Culinary Arts

Learn About Cabernet Sauvignon: Grapes, Wine, Region, and Tasting Notes

Written by MasterClass

Jan 26, 2019 • 5 min read

Cabernet sauvignon is the most popular red wine in the world. Though it originated in France, cabernet is now produced in virtually every major winemaking region on the globe, from Chile to California, Washington State to western Australia.


What Is Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cabernet sauvignon is a full-bodied, acidic wine made from the international red wine grape variety of the same name. It has strong tannins that mellow with age. Cabernet is high in alcohol, usually in the 13-14% range. Due to its large production volume, cabernet is often readily available and very inexpensive, which further fuels its popularity.

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is a hybrid grape, originally formed by the crossing of cabernet franc (a red grape) and sauvignon blanc (a white grape).

Cabernet sauvignon wines can be both single-varietals (made of 100% cabernet sauvignon grapes) and blends. Cabernet grapes are a powerful presence in blends; they are frequently blended with other strong, complementary grapes.

What Are the Characteristics of the Cabernet Sauvignon Grape?

The cabernet grape varietal has three distinct features:

  • Small and sturdy. Despite its small size, cabernet is quite sturdy—it grows well nearly everywhere, regardless of climate. The grape can also survive nearly all weather conditions, diseases, and insect infestations—making it invaluable to winemakers and consumers both.
  • Great for barrel aging. Cabernet is unusual for its ability to blend so well with oak, both in fermentation and barrel aging. This is partly what facilities the great aging that Cabernet is famous for, with oak barrels mellowing the tannins and unleashing new flavors and aromas.
  • Thick and tannic. It has thick, black skins, which are packed with tannins. Cabernet also takes its time ripening on the vine, and is less fussy when it comes to picking.

Where Does Cabernet Sauvignon Grow?

Cabernet sauvignon is an international grape that grows all over the world. International grapes are widespread varieties used all over the world and not confined to their place of origin. Cabernet sauvignon is a late-ripening variety that tends to prefer hot climates.

There are still notable cabernet-growing regions, however. These include:

  • Napa Valley. In the 1970s, California became famous for its cabernets. In an event called the “Judgement of Paris,” French judges tried two red wines blindfolded: Bordeaux from France and cabernet from California. The California cabernet was deemed the preferable choice, stunning the wine world, which had long believed that France had a monopoly on the world’s best red wine.
  • Many wineries in California produced 100% pure cabernet sauvignon, in contrast to regions like Bordeaux (which are known for blends).
  • Neighboring Sonoma Valley produces lush cabernets as well; its terroir benefits from geographic features like the Russian River and proximity to the ocean.
  • South Australia. Famous for its incredible cabernets, South Australia’s dry climate and red clay soil lends itself to smooth wine-growing.
  • Bordeaux, France. Cabernet sauvignon originated in France. The Médoc region, in particular, is known for its relationship with cabernet vines.

What Are the Most Popular Blends of Cabernet Sauvignon?

The most famous blend of cabernet sauvignon is the Bordeaux blend, which traditionally combines cabernet grapes with merlot grapes. In addition to merlot, cabernet is frequently blended with:

  • Malbec
  • Petit Verdot
  • Carménère
  • Shiraz
  • Tempranillo
  • Sangiovese

What’s the Difference Between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot?

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot seem so intertwined, thanks in part to the famous Bordeaux blend. They are, however, different grapes, each with their own strengths. Both blend nicely with other grapes, too, hence furthering the confusion.

In Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon and merlot battle for predominance in Bordeaux blends. On the Left Bank, cabernet forms the majority, while merlot rules combinations from the Right Bank.

Soil is the primary reason for the split: winemakers on the Left Bank successfully cultivate cabernet on their gravel-based soil, while the Right Bank merlot vintners benefit from the clay and limestone in their soil.

The key differences between cabernet sauvignon and merlot include:

  • Merlot is fruity, while cabernet’s strong tannins give it a bitter edge.
  • Merlot sweetens dry wines, while cabernet dries sweet wines.
  • Both cabernet sauvignon and merlot age well in oak, however merlot must be picked immediately to prevent overripening.

What’s the Difference Between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir?

Pinot noir is a popular red grape wine that is often compared to cabernet sauvignon. The two grapes could not be more different, however.

  • Pinot noir is a temperamental grape, requiring more winegrowing attention and careful pruning. It grows only in certain climates and at certain times.
  • Pinot is much lighter in color than cabernet sauvignon, with fewer tannins and, therefore, shorter life span in the bottle.
  • Cabernet is a heavy wine, both in flavor and texture, while pinot is exceptionally light and elegant, especially for a red grape.

What Does Cabernet Sauvignon Taste Like?

Cabernet sauvignon is famous for its “green bell pepper” flavor, which comes from a compound called pyrazine. But cabernet also features other distinct flavors:

  • Mint
  • Dark cherries
  • Eucalyptus

On the nose, cabernet is quite bright, which tones down any overly sweet or fruity notes. Common aromas and flavors include:

  • Blackberries
  • Crème de cassis
  • Black cherries
  • Boysenberry
  • Blueberry
  • Chocolate
  • Tobacco
  • Truffle
  • Cedar

What Does Cabernet Sauvignon Pair With?

Cabernet sauvignon is highly acidic and profoundly tannic. The younger the cab, the more substantial the meal should be. Cabernet does tend to get better with age, so older cabs will pair nicely with softer textures. Weak flavors or textures can leave you with an unpleasant dry mouthfeel.

How to Taste Cabernet Sauvignon

Since there are so many regions that produce high-quality cabernet sauvignons, begin by gathering a cabernet sauvignon from Napa and a Bordeaux cabernet. Can you taste green bell pepper in either wine? Earthiness? Is one higher in alcohol, and how does the ripeness of fruit compare?

Next, refer to these famous cabernets:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon Antica 2014 — Antinori Family Estates (Napa Valley, California). Aromas of fresh herbs, currants; full body; medium to high acidity; chewy tannins.
  • Sassicaia 2004 — Tenuta San Guido (Tuscany, Italy). The first Super Tuscan, made from cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc on Italy’s coast. Very Bordeaux-like, elegant and iconic wine.
  • Seña Blend 2015 — (Valle De Aconcagua, Chile). Blend: 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Carmenere, 12% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot, and 3% Cabernet Franc. One of the first Chilean wines to be scored 100 points on the Wine Spectator scale, Seña is a deep, refined expression of cabernet where the carmenere adds a distinct spicy, peppery edge.

Finally, you can’t go wrong with cabernets from any of these five well-known vintners:

  • Josh
  • Beringer
  • Barefoot
  • Justin
  • 14 hands