Wine varietals and styles

Cabernet sauvignon

It’s the most widely planted wine grape on the planet and one of the great vinous success stories. Learn more about the King of Red Wine in our guide.

    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.


    Cabernet sauvignon is often blended with varieties such as merlot and shiraz, but straight-up examples are nevertheless worthy of a place in any wine lover’s cellar. That’s partly to do with its complex flavour profile, but also because it’s one of the most ageworthy wine varieties.


    Jump to section: The history of cabernet | International cabernet | Coonawarra vs Margaret River | Australian cabernet regions | Cabernet sauvignon characteristics | Pairing cabernet with food

  • The history of cabernet


  • Cabernet sauvignon is the classic red grape of Bordeaux. In comparison to other noble wine 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.


    Cabernet

    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, in 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 variety in its own right. 


    • International cabernet styles


    • France


    • 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.


    • United States


    • The growing and production of cabernet sauvignon in the United States are most prolific in the Napa Valley, Sonoma and Washington State. In the Napa Valley, cabernet mirrors the heroic style, with black fruits, firm 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 merlot.


    • Argentina


    • Much like Australia, Argentina is home to a diverse climate and terroir. It has more than 15 provinces, each of them producing world-class wine. 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 may then seem slightly odd that cabernet sauvignon is not the most widely-planted grape in the region; that honour is bestowed upon malbec.


    • Chile


    • Chile has large plantings of cabernet sauvignon, many with their original roots as phylloxera never spread here. According to James Halliday, “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”.


    • New Zealand


    • When it comes to discussing 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. That is despite the fact Team Coonawarra has history on its side, planting its first cabernet vines in 1893, more than seven decades before Margaret River began its 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.


    • Australian cabernet regions


    • Here is a breakdown of the different cabernet styles and characters that come out of Australia’s leading cabernet-producing regions:


    • Coonawarra


    • 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.


    • Barossa Valley


    • 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.”


    • Clare Valley


    • 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


    • Margaret River’s history of producing top cabernet sauvignon is relatively new, stretching back a little more than 40 years, so how it has emerged as a cabernet powerhouse can be attributed to the environment being one of the best in Australia for producing this varietal. A Margaret River cabernet’s style will differ slightly depending on its subregion of origin, including variations in texture, weight and mouthfeel as well as flavour.


    • Yarra Valley


    • Cabernet sauvignon is suited to vintages that are temperate across the growing season, as it is a later ripening variety. That means site selection in Victoria’s Yarra Valley is all-important. When at its best, a Yarra Valley cabernet has a blackcurrant aroma with a supple, silky texture and fine tannins.


    • Langhorne Creek


    • 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. The area has been producing flavoursome styles of cabernet that feature red and black fruits and herbaceous characters such as sage and eucalypt ever since.


  • Cabernet sauvignon characteristics


  • Cabernet sauvignon is known for its deep colour, full body and 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. When tasting blind, you can sometimes tell a cabernet sauvignon by the ‘doughnut’ effect it can have on the palate – filling out the mid-palate is one reason it’s popularly blended with varieties such as shiraz and merlot. 


    Cabernet characteristics

    Cabernet sauvignon has aromas of cedar, cassis and currant, and often a defining hint of mint. It is also associated with a green capsicum note attributed 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 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 variety 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.


All quotes and facts in this guide are from James Halliday’s Varietal Wines.