Cabernet Sauvignon





Few varieties equal Cabernet Sauvignon for making a statement. It has become the most upwardly-mobile of grapes, a key indicator of the advancement of a wine region. As local growers reach out to international markets, Cabernet Sauvignon invariably makes an appearance among the vines, just as Starbucks on a local high street indicates property prices are rising. 

For such an economic powerhouse, its origins are surprisingly humble. For years thought to be an ancient descendant from a Roman vine known as Biturica, its parentage was finally established in 1997, by DNA fingerprinting, to be a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, likely to have happened naturally in 17th century Bordeaux where varieties were routinely mixed alongside each other in the same rows. It would take another century, however, before it emerged as the region’s dominant variety.

The first wave of international popularity arrived shortly afterwards, mainly in Spain and South America, and then again after 1950, when it made inroads particularly in California. Today it can be found from the Beqaa Valley in the Lebanon to Coonawarra in Australia, but its natural habitat remains the gravelly soils of the Medoc.

Although exact figures are hard to establish, it seems likely that plantings worldwide stand at around 170,000 hectares (435,000 acres, or 2% of the world’s vines), making it the second most widely cultivated quality red grape variety, having been overtaken by Merlot in the 1990s. France is the leading producer, and Bordeaux the largest district with almost 20% of the world’s Cabernet vines. Overall, the US is the world’s third largest producer, with Moldova a surprising second. More specifically, according to sommelier Ron Wiegand, about 6,000 producers worldwide bottle a Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet-blend, 750 in the USA alone.

Despite its popularity, it is not always the easiest grape to grow. For a start, it is a relatively late ripener, and needs a warm climate to fully mature – one of the many reasons that it is often used in blends. It is also expensive to produce. Although in principle there are few inherent cost differences between varieties, Cabernet is seen everywhere as an export grape, so quality is an issue; yields are restricted to concentrate the flavours, then resulting wines tends to be aged in oak. To balance the costs, icon wines made with Cabernet come with a hefty price tag.

It may be worth paying however, as often cheaper Cabernet cannot compete in taste with other more forgiving varieties – the exception perhaps being Chile, which manages to make good value Cabernet, largely due to its ideal natural climate and old ungrafted vines that suffer from little disease.

Jacques Lurton, producer of Cabernet wines in Bordeaux, Chile, Argentina, Australia and the Languedoc, says, ‘In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon was the most widely planted variety until the 1970s. There was a big shift after that, mainly because of climate (this was before the warming cycle we are now in), when people started to realise that Merlot was ripening 15 days earlier, and was therefore a more reliable bet commercially.’

This may be why today in Bordeaux, growers talk Cabernet but plant Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon stands at 25% of red plantings, a decrease of 1,475 hectares since 2000, while Merlot has risen almost 4,000 hectares to 69,138 – three times that of its more touted sibling. Christophe Capdeville at Chateau Brane Cantenac in Margaux (average percentage in the principal wine 60%), points out, ‘Cabernet is the varietal of reference but a vinegrower cannot expect to get the best out of it if he plants it on soils that are not perfectly adapted.’

But it is the First Growths that dominate the image of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, and are in no small part responsible for the fame of the grape worldwide. Frederic Engerer, director of Chateau Latour (average percentage 88%) does not doubt that Bordeaux has a special effect on the grape. ‘Cabernet Sauvignon is still very influenced by its terroir. And the balance that top Bordeaux are capable of producing – this mix of power, richness and freshness – is still to be seen anywhere else.’

Napa was the first place to seriously challenge Bordeaux’s supremacy, with the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, and shows no sign of waning. Over the past five years, plantations have grown 19% (the closest grape is Merlot, followed by Zinfandel). In 2000, Cabernet Sauvignon accounted for almost one third of Napa plants – 10,600 acres from the total 36,000. In terms of price, in 2001 Cabernet received more per ton than any other variety in Napa – an average of US$3,703 per ton compared to US$2,605 for Zinfandel, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. This price weighting continues over to the consumer, with long waiting lists for Cabernet-based wines such as Screaming Eagle and Stag’s Leap, giving a powerful incentive for the supremacy to continue.

In South Africa also it is the most widely planted red grape, followed by Shiraz. In 2005, plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon decreased by 50% on the previous year's figures – but according to Andre Morgenthal of Wines of South Africa, ‘Cabernet was widely planted five to ten years ago during the increasing demand for red wine internationally. Today we have reached sufficient plantings to supply the anticipated market growth – with red varieties moving from 25% to 45% of our total.’ Early examples of South African Cabernet were known for their green bell pepper aromas, having been planted in cool vineyard locations, but today areas such as Simonsberg in Stellenbosch are home to success stories like Kanonkop and Rustenberg.  Etienne le Riche in Franschoek is considered one of the country’s top producers, sourcing grapes from all over for his small volume, quality driven winery.

