The Dirt on (and Under) Cabernet Sauvignon

The who, what, why, where, when and how of this mighty black grape



Cabernet Sauvignon has been around and has been a success for a long, long while, but its origins were only recently discovered.

A University of Davis duo discovered just 12 years ago that its parents are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Chances are the cross arose in the 17th century in Bordeaux, when field blends were the norm. A field blend refers to a vineyard planted with many different varieties that are also picked and vinified together. You can see the family resemblances:

•    Green bell pepper from Mom (Sauvignon Blanc)
•    Lean structure from Dad (Cabernet Franc)
•    Weediness when picked too early = both the folks

This also explains why Cabernet Franc was well-established in the vineyards of southwest France and mentioned in Bordelais literature long before Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bordeaux image via Shutterstock

Global Devotion

Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most planted black grape variety in the world.
France is the leading producer and Bordeaux – not surprisingly – leads the plantings. However, Merlot has topped the charts for black grapes since the 1970s when les français realized that Merlot ripened more easily. Cabernet Sauvignon now represents around 20 percent of Bordelais vines.

The variety is, however, very well traveled. Pretty much every country that makes wine makes Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s planted in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, China, India…really, all over!

Globe image via Shutterstock


Madonna, Fabio and Oprah

The global devotion to this variety is so fervent that we often refer to Cabernet Sauvignon as simply Cabernet. There’s never confusion, except possibly when standing in a Loire vineyard. There, decorum calls for using the full names of father and son. Also, unlike many other grapes where the name changes with the country or region (consider the aliases of Grenache: Garnacha, Cannonau, Alicante and many more), Cabernet Sauvignon does not. Other monikers exist, but their usage is rare and frankly a bit démodé: Petit-Cabernet, Vidure, Bouchet, Sauvignon Rouge.

Cabernet image via Shutterstock


The fruit character of Cabernet Sauvignon is decidedly black. Hall of fame descriptors are blackcurrant and cassis; blackberry and green olive are runners-up. On the other side of the tasting coin are the non-fruit descriptors. Green bell pepper (mentioned before), eucalyptus, cedar, tobacco, cigar wrapper, spice box and licorice are commonly found. Cabernet is highly structured. Good examples show full body, firm tannins, bright acidity and medium to high alcohol. Before you get to the palate, you notice the impressive color of Cabernet: deep, occasionally opaque and often inflected with blue and purple hues.

It’s quite incredible that winemakers have to work really hard to produce a wine that distorts Cabernet-ness. Even in lesser regions or when grown for high volume wines, Cabernet maintains its flavor and structure remarkably well. This may be partially due to the small size of the berries, which helps to concentrate flavors, tannin and color.

Grapes image via Shutterstock

Vineyard Upkeep

In the vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon is incredibly polite. It grows easily and plays well with many different climates (hence its ubiquity in the world’s vineyards). Though not as prolific as Merlot, it’s not stingy with its output. Its vigor means it needs leaf canopy management, but its thick skins and loose bunches help to avoid disease. It buds late and avoids hassling the farmer with worries of spring frost damage. However, it does prefer heat, becoming cranky (and eschewing full ripeness) in cooler climates, even when at home in Bordeaux. It also doesn’t like “wet feet,” preferring well-drained soils like the gravels of Left Bank Bordeaux to the clay soils of the Right Bank. As a late-ripener, it’s the life of the party, lingering on the vine and causing stress in areas where weather at harvest is unpredictable. But, it’s hard wood makes it possible to machine harvest (though top wines are generally hand-harvested). That hard wood also helps it resist winter freeze in harsh climates.

Vineyard image via Shutterstock

Winery TLC

In the winery, Cabernet plays well with other varieties. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are frequent companions, sometimes with Petit Verdot joining along. On the U.S. Central Coast, in Australia and in Provence, Syrah is often at its side. In Argentina, there’s Malbec; in Chile, there’s Carmenère; in Tuscany, there’s Sangiovese; and in Spain, there’s Tempranillo. Why, there’s a grape in every port! Cabernet is malleable with regard to oak aging, too, and works equally well with French and American oak. It’s even easy-going with vinification techniques, having taken on carbonic maceration (for quaffer-style wines) with aplomb in Bordeaux and beyond.

Grape image via Shutterstock

In the Spotlight

Bordeaux takes the spotlight with regard to fame, price and longevity. Of course, it is always blended there. Napa was the first to have a go at the gold, winning the (in)famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting.

However, more and more, producers and consumers seem to be growing disillusioned with this bruiser. It takes over vineyards arguably better suited to local varieties and makes marketers swoon with its consumer magnetism. Does Cabernet Sauvignon really make the noblest red wines in the world, or do we simply think it does because we drink so much of it (because it is so widely planted…and because we can pronounce it)? This is a question each palate must determine separately. So, go forth, taste and ponder the wines of Cabernet Sauvignon!

Cabernet Sauvignon image via Shutterstock

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  • Snooth User: gustavoa
    130884 1

    I can see this to have some true, I am a Cabernet lover and on the white wines side I had always prefer Sauvignon Blanc.

    Dec 04, 2012 at 1:35 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,356

    Very interesting article. Thank you.

    Dec 04, 2012 at 6:20 PM

  • What an enjoyable,concise and well written article. Thanks.

    Dec 04, 2012 at 6:49 PM

  • Wow! Sauvignon Blanc. I would never have guessed.

    Dec 04, 2012 at 11:13 PM

  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,085

    Love the article.
    My question is: What did cabernet franc lack as far as not being able to be competitive with cabernet sauvignon?

    Dec 12, 2012 at 8:55 PM

  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,448

    Zinfandel1, To be PC, it's not that CF "lacks" something but rather that it's just different. In fact, in the vineyard, CF offers some important pluses over CS. CF ripens more easily & is more resistant to inclement weather at harvest. However, CF has less color and less structure (despite its bright acidity) than CS. Also, CS produces more flavor power than CF in milder climates like Bordeaux. So, essentially, CS is better equipped for longer aging.

    Dec 13, 2012 at 8:42 AM

  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,448

    Thanks to everyone for the kind comments! Glad you enjoyed this piece.

    Dec 13, 2012 at 8:43 AM

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    2200059 22

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