Cabernet takes centre stage
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at the Stags’ Leap Winery in Napa, California. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Cabernet Sauvignon has always been the world’s most famous grape. It is now the world’s most popular – for wine at least. Until recently this honour belonged to Airén, a white Spanish variety that very few people will have heard of. Airén is found almost exclusively in Spain where it represents around 30 per cent of the entire vineyard area. It is used to make light simple fruity wines usually labelled La Mancha or simple table wine. Airén has now dropped to fourth in the global rankings.
Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in almost all wine-producing countries worldwide. France leads the way with 53,413 hectares, largely in Bordeaux, followed by Chile (35,967 hectares), Australia (24,997 hectares) and the US. (17,573). This information comes from the University of Adelaide, the centre for studies into all things wine-related in Australia. The university recently released a fascinating analysis of the world’s wine varieties tracing changes over the past two decades.
Despite the success of Sauvignon Blanc, it still represents less than 3 per cent of plantings. Who knew that the world’s top 35 grape varieties include Glasevina, Rkatsitelli, Isabella and Cayetana Blanca?
Cabernet Sauvignon is believed to be a relatively recent discovery, the result of an accidental crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc during the 17th century. It is responsible for many of the world’s greatest wines, not just in its home of Bordeaux, but also in California, Chile, Australia and even Italy. The wines seem to have a distinctive Cabernet stamp wherever it is grown. Part of this is down to structure. Cabernet Sauvignon vines yield small thick-skinned grapes that make for deeply-coloured tannic wines, hence Cabernet’s ability to age for decades. The fruit flavours vary, depending on climate, from blackberry and redcurrant through blackcurrants to cassis. In cool climates it can be difficult to achieve full ripeness; the resulting wines can be very green and herbaceous with green pepper aromas. Warm-climate Cabernets are lush, rich and powerful. The most highly-rated Cabernets tend to come from coolish climates that provide just enough sun and heat to ripen the grapes.
Pure Cabernet Sauvignon can be very severe. Despite the grapes popularity it is also quite rare. In Bordeaux it is always blended with other varieties, chiefly Merlot. This has two advantages. Merlot can be harvested earlier, useful if September is wet. Merlot is also softer and fruitier and makes up for Cabernets one major failing – a lack of fruit on the centre-palate. This is referred to as the “doughnut hole” in Australia where Shiraz frequently performs a similar function to Merlot.
I covered both Chile and Bordeaux last autumn so this time I concentrated my tastings on the rest of France, Australia and California. I am very fond of Californian Cabernet; those from the Napa Valley have a deserved reputation and rank among the world’s finest. These are the wines that out-performed their French counterparts in the famous Judgment of Paris tastings. Sadly a great many of the best are snapped up by wealthy American wine lovers; the few that do make it to Europe tend to be very expensive.
In Australia, two regions have the greatest reputation; Coonawarra in South Australia has the right combination of cool climate and soil to produce some haunting blackcurrant and lead-pencil flavours, while in Western Australia, Margaret River has built a solid reputation; names such as Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin, Vasse Felix, Howard Park and others are worth looking out for.
Elsewhere in Australia, the McLaren Vale and the Barossa may be best-known for their Shiraz but they also produce a bigger style of Cabernet, typically a heady mix of cassis and mint or eucalyptus. Penfolds and Wolf Blass make some of the greatest wines, again usually blends, but there are plenty of others too.
If Australian Cabernets tend to be overlooked in favour of Shiraz, Argentine Cabernet sometimes gets lost in a sea of Malbec. They tend to be rich and pack a punch, and some can be remarkably good.
South-west France has plenty of very good inexpensive Bordeaux blends. The north east of Italy has grown Cabernet for over a century, producing light and refreshing wines. Lastly, Eastern Europe has very large plantings, Bulgaria in particular, but we don’t see them very often over here.