Wine Style Focus: Cabernet Sauvignon

What can be said about Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the most discussed and exalted wine of them all? The King of Reds, with a loyal following and adoring mass of devotees, continues its decades-long reign over fine wine. As so many vintners and wine-lovers will attest, no other grape has such a high potential to reach the upper echelons of complexity; Cabernet Sauvignon can astound the drinker year after year.

The grape is small and thick-skinned, which gives it a high proportion of tannic seed and skin to sweet flesh. The prominent tannins give Cab a characteristic astringency that, coupled with formidable acidity, makes it a powerful wine. In the Bordeaux region, where the grape is thought to originate, this intensity is usually tempered with the addition of Merlot or other sympathetic blending grapes; but the depth and potential of Bordeaux is largely credited to the Cabernet grape, which is usually the centerpiece of the flavor, if occasionally used in proportions smaller than its companions.

Cabernet Sauvignon has proven to be extremely adaptable to different conditions and has been successfully cultivated around the globe. Good disease resistance and hearty growth mean very consistent crops. It is a late-ripening grape, which tends to favor warmer climates but can also be grown successfully in cool areas, where slight under-ripening can produce green pepper/mint like flavors. At hot temperatures the flavors run more towards intense cooked fruit and jam, but in a warm climate, like California, the resulting wine is balanced enough to stand on its own without blending.

Good Cabernet Sauvignon needs to be aged to tame the strong tannins and bring out the transcendent best in the wine. The near-universal use of oak not only contributes complementary flavors like vanilla and tobacco, but also helps smooth the wine by replacing harsh grape tannins with softer wood tannins. Expect to lay these down in the bottle for at least a year; very good Carbernets should be aged for several and can improve beyond a decade. When it comes to food, Cabernet can happily be paired with strong meats that would overwhelm a lesser wine. Grilled steak, in all its juicy glory, is an excellent choice, as are lamb chops.