Grape varieties

Cabernet sauvignon: The ultimate grape guide

What does it taste like?

  • Blackcurrants
  • Cedar
  • Cassis
  • Liquorice
  • Roasted Coffee Beans
  • Green Pepper 

Where does it come from?

Bordeaux is the largest vineyard of fine wines in the world. The great diversity in soils and climate lend different characters and styles to the wines of each of its appellations.

Free-draining gravel soils in the Médoc are perfectly suited to the cabernet grape.In terms of plantings, cabernet sauvignon's strongholds can be found in left-bank districts of Médoc, Haut-Médoc and Graves. The well-drained, gravel soils produce some of the finest, age-worthy examples around: it is no accident that the Haut-Médoc and Graves regions are home to all five of the world-famous first growth châteaux.

The furthest down-stream of the left-bank regions is Médoc (or Bas Médoc), which produces wines of good body and blackcurrant fruit. Cabernet's tendency towards austerity is tempered by the plump, fruity softness of merlot. Whilst the best will age a decade or more, the majority of wines here are made to drink within five years.

Upstream is Haut-Médoc on higher ground and free-draining gravel soils and famed for its communes of St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien and Margaux. These wines show a greater elegance, intensity of fruit flavour and finesse. At the district AC level, wines are generally medium bodied with good, tannic structure and blackcurrant fruits, taking on tobacco and cedar notes with age.

However, it is the communes themselves that offer a level of cabernet-blended wine that is considered unrivalled by some. The northernmost of the four is St-Estèphe, whose gravely soils are underpinned with clay, resulting in a less well-drained, cooler site. This can cause a delay in ripening and produces a wine of higher acidity than those found further south. St-Estèphe wines are tighter and more austere when young, but the acidity and youthful austerity tend to give them great ageing potential therefore allowing the fruit aromas to develop fully.

Pauillac produces the archetypal cabernet-dominant claret, full of cassis aroma and flavour with cedar and cigar box notes. The wines show great concentration, complexity and have a vivid character.

Further south is the smallest commune of St-Julien producing the most traditional of wine styles; subtle, deeply-coloured and balanced with classic cabernet traits. Finally, the furthest south of the four communes is Margaux. Here the finest wines are produced on gravel outcrops called croupes and have a seductive silkiness about them. Deep ruby red with elegant structure and concentration, the best are destined for considerable ageing.

Further still down the left bank is Graves and its finest part, Pessac-Léognan, one of the largest of Bordeaux's regions, famed for the production of both red and white wines. It is no coincidence that graves is also the French term for gravely terrain – a clear description of the soil composition. The cabernet wines, whilst still blended, are more minerally in character, with rustic fruit aromas that mature earlier than their Haut-Médoc counterparts. This can offer an appealing alternative for those who may not have the patience for an Haut-Médoc or commune cabernet.

While the left bank is the undisputed home of cabernet in Bordeaux, it does feature as a blending component in the right bank. Normally taking third spot in the blend after merlot and cabernet franc, better suited to the clay soils on this side, it nonetheless plays a vital role in adding tannin, structure and ageing potential to the wine.

There are two highly-regarded communes, St-Émilion and Pomerol, along with two key district ACs of Blaye and Côtes de Bourg. The style of wine produced on the right bank is a reflection of the dominance of merlot in the blend: in general the wine is softer, fleshier and with a velvety texture. The fruit is succulent on the palate offering a fresh finish with supple tannins. The wines, especially those of the great communes, also possess great ageing potential.

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Cabernet sauvignon is arguably the bedrock upon which the Californian wine industry is founded. The quality produced in some of the northern regions in part justifies this west-coast enclave as cabernet's second home.

The very best wines, which once again are often blended, from the counties of Sonoma and Napa offer rich, textured ripe berry fruit flavours, often with herbal, minty aromas. Those from Sonoma tend towards a riper, chocolatey style of wine. Wines from the Napa Valley are generally chunkier in texture, expressing more vibrant berry flavours with herbal notes and supple tannins. American and French oak imparts smooth vanilla and mocha flavours.

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Chile's isolated location is unique in the world of wine; desert to the north, the Antarctic to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the east. For a vineyard, these geographical barriers create a virtually disease-free, supremely healthy growing environment in which cabernet sauvignon flourishes.

The Upper Maipo Valley, just south of Santiago, along with Rapel Valley, are ideally suited for healthy, fruity and vibrant cabernet sauvignon wines. The climate is perfect, as are the soils which are comprised of alluvial gravel and stones from the Maipo River. Chile's best cabernets are made here: medium to full bodied, imbued with plump black fruit flavours, at times cedary and herbal, and with excellent complexity and longevity. Often the wines will be a blend of cabernet with merlot or carmenère.

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Though dwarfed in terms of quantity by plantings of malbec, cabernet plays an increasingly important role in the Argentine wine industry, where vine-growing is focused along the foothills of the Andes.

