One of the best-known red wine grape varieties
Grown in every major wine-producing country around the globe, cabernet sauvignon has become the best-known black grape.
It makes concentrated, deep-coloured wines, which have both high tannins and good acidity, making them suitable for ageing for some considerable time. Sometimes used on its own, it is also an excellent grape variety for blending, often added to the varietal mix to increase colour, structure and overall balance with local varieties.
Cabernet sauvignon is also one of the Bordeaux black grape varieties ‘par excellence’, together with the almost equally well-known merlot, with which it is often blended. In fact, many of the top red wines of the world in Bordeaux and other parts of the globe owe their prestige to cabernet sauvignon. It provides the backbone to Chateau Lafite, Latour, Haut Brion and other world-class clarets, along with Sassicaia from Italy, Screaming Eagle from Napa Valley, California, and Don Melchor from Concha y Toro, in Chile.
Cabernet sauvignon grapes are small and thick-skinned, factors responsible for the deep colour (which comes only from the skins), high tannins and high acidity in the pulp. With wines which are particularly concentrated, coming from the best suited terroirs, the tannins need to mature and soften over several years before the wines are enjoyable and thus they are ‘laid down’ or aged in a cellar.
Remarkably, this grape variety imprints its identity on any wine that includes it to substantial benefit, yet it makes great wine in only a few of the regions around the world where it is grown. Due to its particular structure and profile, cabernet sauvignon is often in need of being blended with other varieties, such as merlot or shiraz, only rarely making top-quality wine in its pure form.
With some climatic areas similar to Bordeaux in France, Australia has had considerable success in making cabernet sauvignon wines. The Australian wines have power and richness of fruit but lack the subtlety and complexity of the Bordeaux wines. Some wines are pure cabernet sauvignon, although some of the most interesting wines are where it occurs in a blend, particularly with shiraz (the same grape as syrah).
One of the foremost wine companies in Australia is Penfolds, established in 1844 and making what many consider to be the best wine of the country – Penfolds Grange. The company has a wide range of wines in its portfolio, many of which have become almost household names in wine circles. Among the excellent range of red wines are several which rely heavily on cabernet sauvignon.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill 2019 is a blend of cabernet with shiraz, first produced back in 1976. It combines the expressiveness of shiraz with its peppery, spicy notes, with the defined structure of cabernet sauvignon. Full-bodied, with ripe dark fruit, ripe tannins and a touch of spice. £10 from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons. Great value in itself and a good introduction to the more concentrated wine which is Penfolds Max’s Shiraz Cabernet 2018. A classic Australian red combining generous fruit with solid structure and named in honour of Max Schubert, Penfolds influential winemaker from 1948 to 1975. Cherries, redcurrants and plums combined with savoury, integrated oak and a mellow, long spicy finish. £20 from Tesco or Majestic.
Richard Esling is a wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. He runs agency and consultancy WineWyse, is founder and principal of Sussex Wine Academy and is chairman of Arundel Wine Society