In his introduction to a tasting for Andover Wine Friends, Martin Hudson, Master of Wine, summarises the key points about Cabernet Sauvignon with masterly (of course) clarity:
- Cabernet Sauvignon only became significant in Bordeaux at the end of the eighteen century, i.e., despite its worldwide fame it is a very young variety
- it is the result of a crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc and so is, unusually, perfectly named
- a thick-skinned, late budding, late-ripening grape which needs a hot climate and free-draining soil
- it makes highly coloured, tannic wines with fresher acidity and less alcohol than Merlot but with greater ageing potential
- Blackcurrant is the key fruit character with some green pepper and herbaceous notes in cool climates, and richer dark chocolate and coffee notes in hotter areas
- It has a great affinity for oak
- It is blended in Bordeaux (principally with Cabernet Franc and Merlot) but stands alone elsewhere
The tasting which followed illustrated these points and perfectly showed the range of outcomes with this grape variety around the world. This is case worth making as the perception is that because Cabernet is such a dominant character and so reliable in suitably hot climates, the wines are basically the same around the world. But read on …
A bonus wine to start with and the only one in this tasting to be made with Cab Franc – Ackerman’s Crémant de Loire, sparkling Rosé, nice mid salmon to apricot pink, strawberry fruit, some yeastiness from second fermentation in the bottle and a ripe, rounded palate (12g per litre of residual sugar, the sweet end of Brut). All this for €5 a bottle in a French supermarket? – let’s move to France!
Phebus, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009: a classic deep colour (as with all the following Cab Sauvignons), from a vineyard at 3,000ft above sea level, ripe but not super-ripe blackcurrant flavours and chocolate; soft, no oak, so untrammelled fruit. Lots of sun, low humidity, fully ripe fruit but the cool evenings preserve the fresh acidity. Stocked by Waitrose.
Casas del Bosque, Rapel Valley, Chile, 2008: the first oaked wine, so black fruit again but not in simplicity. Under the subtle oak veneer, ripe fruit and a herbaceous note (this combination is the clue for Chile), plus tannic structure and sweetness from nine months in French oak. A fine result from some altitude in the Rapel Valley. Available at Grape Expectations, Andover.
This was a surprise. The reputation of Californian Cabernet is for big, clunky Cabs with loads of new oak. But Beringer Knights Valley 2005 is grown on well-drained volcanic soil in Sonoma, which is a bit cooler than Napa, and has had 12 months in French oak, much of it new. Pure fruit and a silky, rather refined palate and a grippy finish. Classy. Sold by Berry Bros.
The rule of thumb is that Cab S is made as a single variety wine in the New World but of course there are exceptions. Esk Valley Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand 2009 is one of them, being Merlot, Cab S and Malbec in roughly equal proportions. A very deep colour with a purple edge, this was restrained on the nose, with fine ripe fruit but with added richness on the palate, no doubt due to the Merlot. Very impressive: Berrys
From New Zealand to Australia: Katnook Founder’s Block, Coonawarra, 2008. Slight smell of sulphur, then super-ripe fruit on the nose, tar and chocolate (perhaps a bit overdone), nice tannins, not much acidity – not a keeper and the result of endless Aussie sunshine. Available at Waitrose
Another surprise: Constantia Glen ‘Three’, South Africa 2007, a 40, 40, 20 blend of the two Cabs and Merlot, made from very low yields on a North facing slope and matured in new wood. A slightly rustic nose, high ripeness and some green notes, smoky, concentrated, but tannins and overall balance very good. Still opening up after four hours. New World fruit and Old World elegance? Berrys
Quinta da Bacalhôa, Setubal, Portugal, 2008: 10% Merlot, otherwise Cab S, held together by quite a big slug of new French oak. A big, opulent wine which really needs time, but showing the sweetness of the oak and lots of structure, as well as good ripe fruit. Whether or not Portugal ought to be using French grapes when they have so many great ones of their own is another question. Stocked by Grape Expectations
No Cab S tasting would be complete without a classed claret: Ch. du Tertre, Margaux, 2002, roughly a three-way split between the Cabernets and Merlot, matured in oak, 50% new. Just beginning to show tertiary ‘pencil shaving’ notes, savoury, medium level of fruit, but subtle, elegant and long. A pretty decent classed growth in an average vintage – unlike many of the above, Bordeaux is a marginal climate for Cab S so the vintage is vital. Berrys (of course!)