Cabernet Sauvignon: The blessed savage
Few things in the world of wine are as iconic and powerful as the mighty, long lived Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the power behind the left bank blends of Bordeaux, often is the ‘Super’ in Super Tuscans from Italy and is the measure of excellence and elegance in California. Cabernet Sauvignon has proven itself to be the King of Grapes. With a name that literally translates to the wild or savage Cabernet it has much to live up to.
Born in the 17th century in Bordeaux, its true origins were subject to great debate and only recently have been cleared up with DNA testing. Testing showed that it emerged from a crossing between the white wine grape Sauvignon Blanc and the classic French red varietal (fancy name for a type of grape) Cabernet Franc. This work was done in 1996 at the Mecca of all that is wine – the University of California–Davis. Either being intentional or by accident the result is the same in an easy to grow vine that quickly took root around the world. Much of the color, flavor and complexity in a wine come from the skin of the grape. Also, the ratio of skin to pulp is important. Cabernet Sauvignon has very thick skin and a lower amount of pulp than almost all red wine grapes. This makes it easy for wine makers to craft deep well-structured wines that have great aging and cellaring potential. It is also easy to go over the top and create wines that are so massive that for most people they are unapproachable. Often times varying amounts of Merlot is added to help soften the roughness while adding extra complexity. Also found in the skin of the grapes are tannic acids, or tannins. Tannins give much of the mouth feel to a wine and play a large part in how well and long it ages. Cabernet Sauvignon naturally has rich amounts of tannins that are often further strengthened with barrel aging and the contact with the oak.
Two of Bordeaux’s best sources of Cabernet are the communes of the Medoc and Graves that both have well drained rocky soil. I walked a vineyard in this area where the owner of the chateau explained that one of the main improvements to the quality of his wines was that after one major rain storm he walked the entire estate and drove a stake in each body of standing water. He placed over 20 stakes and in each place he had drain pipes installed at $10,000 per drain. Cabernet Sauvignon is slow to ripen and often matures in two or more weeks; after that its left bank partners Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Sometimes in Bordeaux and other cooler climates it has a hard time in fully ripening before winter storms and rains demand harvest. Climate change, that is one of the topics most important to vintners, is not a theory but a fact based off of generations of winery record keeping. At the renowned En Primeur tasting in Bordeaux, which is an international level event held six months after the wines are harvested and the first major opportunity to really see how the wines are progressing, many wines were reaching such high levels of maturity that they were often termed as ‘Napa.’ To have the full effect you have to say it with a French accent: ‘Naapaw.’
So opening up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon will expose you to some of the richest flavors wine has to offer. Better yet, invite friends over for a Cabernet Night and try this noble grape from as many places as you can find in order to truly explore the vast array of expressions and origins.