Call it the Louvre of art museums, the Rose Bowl of college football, the Everest of mountaineering or something more clever that you come up with on your own, but I think we can all agree that cabernet sauvignon is at the top of the heap.
It is all of these things and many more —the complete package. Full-bodied and expressive, this is the wine that brings it all home. You don’t warm up with cabernet sauvignon; you finish with it. This classic, international grape variety transforms into wines ranging at their best from mysteriously profound to majestically powerful. Even the cabs that don’t reach those heights are fairly dependably of high quality. That is the nature of this grape. With the potential for fruit, elegance, power, complexity, consistency, acidity and aging, cabernet sauvignon’s got it all. Name recognition, too.
This was one of the wine styles, along with chardonnay and merlot, that made nonwine drinkers in the United States stop and take notice in the 1980s. “Hey,” said people in turtlenecks, a glass of California cabernet sauvignon in hand, “I could get used to this. This is a wine style I can get behind.”
Long before those epiphanies, cabernet sauvignon was lending itself to mind-blowing wines in the Bordeaux region of France. Those cabernet-based blends were more reserved with their fruit and had an alternate sort of depth and elegance to them. They still do. Just because the world woke up to the power and potential of cabernet sauvignon doesn’t mean they stopped growing and producing it in France.
Today it is the most widely planted wine grape, prominent in everything from the premier wines to the serviceable, reliable bottles that crowd grocery store shelves for less than $15. You can surely find decent bottles of cab for less than $10, too. The so-called cult wines of California will set you back quite a bit more. So will the best wines that come from the grape’s home, the Medoc region of Bordeaux.
Cab grows well pretty much everywhere you find sunlight and warmth, from Chile to China. The jury is still out on the Chinese wines themselves, but cabernet has acquitted itself convincingly in other parts of the world, including Chile, Italy, Australia, Washington state and several parts of California outside Napa, including Sonoma and Paso Robles.
Winemakers around the world blend cabernet sauvignon with all manner of red grape varieties. So you could say that cabernet sauvignon is a versatile team player, while also being the MVP of the league, and a perennial fan favorite.
Chalk it up to good parenting, and give credit to cabernet sauvignon’s famous parents, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. Hence, the name. (Aren’t you glad they didn’t call it franc blanc?) Scientists have made many new varieties by crossing two grapes, but cabernet sauvignon appears to have been created organically, the product of plantings close to each other. It was only in 1997 that researchers at the University of California, Davis (the cabernet sauvignon of wine schools), got to the bottom of the grape’s parentage, DNA style.
Cabernet sauvignon grapes are relatively small, with thick, dark skins, which is why wines made from them are so often dense and rich in color. When cabernet sauvignon grapes are underripe, the resulting wine can be a touch vegetal, and over-ripeness can lead to a raisiny, pruney wine. Cabernet sauvignon is also a highly tannic grape, and some younger versions of it can send forth a mouth-drying pucker. But more often a cab’s mouthfeel is a delight all its own, ranging from rich and chewy to decadently silky.
Finally, food. Cabernet sauvignon does nicely with just about any grilled or roasted meat. Lamb loves more-reserved Bordeaux-style wines, while fruitier, power-packed New World cabs stand up well to juicy steaks. Burgers and pizza love cabernet sauvignon, too. So do cheddar, Gouda and firmer blue cheeses. Cabs often land in the 14-to-15 percent alcohol range, so consume them accordingly, especially if you’re on your cheese-as-dessert course, when wine tends to flow more freely.
Being the biggest, or the most visible, does not always translate to being the “best,” but cabernet sauvignon manages to remain in the spotlight while also basking in the adoring glow of wine lovers worldwide. All wine styles should be so lucky.