Cabernet Sauvignon Around the World

March 2018

Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably the greatest wine grape in the world. This point must always be arguable, because wine is so diverse and opinions are so personal. But any short list of the world’s great wine grapes will have Cabernet Sauvignon at or near the top.

It all began in Bordeaux, France, millennia ago, where this great grape first came to prominence. Over the past two centuries it has spread around the world, making rich, savoury, powerful, complex long-lasting wines everywhere it grows. Many places in both new world and old make fine Cabernet Sauvignon – Argentina, New Zealand, Italy, Bulgaria… all are worth trying, so don’t hesitate to experiment. Today we examine the two most spectacularly successful New World sites: California and Australia.

Cabernet Sauvignon likes a warm climate and long growing season to achieve perfect ripeness; that is why its finest examples come from these two regions. In lesser vintages, when wet, cool weather has not provided optimal ripening conditions, the wines may be lean, acidic and austere, with a bitterness reminiscent of a broken green willow twig. But when conditions are right the result is wine with deep colour, exuberant flavour and long ageing potential. They have characteristic signatures of cedar shavings, toast, chocolate and black currants in both aroma and flavour. So successful have these new world wines become that vintners in Bordeaux have had to change their time-honoured techniques to try to keep up with the international competition!

California was first to demonstrate its stunning potential. Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the warmth there, particularly in the sheltered valleys of Napa and Sonoma inland just north of San Francisco (and there is a Thunder Bay connection there we will explore later). These wines are sumptuous and delicious, full bodied and powerful, filled with dazzling ripe fruit and a hint of mint, with a gentle tannic structure making them accessible in their youth but with potential to age for decades. Many of the greatest wineries are now household names: Robert Mondavi, Stag’s Leap, Freemark Abbey, Caymus… In blind tastings they have matched the best France has to offer, with only one drawback – their prices have soared as wine lovers everywhere have discovered their joyous qualities.

Fine wine is now made throughout Australia, but much of that continent is too hot for Cabernet Sauvignon; (that is why Shiraz is their preferred grape – see Bayview Summer 2016). But there are two temperate regions: one, Coonawarra, a tiny strip of land in South Australia with unique dusty red soil called Terra Rossa, makes robust Cabernet Sauvignon in a somewhat rustic style, forceful and with good ageing potential. Look for Katnook, Hollick, Petaluma. The second, Margaret River, that tiny peninsula south of Perth in Western Australia, has mastered the art of smooth, gentle complex Cabernet Sauvignon as fine as any in the world, at prices that still make them excellent value. These are simply delicious when young, but may also be aged for over a decade, becoming subtler, more complex and more aromatic with time. Seek out Leeuwin, Ashbrook, Evans & Tate, or Cape Mentelle.

Like all wine regions, these are wonderful places to visit. Napa and Sonoma have fully developed – a very expensive – tourism infrastructure, but will need years to recover from last season’s devastating wildfires. Coonawarra, like its wines, is welcoming but rather rustic when it comes to tourist accommodations. Margaret River, lying tranquilly alongside the Indian Ocean with stunning white sand beaches, small towns and exotic ocean-side resorts, is just being discovered and rapidly becoming an absolutely delightful bucket-list destination.
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© Paul Inksetter 2018

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog,
© Paul Inksetter 2016

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