In Argentina, the majority of plantings are in the Mendoza region, where in 2005 12,604 hectares were found, mainly in the Valle de Uco and Maipu. Growth has been steady due to, according to James Forbes of Wines of Agentina, ‘export demand, perfect conditions for growing Cabernet, and its ability to blend well with Malbec, the country’s signature grape. Malbec is still the star but Cabernet is very much the precocious youngster.’ An incentive may again be the higher prices that Cabernet attracts – the average FOB (freight on board) price of Cabernet exported to the UK is US$35.24, while for Malbec it stands at US$26.84 (although these prices are reversed for exports to the US, perhaps a case of coals to Newcastle).

There are voices of dissent. In New Zealand, for example, Cabernet has failed to work its charm, while Pinot Noir and Merlot receive all the plaudits. It accounts for just 7% of the red varieties, and the amount planted hasn’t altered enormously since 1997. More than 85% of New Zealand’s plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon are located in the Hawkes Bay region, where the relatively dry climate suits the variety.

Michael Daymond-King of Hatton Estate says, ‘Cabernet is no longer trendy – many contract growers struggle to get the best from the varietal and it is losing popularity from both consumers and growers. Generally wine companies make too many compromises with it. As in Bordeaux there are many who struggle in anything other than fantastic vintages, and the cost of production restricts good wines to those winemakers who are dedicated to the cause.’

Equally, simply looking for hot climates does not necessarily equal success. In Australia, it’s the second-most widely planted red variety after Shiraz, but is rarely associated with the country’s wines in the way it is in California or Bordeaux. And even in France, going further south has proved difficult. Lurton comments, ‘My brother Francois and I tried for several years to get really high-end Cabernet Sauvignon from various sites in Languedoc-Roussillon, but we were never successful.’

Deborah Knowland, director of Domaine de Clairac in the Languedoc, agrees, ‘International varieties such as Cabernet were known for years as cepages ameliorateurs but I believe in fact they reduce the value of Languedoc wines. Today consumers are more inclined to buy wines that have personality, such as old Grenache vines with real history in the area. From a grower’s point of view, it depends on if you are looking for mass market purchases, or the best that you can produce in your particular part of the world.’

So what’s the future for a grape that is often considered to be over-bearing, muscling out indigenous varieties in favour of its commercial allure? There are certainly other contenders on the scene, primarily Pinot Noir (although its capriciousness will always limit its plantings) and Syrah (Shiraz).  While there is still a culture of Bordeaux varietal worship, Eric Asimov in the New York Times recently wrote that many US consumers are becoming bored with the variety, due to overexposure, in much the same way that Merlot and Chardonnay became victims of their own success.

Lars Sarensen from Cascade Trade in Oregon, agrees. ‘Our market is growing tired of high priced Washington Cabernet as well as Californian Cabernet. Unless they are designer labels that garner following on the basis of their press, the high price Cabs sit on retail shelves for too long. True wine lovers are looking for different things these days and I think are growing tired of the monster, over-barriqued style of domestic Cabernet. ’

Steve Smith at Craggy Range in New Zealand sees the problem being place, not variety. ‘There are so many wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in too warm climates that are boring.’

Commercially, however, there is plenty of growth left. Last year, exports of single varietal Cabernet from Argentina reached nearly 500,000 9-litre cases, 23.3% up on the previous year. And its staid reputation is benefitting from less traditional blending, such as with Shiraz in Australia, Nebbiolo in Italy, Tempranillo in Spain and Malbec in Argentina. A grape that unites growers in such far-flung vineyards as Moldova, Hungary and China has too much invested in it to suffer decline in the short term. James Forbes is confident, ‘I can't see world demand for the variety slackening and with quality growing, it has a very bright future indeed.’

Cabernet Sauvignon plantings around the world

California 30,300 hectares in 2005, out of a total 208,000 hectares (+19% over the preceding 5 years)
In Washington State, there are 2,411 hectares (5,959 acres) planted out of a total of 17,000 vineyard acres of red wine varieties statewide. The United States is the third largest producer in the world.
South Arica in 2007 had 8,000 hectares out of 112,590 hectares in total, where it is the most widely planted red grape.
Argentina in 2005 had 16,928 hectares (in 2000 was 12,199 hectares). Second most planted red variety.
New Zealand had 530 hectares in 2007, 384 hectares in Hawkes Bay.
Bordeaux had 28,347 hectares planted in 2006, out of a total of 123,000 has, down 1,475 hectares since 2000 (60% of the total plantings of France, at approx 50,000has).
Australia has 27,639 hectares, out of total red plantings of 93,968 hectares (160,000 in total). Cabernet is second only to Shiraz (40,000 has).
Chile in 2007 had 40,789 has, out of a total of 116,000 hectares. It is the most widely planted red variety.
Moldova – second largest producer in the world, 147,000 has in total, 32,000 planted to Cabernet.

Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux First Growths

Chateau Latour, 80% in the vineyard, approx 88% in the first wine depending on vintage
Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 77% in the vineyard, 75-85% in the first wine depending on vintage
Chateau Lafite Rothschild, 71% in the vineyard, 80-95% in the first wine depending on vintage
Chateau Margaux, 75% in the vineyard, between 80-90% in the first wine, depending on vintage
Chateau Haut Brion 55% in vineyard, between 45-60% in the first wine depending on vintage