Getting to Know Cabernet Sauvignon, the Biggest, Boldest, and Most Popular Red Wine
Understanding the difference between wines grown in different regions around the world and at price points low and high.
One the most popular red wines in the world is cabernet sauvignon, and it's made with a red grape variety of the same name that originated in the Bordeaux region of France. "Sauvignon" is derived from the French "sauvage," meaning "wild," and genetically it's a cross between cabernet franc and, surprisingly, sauvignon blanc. Today, cabernet sauvignon, sometimes referred to simply as "cabernet," is planted globally, and this deep, inky colored wine is available in a diverse range of styles and at many different price points, from luxury to everyday.
The thick, hearty skins of the cabernet sauvignon grape—along with its stems and seeds—produce wines relatively high in tannin (the compound that makes your tongue feel rough and dry). The wines are also inky, dark, and concentrated in color because those thick skins have a lot of pigment extracted into the wine. With cabernet sauvignon, you'll experience a full body with a rich, luxurious mouthfeel and lots of ripe black fruit characteristics: black currants, black cherry, blackberry, and black plum. Depending on how the wine is produced, you can also experience flavors like tobacco, cedar, coffee, and bittersweet cocoa. One of the most intriguing attributes of cabernet sauvignon is its "green" qualities: Because it has a high level of aromatic molecular compounds called pyrazines, you may smell or taste green bell pepper notes, grass, eucalyptus, and herbs like mint.
Growing Regions and the Ideal Climate for Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet sauvignon does best in warm climates because it's a late-ripening grape. Grape growers and vineyard managers hope for long, slow ripening seasons to achieve phenolic ripeness: where the sugar levels of the flesh are at the optimal level and the seeds inside the grape are also fully ripe. If the climate conditions aren't ideal, the sugars can spike while the seeds are still green, resulting in a bitter, unbalanced wine. The regions profiled below have the right types of soil and the optimal climate for cabernet sauvignon.
Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux
Cabernet sauvignon's ancestral home is Bordeaux in Southwest France. The region has two main types of soil: gravel, which is perfect for cabernet sauvignon to drain well, and clay, which is better suited to merlot. All Bordeaux wines are blends (cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec are also blending grapes in Bordeaux), but if you want a cabernet sauvignon-dominant blend, look to Left Bank regions like Medoc, Margaux, and St-Julien. From Medoc, try Domaines Barons de Rothschild Legende Medoc 2016 ($27.99 at wine.com). As for Margaux, we love Chateau Prieure-Lichine 2016 ($32.99/375ml half-bottle, wine.com). And a great example from St-Julien is Chateau Lalande 2016 ($37.99 at wine.com). Cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux tends to have an earthy aroma, flavors of rich plummy fruit, and even some mineral notes like graphite (think, pencil lead!).
Cabernet Sauvignon from the United States
The most famous region in the U.S. for cabernet sauvignon is California's Napa Valley. Many people consider the real watershed moment for U.S. wines to be in 1976 when a Napa cabernet sauvignon (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet) beat its French counterparts in a blind tasting called The Judgement of Paris. Until then, most critics didn't consider American wines to be real contenders on the global fine wine stage.
Napa can be divided into two styles: mountain areas (including Mt. Veeder, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak, and Howell Mountain), which produce wines that have higher-toned dark fruit aromas and high acidity, and valley floor areas (including Yountville, Oakville, Stags Leap District, Calistoga, St. Helena, and Rutherford), which are known for producing softer and more supple wines. For great examples of Napa's finest, try Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($33.99/375ml half-bottle, wine.com), Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($35.99, wine.com), Lail Blueprint Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($79.99, wine.com), or Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($66.99, wine.com).
Another excellent source for California cabernet sauvignon is Paso Robles, which is located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. We recommend Benom Wines Origin 2018 ($68, benomwines.com), DAOU Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($25.99, wine.com), and Justin Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($33.99, wine.com)
Finally, if you're a cabernet sauvignon fan, don't miss the beautiful examples from Washington State, where there are excellent values. The main wine regions are east of the Cascade Mountains, so they are hot and dry (the mountains keep the Pacific rain and fog limited to the coastal areas like Seattle). Check out regions like the Horse Heaven Hills for H3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($12.99 at wine.com); Walla Walla such as Amavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($26.99, wine.com); and the Columbia Valley for Seven Hills Winery Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($28.99, wine.com) or Woodward Canyon for Nelms Road Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($23.99, wine.com).
Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia
Australia may be best known for shiraz, but cabernet sauvignon is one of the country's widest grown varieties, and it's made in a potent and concentrated style. The three regions that are best known for cabernet sauvignon. First is Coonawarra, in South Australia, where the wines are rich and robust; a great example is Yalumba Y Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($10.99, wine.com). Next, there's Margaret River, located in Western Australia, which makes savory and complex styles like Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($23.99, wine.com). Last but not least, there's the cool-climate Yarra Valley which makes the most elegant, delicate offerings. St Huberts The Stag 2017 ($15.99, cornwallwines.com) is one of our favorites.
Cabernet Sauvignon from South America
When Europeans came to South America in the 19th century, they brought vines from Bordeaux and planted them in Chile and Argentina. Today, the bustling wine industry in those countries is powered by big, bold reds made with those grapes. If Bordeaux wines give you sticker shock, know that you can look to South America for amazing cabernet sauvignon that won't break the bank. In Chile, the best regions to seek out wines from are the Aconcagua, Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua Valleys. Top picks include Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($22.99, wine.com), Cousino Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($16.99, wine.com), and Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($20.99, wine.com).
In Argentina, styles can vary depending on whether the grapes are grown at high altitudes or warmer valleys, but Salta, Rio Negro, and Mendoza are solid regions to explore. Recommended bottles to start with Santa Julia Organica Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($9.99, wine.com), Crios de Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($11.99, wine.com), Zuccardi Serie A Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($13.99, wine.com), and Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($35.99, wine.com).
How to Serve and Pair Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet sauvignon is best served slightly cooler than room temperature; 60 to 65 degrees is a good range. Because of its high tannin, it's wine that should be able to age quite well, so if you have a special bottle, you can usually cellar it for at least ten years. Old cabernet sauvignon might benefit from a little time in a decanter—perhaps an hour or so—before drinking to allow it to open up and expand.
The classic pairing for cabernet sauvignon is red meat like steak: Flat-Iron Steak au Poivre or Cheddar-Horseradish Burgers would be great pairings and lamb dishes like Roasted Leg of Lamb with Asparagus and Herbs because the tannin in the wine helps cut through fatty, rich meats, and the concentration and body are matched well by the robust flavors of red meat. Umami-rich vegetables like mushrooms and eggplant can also pair well: try Roasted Portobellos with Kale or Whole Grilled Eggplant with Rice Pilaf. And cabernet sauvignon can be delicious with hard or semi-hard cheeses like aged clothbound cheddar.