Red Wine Basics: Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Photo taken at Skil...
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Photo taken at Skillogalee Winery in the Clare Valley in 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vintner Art
One of the best known red grape varieties on Earth, Cabernet Sauvignon boasts strong, complex flavor structures that only get better with age. Creating wine with this variety is somewhat of an art form. Soil, temperatures, growing season, maceration, aging process and duration of aging all play critical roles in determining the final result. Cab also blends extremely well with many different varieties, so the possibilities for this hardy grape go on and on! I’m still not a fan of red wines, the flavors are just too strong for me, but I’ve definitely developed a healthy respect for the creativity and skill that goes into producing red wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in nearly every major wine producing country on the globe, with major producers including France (Bordeaux), Italy (Chianti), Spain, the U.K., many countries in Easter Europe, and several countries along the Mediterranean. The U.S. is a notable producer, with California coming in as one of the top producers world-wide. Washington and Oregon also grow a lot of Cab. South America, South Africa and Australia are up and coming producers as well.

Warm Climates
The region in which the grapes are grown has a major impact on the resulting wine. The grape has a thick skin, making it resistant to frost and rot. This means that the grape can be grown in a large variety of climates. Cab Sav is one of the last major grape varieties to ripen, and in climates that have longer growing seasons and lots of sun, the grape can be brought to its full potential. Grapes raised in these warmer climates make excellent candidates for varietals.

Cool Climates
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most prominent variety in the infamous blend, Bordeaux. The Bordeaux region in France has a cooler climate, and Cab raised in cooler climates must be harvested earlier. Less ripened grapes are best in blends, where other varieties can make up for any weaknesses caused by early harvesting of the grapes. Bordeaux produces some of the world’s most sought after blends, and Cabernet Sauvignon plays a starring role, proving that it can be harvested early or late and still result in amazing flavor. One thing remains constant. Cabernet Sauvignon is well known for producing wines that are rich in flavor structure and complexity.

Maceration and Tannin
Cab Sav can be processed and aged in a wide variety of ways, each resulting in a very different result. The grape is very small and has a thick skin. A high seed to pulp ratio results in very high levels of tannins. Remember that tannins come from the skins of the grapes, so skins left with the juice for longer periods of time produce wine that is high in tannins. This duration period is known as maceration. Vintners that extend the maceration process produce wines that are very strong, with flavor structures that can be unpalatable for years.

Maceration (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Maceration (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 Some regions are known for making Cab Sav that is quicker to mature, becoming palatable within just a couple of years in some cases. Cabernet Sauvignons produced in the Bordeaux region, however, are known to be unpalatable for up to ten years, and can be preserved for a further decade or more!  The reason behind all this aging comes down to the tannins. The Bordeaux region macerates its grapes for up to three weeks, which produces a Cab that is extremely high in tannins. This means that the wine will have to be matured for a long time before it becomes drinkable. Over time, the tannins soften enough to allow for drinking.
Aging  Wine, Sterling
Aging Wine, Sterling (Photo credit: MyEyeSees)

Oak Aging
Shorter maceration periods can help with high levels of tannins, but flavor structure suffers. Other methods that vintners use to soften tannins include oak barrel aging, micro oxygenation and the use of fining agents. Wine aged in oak barrels is subject to low, gradual levels of oxygenation. Less oxygen aids the tannins in bonding and creating larger tannin molecules, which are perceived as more mellow by the palate. Oak barrels also infuse the wine with softer “wood tannins” as well. Interestingly, oak harvested in different parts of the world will also affect the flavors in the wine; just one more method that vintners can use to create their idea of a good Cab Sav. The size of the barrel is also important as the wood to wine ratio will affect tannins.

Thinning the Tannins
Micro oxygenation is similar, meaning that wines are exposed to low levels of oxygen for similar results. Fining agents including egg whites and gelatin can be added to the wine to soften tannins as well. These positively charged molecules bond with negatively charged tannin molecules to create larger molecules that are removed during filtration.

With so many factors affecting the outcome of the wine’s flavor, this interesting grape allows vintners to exercise their creativity. Common flavors perceived in Cabs are green bell peppers and stewed blackcurrants. Grapes harvested in cooler climates tend to exhibit herbaceous flavors such as bell pepper. Grapes left to mature fully in warmer climates exhibit flavors of cooked blackcurrants. Other common flavors include mint and eucalyptus. Young Cabs can taste of black cherries and plums. As they age, the taste of cigar boxes, cedar and pencil shavings become perceivable. New World Cabs are known to be fruitier, while old world Cabs are austere and earthy.

The bold flavors in Cabernet Sauvignon pair well with heavy dishes. High alcohol content Cabs will pair well with spicy dishes. Meats and heavy sauces are always a win. Charred foods like those cooked on a grill do well to counterbalance the bitterness of a Cab. The bitterness of dark chocolate is also a good match. As the wine ages, its pairing possibilities open up as it becomes softer and more forgiving on the palate.

This completes my exploration of Cabernet Sauvignon. Join me next time for a discussion about Carmenere, a grape variety widely planted in Chile.

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Louise Bryant

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