BY CARLOS CARDENAS
Cabernet has long been king in the wine community. One grape to rule them all, Cabernet Sauvignon holds its dominion over wine regions and wine drinkers from all over the world. But what makes cab so great? What are the nuances and defining characteristics of the grape that put Robert Mondavi and the United States on the map for wine connoisseurs in 1976? What region makes the best Cabernet Sauvignon?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that more Cabernet Sauvignon is produced in the world than any other grape, and because of this, the range of its flavor profile is deep and diverse. Cabernet Sauvignon is a natural cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
Personally, I find cabernet to be impressive because of its ability to produce both complex and structured wine that can be aged for decades if properly stored, and at the same time an easy to drink, approachable, affordable red table wine.
One of my favorite quotes about Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Karen MacNeil in her widely successful book, “The Wine Bible.” She writes, “It’s astounding that a wine so often angular and powerful when young can metamorphose into a velvety, rich, elegant, and complex wine with several years’ aging. Cabernet can be like the awkward kid who grows up to be a Nobel laureate, and sexy to boot.”
Cab will almost always have distinct notes of dark fruit on the palate. Most notably, you’ll find hints of blackberry, black plum, black currant and fig. Depending on where the wine comes from, you’ll be able to notice more vegetal notes like bell pepper, eucalyptus, black pepper and dried herbs. If the wine was made in a warmer climate, such as California, the dark fruit notes will shine, but if the wine came from a region that sees cooler temperatures, such as France, more cherry and red currant flavors will surface.
Cabs are also full in their weight and viscosity. If we are talking about body, cabernet is a 7-foot basketball player. These wines are also high in both acid and tannin, which is incredibly important for long-term aging, but given the acid and tannin quality, you’ll know you’re drinking a cabernet because you’ll be able to feel it in your molars. The dryness and mouth-watering effect you feel, that’s acid working its delicious magic.
Who makes great cabernet?
Australia is doing some amazing things with this grape, and this isn’t new to the country either. Australia has been producing rich and complex cabernet since the 19th century, and if you’re a fan of Shiraz (Australian Syrah) you’re already in heaven, for it’s quite easy to find a beautiful Australian cabernet that has been blended with some shiraz.
Chile, sometimes referred to as the Bordeaux of South America after some leading European wine families began investing in the region in the late 1980s, makes fantastic and affordable cabernet. Look for wines from the Aconcagua or the Valle Central. Within the Valle Central, the Maipo region specifically is one of excellent merit. The complex soil structure and vast coastline of the country offers a unique location for cab to grow, coupled with the constant cool breeze from the ocean. Chilean cabs can be soft and easy drinking, and as they go up in price, they will become more polished with firmer structure.
We can’t leave out California. It’s impossible to name the wineries in Napa that produce the best cabernet; there are so many that do it well. What you should know about California cabernet producers, is that they are known for intelligently aging their wine in oak which often times contrive notes of vanilla, mocha, cedar and spice.
Also, because California is considered the Wild West of the wine world, given that there are not nearly as many laws and regulations that dictate what can be labeled as a cabernet as there are in other parts of the world, the wines can be blended with a myriad of choices. Some of the most exciting cabs are blended with merlot, cab franc, petit Verdot and so on.
There will always be a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon than anything else if the wine is labeled as a straight cab, but those blended flavors will elongate the experience on the palate and provide wonderful surprises in terms of complexity and finish. Don’t think that you need to spend $100 or more on a good bottle of California cab. In fact, I hoard $20-$35 Cali cabs for my personal collection to use as everyday drinking bottles or bottles to give away to friends and family. If it’s California and it’s cabernet, it’s already great juice.
Drink it, enjoy it, it’s the king for a reason.