Types of Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon

Types of Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon

Master Vintner Varietal Spotlight: Cabernet Sauvignon

I'm taking a look at the type of grapes we use in Master Vintner wine kits. Grape types are known as 'varietals' and every one has its own unique character and response to the sunlight and soil of the region they're grown in.

Winemaking from grapes shows up nearly ten thousand years ago with the best archaeological evidence suggesting somewhere in Turkey or the near east being the birthplace of winemaking on a home and village scale—when you make your own wine you're joining an amazing lineage of vintners!

Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is the undisputed world champion varietal, the benchmark vine by which other red wines are judged. Its fame comes firstly by way of Bordeaux in France, where the 1855 classification ranked all the Chateau by importance (price, really!), cementing the reputation of their Cabernet-based wines in the marketplace. 

As the new world developed, winery owners wanted to make the same kinds of wine as the famous Chateaux of Bordeaux, but couldn't use fancy names—they didn't have any reputation that could be marketed against. Instead, they named the varietal to show that they were using the 'best' grapes, with California and later Australia and the rest of the world pushing varietal identification as a signifier of quality.

Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

Small and Seedy

Cabernet is more than marketing. It has a lot of advantages in making top-quality wine. It adapts easily to a wide range of growing conditions, and although it has only got a moderate yield and is a fairly later ripener compared to some other varieties it makes up for that with amazing aromas of blackcurrant, blackberry, and cedar notes, as well as amazing amounts of tannin. That tannin is the key to structured, bold-tasting wines that age well.

Cabernet Sauvignon has small, thick-skinned berries and small berries have a high ratio of skin to pulp. All of the sugar and water are in the pulp, but all of the flavor, color, and half of the tannins are in the skins. Small berries mean more skin per gallon of juice, and wines of deep color, extract, and tannin.

Cabernet also has big seeds by comparison to the size of the berries, which is where the other half of the tannins reside. If you've ever accidentally bitten into a grape seed you'll know how bitter that tannin can be, but folded into delicious red wine it makes for a very long finish and a great matchup to many different foods.

Cabernet in History

It was first identified in France in 1736, and dubbed 'Vidure' because of the toughness of the vine (dure = hard; vigne = vine). In 1996, plant geneticist Carole Meredith as UC Davis revealed Cabernet Sauvignon’s origin. DNA showed that in the late 1600s it was a spontaneous cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. This explains the sometimes herbal or grassy notes seen in Cab, especially cool-climate or low ripeness versions—it's a reversion to Sauvignon Blanc's grassy character.

Cabernet Old and New

Historically speaking, Cabernet was rarely produced as a single-varietal wine. Bordeaux has thin, gravelly soil (except where it's wet, gluey mud) and the Atlantic Ocean provides a cold, sometimes stormy growing season. Throw in late-ripening and Cabernet is often less than perfectly ripe, giving thin, austere wines that need blending to smooth them out. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec were used, both to add fruitiness and complexity. Even though we associate Cabernet with Bordeaux, it's often only a small percentage of the blend, even in great wines, and some of the most famous are mostly Merlot!

The warmer climates of the New World allow Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen more fully (and in some cases, over-ripen) resulting in richer fruit, lower acidity, and less tannin. Very ripe Cabernet like this can be bottled on its own. Producers in California and Australia started labeling their wines by varietal, putting the grape name out as a signifier of character, a habit that has stuck pretty hard.

This doesn't mean that there are no unblended Cabs in the New World. The Australians are notoriously blendy, often putting Shiraz in with Cab, and the term 'California Meritage' (rhymes with heritage) is a marketing term for Bordeaux-style blends.

Oaking and Aging

Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape with the most positive reaction to oak. Some more delicate wines are easily pushed off-balance by oak, but Cabernet cozies up to it, pulling the oak tannins in and rubbing off any green/grassiness with the wood's vanilla, toast, and smoke notes. Cab can be barrel-aged from one to three years, depending on when it's intended to be drunk, and additions of chips or other oak products in a carboy rounds out a robust Cab really well.

Cabernet Sauvignon also ages better than all but a few wines: the high levels of tannin give it dense structure and resistance to oxidation, keeping it in good condition for years of aging—in good conditions, of course! It still drinks well young, especially the riper versions, but most will reward a year or two in the bottle with richer aromas and a longer finish.

Our Cabernets

Weekday Wine makes a bold red with approachable tannins and ripe fruit flavors that stand up to savory and spice, in all kinds of cuisine. Great with pasta with meat sauce (think lasagna!) bratwursts, pizza or any gathering of friends who enjoy a robust red wine.

Winemaker's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has moderate tannins, flavors of currants, blackberry and chocolate and savory notes of dark, dried fruit and gains depth and complexity with oak aging (not included), developing an aroma of peppery-spice that melts into flavors of smoked cedar, coffee, and tobacco.

Sommelier Select™ Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon is made with grapes from very old vines. The oldest vines (between 60 and 80 years) produce fruit unlike any other, with stupefying levels of fruit and extract. Blackberry, blackcurrant, and jammy notes give way to pepper, mint, cedar, and black cherry. Dense and dark, with rock-ribbed tannins when young, it will round out to a smooth lustrous finish that goes on what seems like forever at its peak.

This kit includes grape skins in the fermentation. Not only do they enhance body, mouth-feel, and tannin, they also boost color, flavor, and aroma. This is because all of the raw ingredients for these things are found in the skin of a red grape. All of our red juices are macerated in our wineries to get the most out of their skins, but adding an extra dose of skin material turns up the volume on the wine's character, making it even bigger and more age-worthy.  

Additional Cabernets from RJS Craft Winemaking:

Additional Cabernets from Winexpert: