Grape focus: cabernet sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most widely recognised, enjoyed and planted red wine grape varieties with over 314,000ha (roughly 471,000 football fields) planted worldwide. The variety is grown in nearly every major wine producing region in the world and performs well in a diverse spectrum of climates including France (primarily Bordeaux), Canada, Chile, Argentina, Lebanon, Australia and many more. But what do you really know about this grape?

Cabernet Sauvignon Taste Profile

Despite the grapes prominence and popularity it is in fact one of the youngest common grape varieties, having emerged during the 17th century in southwestern France. It was at UC Davis in 1996 where scientists announced they had traced the grapes true origins with the help of DNA typing. The variety (the name is a bit of a giveaway) is the result of a chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. This was news to some but to many had been a long-held assumption, primarily due to the grapes aromatic similarities to the aforementioned varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon shares a distinct blackcurrant and pencil box profile with Cabernet Franc and its grassy (bell pepper) herbaceous notes with Sauvignon Blanc.

Perhaps the most endearing characteristics of the grape are its ability to grow in a variety of climates/regions and the distinctly different profiles it portrays dependent on which of those regions it is grown in. The grape is naturally high yielding, late ripening, thick-skinned, able to somewhat prosper in a variety of soils and is also resilient to many common vine diseases. These characteristics are perhaps what have made it so popular to so many producers across the world. It is however the climate in which it is grown that decides whether the grape will standalone or form part of a blend, as it does in Bordeaux. In warmer climates such as Australia and California where the grape is able to reach full ripeness it performs very well as a standalone varietal; however, in Bordeaux, where it rarely reaches full ripeness, it is used as part of a blend in order for other varieties to ‘fill the gaps’

Dependant on your personal taste preference you will want to pick your Cabernet wisely, to make things a little easier for you all I will brush over Cabernets taste profile in a few of its most common regions.

Bordeaux – Here the grape usually forms part of a blend and is less brash and bold than its warmer counterparts; the grape offers black currant, plum, pencil lead, anise and can also show the infamous bell pepper (although it can be masked by its blending partners)

Chile – This is my go to country when I hunt for supermarket bargains, look particularly for wines from the Central Valley. In Chile, Cabernet Sauvignon shows more alcohol, often less acidity and shows distinct ripe black fruits; blackberry, black cherry, baking spices and peppercorn.

California – This is perhaps one of the most famous Cabernet-producing regions, helped by the Judgement of Paris during which it trumped the greats from France. Many AVA’s in California are warm enough to allow Cabernet to achieve great levels of ripeness; black currant, blackberry, pencil lead and tobacco. 

When food pairing it should be considered that Cabernet Sauvignon is a bold and assertive wine that has potential to overwhelm light and delicate dishes. The wine’s high tannin content as well as high alcohol levels play important roles in influencing how well the wine matches with different foods. In most circumstances, matching the weight (alcohol level and body) of the wine to the heaviness of the food is an important consideration. Fats and proteins reduce the perception of tannins on the palate. When Cabernet Sauvignon is paired with steak or dishes with a heavy cream sauce the tannins are neutralised, allowing the fruits of the wine to be more noticeable. Cabernet Sauvignons with high alcohol levels do not pair well with spicy foods due to hotness levels of the capsaicins present in spices like chilli peppers being enhanced by the alcohol with the heat accentuating the bitterness of the tannins. Milder spices, such as black pepper pair better due to their ability to minimise the perception of tannins

The different styles of Cabernet Sauvignon from different regions can also influence how well the wine matches up with certain foods. Old World wines, such as Bordeaux, have earthier influences and will pair better with mushrooms. Wines from cooler climates that have noticeable vegetal notes can be balanced with vegetables and greens. New World wines, with bolder fruit flavors that may even be perceived as sweet, will pair well with bolder dishes that have lots of different flavor influences. The wine can typically pair well with a variety of cheeses, such as cheddar, mozzarella and Brie, but strong or blue cheeses will typically compete too much with the flavours of Cabernet Sauvignon to be a complementary pairing.

I couldn’t resist finishing with a little bit of geeky wine talk so it seemed relevant to talk in a little bit of detail about the green bell pepper aroma commonly associated with Cabernet Sauvignon. This particular aromatic quality is intimately tied to viticultural and climate influences and is caused by pyrazines (particularly 2-methoxy-3- isobutylpyrazine) which are more prevalent in underripe grapes. Pyrazine compounds are present in all Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and are gradually destroyed by sunlight as the grape continues to ripen. Various factors affect pyrazine levels and these include canopy management and de-stemming; researchers found that post-veraison levels of pyrazines remained high only in the stem and thus the practise of de-stemming reduced presence in the end product.

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