Cabernet Sauvignon is perhaps the most famous of the classic grapes varietals. If you know absolutely nothing about wine chances are the one varietal you can name is Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the grape that is credited with giving the wines of Bordeaux their structure and backbone. It is also the grape that put the California wine industry on the map when it beat out it’s prized French competitors at the infamous 1976 Judgment of Paris.
The grape is the result of a natural cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. And while the origin of this cross is still debated it is clear that Bordeaux is the model on which all good Cabernet Sauvignon is based. Most notably on the left back of Bordeaux where the climate and soil combine to provide one of the most perfect environments on earth for Cabernet Sauvignon. And while some of the most prized wines have historically come from this region, in particular the Medoc communities of Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, and St. Estephe, outstanding Cabs are now regularly being grown and made in California, Italy, Australia and Washington State.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a big rich wine and because of this structure and power truly great cabernet needs both oak and bottle aging. Cabernet is a wine that changes a great deal over time, in part because of those rich tannins, which act as a preservative and extend the life of the wine. When young cabernet can often be angular and introverted but when aged can transform into something powerfully rich and silky smooth. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have very thick skins, which leads to, wines with high levels of tannins and deep pigmentation. Blending is quite common with the grape and in the blends cabernet provides brilliant structure and foundation against fruitier varietals. Even so Cabernet Sauvignon is lovely on its own, showcasing flavors of dark fruits such as blackberry, black currant and cassis as well as herbal notes of eucalyptus, cedar, tobacco and leather.
Because Cabernet Sauvignon is such a big, powerful, tannin driven wine it can often be difficult to pair with food. Its flavors are intense which means that it can easily overpower a more delicate dish. Tannins, high alcohol and usually a fair amount of oak don’t help the situation. Big tannins like that need balance and fatty protein is one of the more perfect ways to achieve that balance. Steak and Cabernet Sauvignon are a classic pairing for a reason. Grilled foods especially are a great match because that lovely char from the grill, with its slightly bitter notes, nicely mirrors the slight bitterness of the tannins. The whole big flavor thing weirdly doesn’t apply to cheese though. Cabernet Sauvignon actually goes better with more mild and medium cheese than anything strong or stinky that would compete with the wine more than pair with it. And because Bordeaux style cabs have more notes of earth and tobacco (probably some of the Sauvignon Blanc coming through) which means that you can play a little bit more with herbs when pairing with those wines.