When you consider that it is hardy, vigorous, and capable of yielding rich, complex, and highly structured wines, it can hardly be surprising that Cabernet Sauvignon is so popular. Its great adaptability to different soils and climates has led it to be an international grape variety that is now grown in all the world’s major wine-growing areas.
The belief that Cabernet Sauvignon is an ancient grape variety was disproved in 1996 by studies carried out by the University of Davis (California) on its DNA: the researchers were able to prove that it is the result of a spontaneous cross between a white grape variety, Sauvignon Blanc, and a red grape variety, Cabernet Franc, and speculated that the fortunate meeting took place in the 17th century in Gironde.
Moreover, the earliest written records dating from no earlier than the 18th century also seem to confirm this theory: in these, the grape variety is still mentioned as Petite Vidure, a name that is still used in some parts of the Bordeaux region and probably refers to the hardness of Cabernet Sauvignon (hard vines).
With more than 330,000 hectares under vine, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted wine grape in the world.
In its land of origin, France, it occupies 48,000 hectares and is found mainly in the Bordeaux region, and particularly in the Graves and Médoc, where it is usually blended with Merlot. It is also quite widespread in Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and the Loire Valley.
In Italy, although it is not among the most widely grown grape varieties, it has found optimal conditions in Tuscany, Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Trentino, Emilia-Romagna and Sicily, yielding high quality wines, especially in blends.
In California, Cabernet Sauvignon began to be planted massively since the 1960s, growing to more than 36,000 hectares. Even in Washington State, it has become the most widely planted red variety in recent years.
Cabernet Sauvignon is also widespread in Spain, especially in the Catalan region of Penedès where it is blended with Tempranillo, in South America (Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Uruguay), Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In recent years the grape variety has reached China, becoming the third most cultivated in the country.
The great success of Cabernet Sauvignon can be attributed not only to the richness of its grapes capable of yielding exceptional wines, but also to its ease of cultivation and its resistance: first of all, the vine germinates late, which allows protection against spring frosts; moreover, although it ripens late, its berries have a very thick skin that preserves them from mold and rot caused by autumn rains.
It adapts well to many soils but prefers warm, gravelly, well-drained soils and dry, ventilated climates. On soils that are too fertile and moist it tends to lignify poorly and, because of its late ripening, it is not suited to climates that are too cold.
Cabernet Sauvignon leaves are medium-sized, pentagonal and pentalobed. Clusters are medium-small, cylindrical-pyramidal, oblong, averagely compact and with an obvious wing. Its berries are blue-black in color, medium-small, sub-round and with thick, pruinose skin. The flesh is quite fleshy with a slightly herbaceous hint.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are characterized by good acidity and a high amount of tannins, which predisposes to long aging and allows for complex, full-bodied and well-structured wines.
Wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon is deep ruby red with violet, almost blue hues. In youth, varietal aromas are more evident, with notes of black and red fruits such as blueberry, currant, blackberry and floral, particularly violet. An herbaceous hint of green bell pepper – a character inherited from Cabernet Franc – can also often be perceived, becoming more pronounced when yields are too high or poorly ripened.
With aging, the aromas become more complex, retaining the fruity notes but enriching with hints of spice, cedar, moss, tobacco and, in some particularly good areas, graphite.
However, Cabernet Sauvignon is a malleable grape variety that gives wines very different expressions depending on the soil and climate in which it is grown. In the Bordeaux region alone, wines from Cabernet Sauvignon can have very different characters: in the Saint-Estèphe and Pessac-Léognan AOCs a mineral note emerges, in Margaux violet prevails, in Pauillac graphite and in Saint-Julien cedar and cigar.
In Tuscany it is characterized by fruity hints of ripe cherry and blueberry while in Constantia, South Africa, it fades into herbaceous and menthol notes.
It should be noted that Cabernet Sauvignon, because of its acidity and powerful tannicity, tends to be vinified in purity only in warmer countries where the grapes, reaching full ripeness, develop more sugar and softness.
Where the climate is cooler, it is often used in blends with Merlot or other wines, and so the characteristics of the final product, in addition to being influenced by soil, climate and winemaking techniques, will obviously also depend on the composition of the cuvée.
The infinite variations of Cabernet Sauvignon make it suitable to accompany numerous dishes. In young wines, the pronounced tannins can be offset by succulent dishes such as barbecued red meats, braised meats and game.
More mature wines, where the tannins have softened, go well with savory dishes, aged or blue cheeses, mushrooms and truffles. In some of its declinations, Cabernet Sauvignon pairs well with dark chocolate.