Affectionately known as ‘The King of Red Wine’, cabernet sauvignon is a truly noble grape. Originally from Bordeaux in France, the popularity of this varietal was such that it was soon planted worldwide – proving it to be one of the great vinous success stories.
Cabernet sauvignon is often blended with merlot and other compatible varietals, but straight-up examples are nevertheless worthy of a place in any wine lover's cellar. This is partly to do with its incredible flavour profile, but also with the fact that it has one of the longest cellaring lives of all the wine varietals.
Go to section: The history of cabernet sauvignon | International cabernet styles | Coonawarra vs Margaret River | Aussie cabernet regions | Cabernet sauvignon characteristics | Pairing cabernet with food
The history of cabernet sauvignon
Cabernet sauvignon is the classic red grape of Bordeaux. In comparison to other noble grape varieties, it had a relatively slow start, only emerging in the late 18th century when the grape is believed to have formed due to a spontaneous crossing of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. The cabernet sauvignon grape is particularly partial to the growing conditions offered by the alluvial soils of the Left Bank of the Gironde River in Bordeaux.
Today, cabernet sauvignon is the world's most widely planted wine grape, grown across Eastern Europe, cooler regions of Italy and parts of Spain. It is also found in the southern hemisphere, throughout Australia, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa.
Cabernet sauvignon found its way to Australian shores thanks to James Busby, a wine pioneer who imported the grape in 1832. The first crops were used for blending, but winemakers and viticulturists were quick to embrace cabernet sauvignon as a varietal in its own right.
International cabernet styles
French cabernet sauvignon finds its greatest expression on the Left Bank of the Gironde River, in the Haut-Medoc and Graves appellations of Bordeaux. Modern viticultural methods and improved wine technology have changed the dynamics of making Bordeaux reds based on cabernet sauvignon. It is a style that is always evolving.
The growing and production of cabernet sauvignon in the United States of America is most prolific in the Napa Valley, Sonoma and Washington State. In the Napa Valley, cabernet mirrors the heroic style, with black fruits, monumental tannins and copious amounts of oak. There has also been growth in the use of French oak over American. Washington State cabernet sauvignon tends to fall into one of two camps: either ripe and fleshy, or bony and lean. The wines that occupy the middle ground are often softened with Washington merlot.
Much like Australia, Argentina is home to a diverse climate and terroir. It has more than 15 provinces, all producing world-class vino. Mendoza takes the spotlight as the centre of Argentina's production, with excellent cabernet sauvignon that’s supple, textural and with clear varietal character. It then may seem slightly odd that cabernet sauvignon is not the most widely planted grape in the region; that honour is bestowed upon malbec.
Chile has massive plantings of cabernet sauvignon, many on its own roots as phylloxera never spread here. For James, “Chilean cabernet sauvignon is usually soft, accommodating and with excellent colour – and cheap. But there is an increasing number of super-premium wines made in small quantities from old vines and on trellised hillsides”.
When it comes to discussion of New Zealand cabernet, two regions usually have their names thrown about: Hawke's Bay and Waiheke Island. Te Mata in Hawke's Bay has been the typical pack leader since 1982, with top cabernet sauvignon blends. The influence of global warming, a 1998 vintage and the formation of the Gimblett Gravels wine-growing district have changed this perception. Waiheke, on the other hand, has a unique climate that while producing outstanding wines, has the downsides of smaller volumes and higher prices.
Coonawarra vs Margaret River: The best cabernet in Australia?
The bout for the title of Australia's premier cabernet region is a tussle that has long been contested by Coonawarra and Margaret River. While it is a question that may continue to divide wine drinkers for years to come, the answer really comes down to a matter of style preference. This is despite the fact that Team Coonawarra has history on its side, planting its first cabernet vines in 1893, more than seven decades before Margaret River began its cabernet sauvignon production.
Coonawarra has rich, red soils and a warmer climate, whereas Margaret River has a mild, almost Bordeaux-like climate. Margaret River subsequently produces a cabernet that is richer in flavour and slightly more rounded than its South Australian rival. But Coonawarra fans can’t go past its cabernet’s trademark dark chocolate and mint characteristics.
Aussie cabernet regions
Here is a breakdown of the different cabernet styles and characters that come out of Australia’s leading cabernet-producing regions:
A majority of the grapes grown in Coonawarra go into a making a 100 per cent varietal wine. Expect a medium-bodied style with a supple palate and balanced tannins. The range of fruit flavours in the wine is largely influenced by the vintage and winemaker, covering cassis, blackcurrant, redcurrant, blackberry and mulberry when the wine is young. With age, these flavours develop into distinctive earthy, savoury and spicy characteristics.
Some of the greatest wines of this region (notably those pioneered by Max Schubert) have used Barossa cabernet sauvignon as a part of a blend with shiraz. James says: “In cooler vintages, cabernet sauvignon features rich and ripe fruit, which provides an ample base for the confident use of oak; the result is an easily accessed and enjoyed wine which will repay with cellaring.”
Cabernet sauvignon is one of the great red wine styles of the Clare Valley. In James’ words: “This region makes strong and bold, powerful and earthy cabernet sauvignon...”
Margaret River's history of producing world-class cabernet sauvignon is relatively new, stretching back a little more than 40 years, so the way in which it has emerged as a cabernet powerhouse is attributed to the region being one of the best in Australia for producing this varietal. A Margaret River cabernet's style will differ slightly depending on its sub-region of origin, including variations in texture, weight and mouthfeel as well as flavour.
Cabernet sauvignon is naturally suited to warmer vintages, so site selection for plantings in Victoria's Yarra Valley is all-important. The red soils of the Upper Yarra are largely unsuitable. When at its best, a Yarra Valley cabernet has a blackcurrant aroma with a supple, silky texture and fine-grained tannins.
Langhorne Creek often gets overlooked in discussions of Australia’s best red wine regions and that’s a shame, as flowing from its wineries are some exceptional examples. The quality of its red fruit is so great, in fact, that neighbours such as the Barossa Valley look to it as a wellspring for their wines. Cabernet was first planted in this region in the 1800s by Bleasdale founder Frank Potts. Ever since, it has been producing flavoursome styles of cabernet that feature red and black fruits and herbaceous characters such as sage and eucalypt.
Cabernet sauvignon characteristics
Cabernet sauvignon is known for its deep colour, full body and an alcohol content that is generally above 13.5 per cent. Often tannic in its youth, this is a wine that improves with age and generally hits peak drinkability after three or four years.
Cabernet sauvignon is a savoury red wine, with aromas of cedar, cassis and currant, and often a defining hint of mint. It is also associated with a green capsicum aroma that has been traced to an organic compound group called pyrazines.
To compare the characteristic variations between Old and New World cabernet regions, the grapes from Bordeaux provide a herbal base with flavours of graphite, violets and tobacco. In contrast, cabernet from California, for example, is more fruit-forward, with black cherry, liquorice and a touch of vanilla.
Pairing cabernet with food
Cabernet sauvignon is a wine that cries out for food. Thanks to its acidity, tannins and alcohol, if there ever was a varietal made better by a feast, it’s cabernet. A rich meat dish is a perfect pairing. Think a favourite cut of steak or a slow-cooked beef ragu. Hard cheeses, like an aged gouda or cheddar, also match well to cabernet.