Under the skin: How to buy cabernet sauvignon

Stand-alone or blended, this classic red wine grape is a great canvas for both terroir and technique, says Matthew Horsley

Bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon

The result of a chance crossing between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon has become one of the world’s most important varieties. Its thick skins, intense varietal character and relative ease of cultivation have meant it’s now grown across much of the wine world, with each country, region and producer imposing its own style.

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Like merlot (see my guide in spring 1874), it often needs a side-kick and these two grapes complement each other perfectly, combining merlot’s body and red fruits with cabernet’s cassis, herbaceousness and tannic structure. Where merlot is the ship’s sails that billow and help a wine glide effortless across your palate, cabernet is the mast, steadfast and strong, holding it all together, but on its own, it can lack mid-palate weight. To help you set sail here is my guide to cabernet sauvignon.

Few countries do affordable 100% cabernet sauvignon better than Chile. Lascar, in the sunny Central Valley, offer a varietally expressive cab with blackcurrant and sweet spices in their 2021 Lascar Cabernet. Alto Maipo is Chile’s premier region, the high altitude providing a firmer and more linear style, and our Exhibition Alto Maipo is proof. Over the border in Argentina Susana Balbo proves that she isn’t just the Queen of malbec with her aromatic, refreshing Signature Cabernet Sauvignon from the cool Uco Valley.

In South Africa, Radford Dale take advantage of modern winemaking techniques such as cold ferments and carbonic maceration to produce a juicy, refreshing cab/merlot blend under their 2021 Winery of Good Hope Oceanside label. For a more classic approach Delheim’s Simonsberg Cabernet is starting to show the cigar-box and graphite notes that come with age and at a cracking price. For another step up Vilafonte’s ‘Seriously Old Dirt’ includes dashes of merlot, malbec and cabernet franc for a hedonistic wine packed with blackberry, nutmeg and velvety tannins.

Australian cabernet is typified by pure, expressive fruit, with Bordeaux-like structure and freshness in Western Australia’s cool Margaret River. In South Australia, Yalumba have crafted an extremely generous yet refined and refreshing wine, The Society’s Australian Cabernet at a bargain price. Head north from Adelaide up to the Clare Valley for Pauletts’ intense, cassis-laden Polish Hill Cabernet with sweet tannins and plenty of body. Or move south to McLaren Vale where Wirra Wirra’s Legendary Church Block introduces shiraz to the blend for mulberry fruit and cracked-black-pepper spice on the plush, full palate. In Western Australia Vasse Felix have done a stellar job with our new Exhibition Margaret River Cabernet showing tobacco alongside the elegant fruit and fine tannins that define this region.

Classic USA cabernet is plush and indulgent with vanilla and coconut notes from American oak. In the warm Columbia Valley in Washington State Chateau Ste Michelle’s Cold Creek Vineyard  shows great intensity of pure cassis with well-integrated vanilla notes on the palate. Pedroncelli’s Dry Creek Valley is the perfect intro to Cali cab with its bold dark fruits and Coca-Cola spice notes. Napa Valley is California’s premier cabernet region and Long Meadow Ranch use grapes from both their mountain and valley estates to provide a balance of crunchy cherry and pomegranate fruit with dense blackberry sweetness.

In France the Loire is better known for cabernet franc, but Domaine des Rochelles Lebreton  are an exception to the rule, with their unoaked and accessible red showing black fruits and tobacco on the fine palate.

In Bordeaux terroir is king, so I’ve chosen three distinct left-bank expressions. Margaux, the Médoc’s most southerly of the ‘Big Four’ should be perfumed, inviting and sweetly fruited and our Exhibition Margaux from the generous and ready-to-go 2016 vintage is perfection. Saint-Estèphe in the north is often savoury and herbaceous with grippy tannins and bright acid, Clos Labory’s 2014 is right on song. Pauillac, between Saint-Estèphe and Saint-Julien, should be the best of both – providing structure and intensity with a balance of savoury graphite and cassis. Again, our Exhibition Pauillac  from one of the commune’s top producers is a safe bet.

Discover cabernet’s multi-faceted marvellousness in these cabernet-mixed cases

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Matthew Horsley

Society Buyer

Matthew Horsley

Matthew joined the Buying Department, from our Tastings and Events team  in December 2017 and took over England, Greece and Hungary in 2020.

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