Cabernet Sauvignon is not a grape that suffers from low self-esteem. It is the most widely planted red wine grape in the world, and it used in some of the most famous and expensive wines in the world. Four of the five Premier Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux — Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, and Château Mouton Rothschild — are made predominantly with Cabernet Sauvignon. As Chardonnay is to white wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is to red. And just as Chardonnay is often people’s first introduction to oakiness in wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is usually their first introduction to tannin.
What is tannin? Have you ever taken a sip of wine and felt afterward like your mouth had been swabbed with cotton? That’s the tannin at work. It’s an astrigent compound found in two important places in the winemaking process: grapeskins and oak barrels. (They’re also present in tea.) Cabernet Sauvignon — or “Cab” to its friends — is a particularly thick-skinned grape, and it develops a substantial amount of tannin, which is then extracted from the skins along with the color. If the wine is aged in new oak barrels, it picks up even more.
I’ll admit that so far I haven’t made tannic wines sound very appealing. You may be wondering why Cab-based wines are held in such high regard. There’s two things that tannins do for a wine. First, tannins are a natural preservative, and their presence is one of the things that makes a wine age-able. As wine ages in an oxygen-free environment, tannins combine with each other and with other compounds in the wine to soften and to fall out of suspension. In the process, the wine goes from being puckery and astringent to being rich and mouth-filling. Cabernet Sauvignon can be made in a low-tannin style so that it can be drunk young, but give those high-tannin wines some time and they can turn into something fantastic.
The second thing that tannins does for wine has to with how it interacts with food. In particular, tannins bind to fat molecules. When you drink it tannic wine, it pulls fat off the surface your tongue into suspension, washing them away, and leaving you better able to taste the next bite. It also means that you don’t get that cotton swab feeling. This is part of where the old saw about “red wine with meat” comes from; tannic wines help cleanse your palate between bites of fatty food. I rarely drink a glass of Cab by itself, but with a well-marbled steak, the wine and the food make each other taste better.
Cabernet Sauvignon has its home in the Bordeaux region of France. There it is often blended with handful of other grapes, most often Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot. Why is it blended? Because while Cab does bring some interesting flavors and aromas to the party — usually dark fruits like blackberry or dark cherry, often accompanied by vegetal notes like bell pepper and spice notes of green peppercorn — what it really contributes to these blends is tannin. Those other grapes I mentioned are lower in tannin but higher in flavor. By combining the them, a winemaker can make a flavorful, full-bodied wine.
Outside France, Cabernet Savignon is grown in nearly every major wine-producing region in the world. Napa Valley in California is particularly famous for it’s Cabs, but there are an increasing number of well-regarded Cabernets from Washington. Argentia and Chile also make them well, and if you ever hear about a “Super Tuscan,” the wine in question is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab is definitely the heavyweight of the red wine world, so you’d do well to figure out if you like it or not.
We don’t have a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon in our cellar, but what we do have are bottles we’ve held onto for a well, because it does benefits from extended cellaring. Among our collection are the Silver Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Barbara County), Foxen Vogelzang Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Ynez Valley), Viña Almaviva Almaviva (Puente Alto, Chile), and the Brander Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Ynex Valley). The youngest of these is from 2003, which tells you a little about we like our Cabs.
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