial effect of varietalism in California. And leafroll virus has been a problem for many Cape Cabernet vineyards.

California in general, and particularly Northern California, has made some great, glossy, ultra-ripe Cabernets, nowadays deliberately made from grapes that are so ripe that the level of tannin (if not alcohol) is virtually unnoticeable. Today there is growing understanding of the precise characteristics of various areas within Napa and Sonoma and how these are shown to best advantage. Much of the Napa Valley, other than Carneros in the far southern end, seems particularly well suited to Cabernet Sauvignon production and this will continue to be one of the world's most fruitful hunting grounds for lovers of super-ripe Cabernet that has the ability to age (though not nearly as long as Bordeaux). Many finer California Cabernets show a certain minty quality, others an earthiness. Blends made according to the Bordeaux recipe are sometimes called Meritage here. Washington's Merlot is generally more successful than its equally common Cabernet Sauvignon but there are some stunning exceptions with extremely bright fruit. Cabernet may well have a future in Texas too, but has difficulty ripening in Oregon. It is planted in most American wine producing states and shows particular promise in Virginia's best-kept vineyards.

Cabernet cuttings were taken to South America long before the phylloxera pest struck well over a century ago and indeed the Chilean wine industry was built on this very important variety. (Chile's largest company Concha y Toro has claimed to be the world's most important owner of Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard.) Chilean Cabernet, most of it still ungrafted, has a particularly direct, fruity flavour, and can be enjoyed when only a year or two old. Some wines have a vague whiff of milk chocolate about them, followed up by something ever so slightly salty on the palate. Argentine Cabernet is typically more explosive in flavour and more velvety in texture.

Australia defined her perfect spot for Cabernet Sauvignon before consciously doing the same for any other variety: Coonawarra in the far south east of South Australia on a small and hotly disputed strip of terra rossa earth. These wines tend to have a noticeably high level of acidity as well, often, as some notes of eucalyptus, sometimes so powerful that the wines can seem closer to cold remedies in youth, although the best age superbly. Margaret River in Western Australia also makes great, particularly refined, complex Cabernet and there are fine examples of Australian Cabernet all over Victoria as well as in the Hunter Valley and elsewhere, although Shiraz is much more fashionable. Cabernet/Shiraz blends are an Australian staple and can work well.

New Zealand's Cabernet Sauvignon can be too herbaceous and acid by half but the best examples, most of them grown in the relatively warm climates of Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island are increasingly ripe, thanks to global warming and improved viticulture.

China's recent wine-producing revolution has been based almost entirely on extensive plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon even if the results are mainly still rather light and undistinguished.

In many wine regions, however, the necessarily slow evolution of Cabernet is being re-evaluated, often to the benefit of other, fleshier red varieties. It may be that in a decade or two, Cabernet Sauvignon will be more exclusively the preserve of the world's most ambitious winemakers.

By Jancis Robinson

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