Considered one of the “noble grapes,” it may come as a bit of a surprise that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a relatively new variety — born in the 17th century as the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc somewhere in the Southwest of France. Cabernet may be considered “popular” amongst grape-growers because of its “ease of cultivation;” indeed, the thick-skinned grape is quiet hardy, naturally low- yielding, a late budder, and resistant to most environmental hazards (such as rot, mildew, and vineyard pests). But the truth is a Cabernet Sauvignon of true elegance and refinement is primarily crafted in the vineyard. It may not be susceptible to environmental hazards, but Cabernet wines are a true expression of terroir.
Although Cabernet Sauvignon will grow in almost any climate, the most suitable climate is a warmer one, where abundant sunshine can allow the grape to ripen fully, allowing the grape skins (resulting tannins) to relax and the acids and sugars balance. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from such regions (think California’s Napa Valley Floor and certain regions of South Australia), tend to produce wines with an overall smoother texture and fruit-forward flavor profile, taking on similar flavors to its father grape, Cabernet Franc, such as blackberry, black current, cassis, black plums, etc. Conversely, in cooler regions (think California’s Monterey, or even Left Bank Bordeaux), Cabernet is often harvested a little before it’s “ready,” resulting in vegetative flavors more akin to its “mother grape,” Sauvignon Blanc, such as green bell pepper, and green herbs like eucalyptus and mint. And it’s for this reason that Bordeaux is known for its exquisite Cabernet-based blends, rounding out the somewhat harsh innate flavors and textures of Cabernet Sauvignon with the lusher Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and even Malbec. Such blends created in California are referred to as Meritage blends because, well, we’re not in Bordeaux.
Because Cab Sauv enjoys warmth, it tends to do better in gravel-based soils, which absorb the heat of the sun and radiate the warming rays up toward the vines. But in California’s Napa, where “Cab is King,” and there’s already an abundance of warmth and sunshine, especially along the region’s Valley Floor, the focus seems to be on less fertile soils — like the “Rutherfrod dust” of Oakville and Rutherford, which is primarily more alluvial and, well, dusty in nature. Here, the combination of warm climate and loose soils produces round-bodied Cabernets that can often be youthful “easy drinkers” on their own.
Climb up the hills of the Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, and Mount Veeder, and find thinner, less fertile soils, which produce smaller berries with more concentrated flavors, similar to those found in Bordeaux. The resulting wines are much more austere, at times down right harsh, when young, but tend to have a life expectancy beyond those that may be more immediately “friendly.”
Some of my favorite California Cabs (reviewed on this site thus far)…
Robert Craig Mt. Veeder 2014
Laurel Glen Estate 2013
Grgich Hills Estate 2013
Chateau St. Michelle Indian Wells 2013
Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Vineyard 2013
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