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Cabernet Sauvignon

It's International Cabernet Sauvignon day, and what a great day that is: Cabernet Sauvignon is the greatest red wine grape of the world, the benchmark vine of Bordeaux, California, Australia, South America--and everywhere else grapes will grow. Adaptable to various growing conditions, its sublime blackcurrant, cedar, and herbal qualities more than compensate for its relatively low yield and late ripening compared to other varietals.

Cabernet was first described in France in 1736 as Vidure for the dense, hard wood of its trunk (dure = hard; vigne = vine). In the 1990's DNA fingerprinting revealed Cab's origin: it's a spontaneous cross-pollination between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. This crossing, which happened sometime in the 1600's, produced a single hybrid Cabernet Sauvignon vine from which all Cabernet Sauvignon in the world is descended.

The secret of Cabernet Sauvignon’s immense flavour and tannin lies in its very small, thick-skinned berries. The small size gives a high ratio of skin material and seeds to juice, resulting in wines of deep colour, extract and above all, tannin. All the sugar and water are in the pulp of the grape, but all of the flavour, colour and tannin are in the skin and seeds: smaller berries mean more skin and seeds per pound of grapes.

Cabernet is a master of terroir, producing profoundly different wines depending on where it's grown. The thin, gravelly soils and uneven climate of Bordeaux can make tough, austere Cabernet which needs blending with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec to soften it up and add complexity, while California’s warmer, gentler climate easily ripens Cabernet Sauvignon, resulting in wine of lower acidity and less aggressive tannins, leading to unblended examples that are easily drinkable.

Cabernet Sauvignon loves oak: it can rest two years in new oak casks if intended to be aged before drinking, layering on complexity and nuance. If it's intended for early drinking, a little less exposure is a good idea, but it always works well.

Ten Quick Things I Love About Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Those thick skins, tiny berries, and huge seeds: tannin is in the skins and seeds, and with the highest skin-to-pulp ratio of any grape, as well as seed-to-pulp, Cabernet always has tannin to spare, and can make incredibly dense, tough wines.
  • That purebred with hybrid vigour: a random cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc (yes, a white!) in the 1600's resulted in a single vine that produced amazing fruit. 100% of all Cabernet in the world is descended from this one vine!
  • It's all about showing off the terroir: Cabernet is so sensitive to soil conditions that you can instantly tell a Bordeaux from a California Cab, going from lean and rangy to an overflowing fruit bomb depending on where it's grown.
  • Team player: it works well on its own, but Cabernet plays well with others, and is traditionally blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It can even work with wildly different grapes like Shiraz!
  • It soaks the oak: few grapes respond to oaking like Cabernet, which picks up amazing levels of toast, spice, vanilla and smoke, getting more complex rather than over-oaky.
  • Variety: Cabernet is planted from South Africa to Canada, and in every region in between, leaving it's imprint everywhere.
  • Amazing flavor: not only does Cabernet show off black fruits in abundance, it specializes in blackcurrant and can also give up notes like cedar, spice, cigar-box and herbs.
  • It's an ager: Cabernet has the tannin and backbone to improve with years of aging, evolving relentlessly as it goes.
  • Red meat master. If you have a juicy steak, Cabernet is just about your best friend, with tannins to cut through the fats and bursting fruit to match rich, meaty food.
  • Long finish: those tannins aren't going anywhere fast. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride, taste buds!
Cabernet and Food

The tannins in Cabernets Sauvignon make it a fantastic pairing for red meat and rich sauces, especially beef that's been slow cooked. Here's one of my favorite recipes for short ribs.

Braised Beef Short Ribs
  • 4 pounds boneless beef short ribs, cut into 1/2 pound portions
  • 2 cups Sommelier Select™ Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Worchester sauce
  • 5 cloves crushed garlic
  • 1 medium yellow onion, cut in half
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 6 pieces each
  • 1 rib celery
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 4 cups beef broth
  • 8 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • Kosher Salt
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 325°F

Heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wide Dutch oven on high. Salt the short ribs and add them to the Dutch oven. Sear on both sides for 8-12 minutes, or until both sides are well browned, making sure not to overcrowd. The key to good browning is to avoid moving the meat too often--let the pan do its work.

Add onions, carrots, celery, and garlic to the Dutch oven. Caramelize vegetables, reduce heat to a low simmer and add the tomato paste, and sauté for two minutes to caramelise the sugars then add peppercorns and fresh thyme. Add wine, vinegar and Worchester sauce. Turn up the heat to medium and educe liquid by half, about 30 minutes. Add beef broth and bring back to a simmer.

Cover and place in oven. Cook for three hours or until meat is very tender.

Let cool for 30 minutes then remove short ribs. Strain sauce into a sauce pan and let sit for a few minutes. Use a ladle to skim the fat and then reduce the liquid by half over medium-low heat, about 20 minutes.

Return the short ribs to the Dutch oven and coat thoroughly with the reduced sauce. Bake for 10 minutes, until the short ribs are heated through and slightly glazed. Serve with garlic mashed potatoes and another bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

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