Production is focused on single-varietal cabernets and wines blended with merlot and malbec. Mendoza, in the far west of the country, is the key region, producing plump and full-bodied cabernets. Rich and fruity, these wines tend not to possess as much of the overtly cedary and herbal quality found in Chilean examples, relying more on dense, brambly flavours.

Argentine cabernets can range in style from young and fruity styles to lovely old-fashioned wines aged for a long time in large old barrels. They can have the flavours of maturity, leather and cigar box with rounded and soft tannins.

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Bordeaux is a region that is highly revered in South Africa and blended wines made to an extent in its image have had longstanding success here.

Indeed, one of Stellenbosch's greatest strengths is its ability to produce cabernet blends to a high quality with a proven capacity for cellaring. The wines are full of black fruit flavours, with a lighter body and structure than found in Australia or South America. They show a wonderful herbal character, balanced by relatively high levels of acidity.

The Cape peninsula, to the south of Cape Town itself, is home to Constantia. All but encircled by two oceans, this region is known for its cooler climate, whose influence results in vibrant and well-balanced cabernet blends. The refreshing fruit flavours, coupled with a backbone of acidity and tannic structure, can produce mouth-watering wines.

View South Africa's cabernet sauvignon wines

Whilst Bordeaux-style blends are still to be found in Australia, cabernet frequently takes a starring role on its own or with shiraz as a blending partner. Indeed Australian Cab-Shiraz was a new style of wine which helped to gain Australian wine so many followers. The richness and softness of Australian shiraz can work very well indeed, its bold fruit flavours filling in the gaps left by the tannic and structured cabernet.

Margaret River, in Western Australia, enjoys a comparatively cool, maritime-influenced climate, not unlike Bordeaux and produces elegant and age-worthy wines. The combination of finesse, acidity, freshness, alcoholic strength and red fruit flavours gives a complex and vibrant wine, particularly so in a country renowned for its high temperatures.

South Australia is the heavyweight wine state, producing most of the country's wine and boasting some of its oldest vines. The dry, hot climate ripens grapes fully, making bold, dense and concentrated wines. The Barossa Valley has a rich viticultural history with patches of bush-trained vines, many more than 100 years old. The style of cabernet produced here contrasts greatly with that of Margaret River, with higher alcohol wines that are bold, full-bodied and rich in red and black fruits.

Coonawarra is one of the country's leading cabernet regions. The terra rossa soil is famed for producing wines with an intense flavour and structure. The best wines are typically fragrant and fresh, with tobacco aromas and ripe cassis fruit.

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Cabernet performs well in New Zealand's warmer regions, in particular Hawkes Bay on the North Island. The region covers an extensive area of rolling hills, a sweep of coastline and the sharply dominant Te Mata Peak. The warm climate serves to ripen the variety well, and the best tend to be grown in the Gimblett Gravels appellation.

The wines, often Bordeaux blends, combine a fragrance and muscular structure, more akin to European styles, but with ripe, New World fruit flavours. With some ageing, the wines take on elegant aromas such as tobacco and sandalwood, which provide excellent support to the ripe cassis flavours.

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What style of red wine does cabernet sauvignon make?

World-renowned and well-travelled, cabernet sauvignon wines makes some of the world's finest red wines, working either on its own, or blended with other varieties.

While many grape varieties are known for their friendly fruit aromas, cabernet sauvignon's success as a fine wine lies in its subtleties: secondary, complex flavours that have the potential to develop deliciously in bottle over time. For this reason, cabernet is often seen as quite a 'serious' red wine designed for cellaring and keeping for many years. However, you can certainly find younger, fruitier styles to help you explore the flavours of this iconic grape.

The thick-skinned cabernet grape needs warm conditions in order to ripen fully

Which should I try?

Cabernet sauvignon is made in two fairly distinct styles:

Old world: these are your classic French bottles, famously shown in Bordeaux's great clarets. They tend to have a brooding character, with robust tannins adding structure and blackcurrant fruit shining through. It's here that one of the greatest blending partnerships of the wine world was forged – the marriage of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. It is a relationship that has travelled the globe, making some of the best wines in the world.

New world: In California and the southern hemisphere (Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia), cabernets tend to develop a sense of fullness and weight. Rich in blackcurrant, mint and occasionally green bell pepper flavours along with firm tannins, the best wines here can age for decades too.

If there is such a thing as a mythology in wine, then cabernet would occupy an exalted position on Olympus. The name cabernet is irrevocably linked with Bordeaux, its home, and claret, the wine which in the Anglo-Saxon world conjures up images of sophistication and good living.
Sebastian Payne MW
Rosie Allen

The Society's Brand Marketing Manager

Rosie Allen

Rosie joined the team in 2016 and oversees all our content including 1874 magazine and Discovery pages.

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