Cabernet Sauvignon: heralded by many to be the most noble of red wine grapes. This is the backbone for many of the world’s finest, most exalted, and most legendary wines. The great Bordeaux house Chateau Mouton-Rothschild claims Cabernet as the essence of its grand vin, as do superb Napa Valley estates such as Harlan and Joseph Phelps. But what is Cabernet Sauvignon, and why do so many of the world’s winemakers value it above all other grapes?
Ironically, this King of Grapes is one of the youngest varieties of wine grapes in the world. Only by chance did Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc cross in the seventeenth century to create what would become a remarkably sturdy grape, rot-resistant and capable of producing wines that are bold, tannic and among the most ageworthy. It quickly rose to prominence in the world’s greatest wine garden (at that time, at least), Bordeaux. There it lent itself well to the wines of the finest left-bank chateaux, including the vaunted First Growth producers Chateau Lafite, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Latour (as well as the previously mentioned Chateau Mouton-Rothschild). The wines, to be understated, were a hit, especially in the British Empire. Soon Londoners drank so much Bordeaux that they coined their own term for it, “claret,” referring to the wine’s pale red color.
Some say that it is in Bordeaux that Cabernet Sauvignon achieved the apex of its potential, but others would disagree. That’s because in more recent decades it made the jump across the Atlantic Ocean and has been producing wines of amazing character and depth in the New World. The most prominent example of this is California’s Napa Valley, which since the 1970’s has garnered an incredible amount of attention as a contender for the world’s finest Cabernet-producing region. The Cabernets of Napa Valley are epitomized by classic producers such as Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Beaulieu, and Chateau Montelena, as well as recent cult producers such as Harlan Estates, Scarecrow, Hundred Acre, and Bond. Cabernet has also shown an ability to shine in newer up-and-coming regions such as Washington State and Chile with top-notch wineries such as Quilceda Creek and Casa Lapostolle.
No matter where your Cabernet may come from, it pairs well with rich dishes. Nothing complements the tannins and ripe fruit of a Cabernet-based wine like grilled meats. The youthful exuberance of a young Cabernet especially meshes well with steak right off the barbecue. As Cabernets age, their tannins and fruit mellow, and they become good partners for earthier dishes.
Is Cabernet Sauvignon the world’s most noble red grape? Quite possibly. Undeniably, it has made its presence known on the world stage as a grape that can make wines of character, personality, and - in the right hands - true greatness.
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