Cabernet, the monarch of the vineyards

Despite all the talk of new varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon remains the world’s most popular red. Robert Joseph charts its rise.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash
Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

Cabernet is king. 

That’s not a throwaway phrase. It’s the literal truth, based on the area this variety occupies across the globe, and the prices commanded by so many of its most successful wines. With 340,000ha planted worldwide, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely grown variety of all, covering twice as much of the planet as Grenache and roughly three times as much as Pinot Noir. For every two hectares of Chardonnay grown, there are three of Cabernet.

This wasn’t always the case. Twenty-five years ago, there were just 100,000ha of Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, and the variety ranked eighth in the global league. Today, its dominance is still growing. The current figure of 340,000ha is more than 10% higher than it was in 2010.

A quarter of a century ago, too, classic blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and Cabernet Franc from Bordeaux, or Cabernet and Sangiovese from Italy, were already selling at high prices. But few professionals could have foreseen that today, Wine-Searcher would list more than 20 Napa Cabernet and Cabernet blends selling at $500 or more per bottle.

Birth of a prince

Considering its pre-eminence, Cabernet Sauvignon is a surprisingly young variety – a millennium and a half younger than Pinot Noir, its main rival for the throne, though it is admittedly probably a little older than its frequent partner, Merlot. In 1997, DNA testing at the University of California proved that it was created by ‘spontaneous’ breeding between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc in the late 1700s, and it was not until the latter part of that century that the variety is specifically mentioned with any frequency in Bordeaux.

It was about this time that Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings were carried across the globe – the viticultural pioneer James Busby took it to Australia in 1832, for example, where it was planted in Coonawarra about 60 years later. California received its first Cabernet Sauvignon vines when the eccentric ‘Count’ Agoston Haraszthy, founder of the Buena Vista winery, returned from a tour of Europe in 1861. In Europe, the variety crossed the Pyrenees in the late 1850s, and has been grown at Marqués de Riscal, the oldest estate in Rioja, since its foundation in 1858.

In all these places – and in others such as South Africa, and Carmignano in Tuscany where it was blended with Sangiovese in the 1930s, long before the Super Tuscans – few people actually talked about Cabernet Sauvignon by name until relatively recently. That began in the 1970s, following the victory by Napa Valley examples in Steven Spurrier’s Judgment of Paris. 

For Rob McMillan, author of the must-read annual Silicon Valley Bank report on the US wine industry, Napa Cabernet became the pinnacle of California wine for the Baby Boomers during the 1980s and has never lost that position.

Today, he makes the point that in a flat-to-declining US wine market, Cabernet Sauvignon is the one segment that is showing some signs of growth. Over the past 30 years, the variety has seen off competition from Merlot and Pinot Noir, both pretenders for its crown. McMillan has an explanation for this. “Cabernet is easy to pronounce and it’s remarkably consistent. When the Napa Valley in particular had to be replanted in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the phylloxera attacking insufficiently resistant rootstock, most people used the same few clones. So now, whether you’re buying a wine from Rutherford or an Oakville, and whichever winery produced it, you will get the kind of wine you expect. And that’s what a lot of wine drinkers want.”
Napa produces a tiny fraction of the nearly 14% share of the total US wine market that Cabernet Sauvignon boasts but, for McMillan, even $5 bottles benefit from the halo effect of wines selling for ten and a hundred times that price. 

Not all Cabernet is equal

Yet although the US market is in love with Cabernet Sauvignon, the tide hasn’t lifted all boats – provenance it still key. Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal suggested in a 2018 article that, while it represents 30% of that country’s crop, Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon “doesn’t even seem to be on the radar of most American wine drinkers”. For Teague, the problem may be that “very good [Chilean Cabernet] and grocery store-calibre bottles are often just a few dollars apart. Maybe a higher price would help lift the best bottles out of obscurity?”

Eduardo Chadwick of Errázuriz agrees that the US has been a hard nut to crack, despite the critical success of his super-premium Seña joint venture Cabernet-blend with Mondavi and 100-point pure Cabernet Viñedo Chadwick. “The US knows Bordeaux and Tuscany and California, but Chile is still unknown – or thought of as affordable. We need more top-level wines.”

And although Cabernet Sauvignon’s success is based on its consistency and reliability, these are also its key weaknesses, because any diversions from the accepted style will be punished. For example, Cabernet often has the green, leafy or bell pepper characters associated with methoxypyrazines, compounds found in its parents Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, and its cousins Merlot and Carménère. For fans of traditional Bordeaux, and European wine critics, a little ‘crunchiness’ can be a positive feature, especially for wines intended to age. 

US opinion formers such as James Suckling and the tasters at publications like the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, on the other hand, disagree. Their favoured wines – even at super-premium prices – tend to be riper and jammier in style, and almost inevitably, more alcoholic. Greenness was famously a negative for Robert Parker when describing Cabernet Sauvignons from cooler Californian regions like Monterey. 

Growing the grapes in warmer regions and/or harvesting them later does not always remove the greenness, plus it inevitably makes for much more alcoholic wines. Jancis Robinson, for example, complains that “Cabernet Sauvignon can easily taste a bit stodgy after a very hot summer”. 

In some countries, tolerance of leafy, lower-alcohol Bordeaux historically helped to cover up another problem: the leaf-roll virus that prevents grapes from ripening evenly. As recently as the 1990s, the condition affected nearly 90% of South Africa’s vineyards but its effects were often excused by people who preferred the fresh, Bordeaux style of the wines to other riper, New World examples. Leaf-roll is far rarer in South Africa today, but it is still prevalent in China.

Even setting these factors aside, Cabernet Sauvignon is not as straightforward a variety to grow as some people suppose. Mike Ratcliffe, formerly of Warwick Estate and now of Vilafonté, one of South Africa’s top estates, explains that it benefits from some heat stress but not too much. “It needs water, so dry-farming in the Cape isn’t an option, but it hates getting its feet wet.” Well-drained soil is essential, but so too might be drainage ditches like the ones to be seen in the Médoc.

After taking these aspects into account, vineyard density and cropping can be another issue. Ratcliffe believes that it is possible to make attractive commercial 13 tons/ha Cabernet Sauvignon with 2,500-4,000 vines/ha. But that depends on very good canopy management. Lower the density, and quality drops off radically. For his own super-premium wine, Ratcliffe has more than 6,500 vines/ha. As he acknowledges, too much Cabernet Sauvignon is either grown in the wrong places or in the wrong ways.

Someone who would agree with this view is Li Jiming, chief winemaker of the giant Changyu winery in China, where the grape occupies 60-70% of the vineyards. “Cabernet Sauvignon is the most important red wine variety in China. Consumers are familiar with its taste and it is easy to grow and manage in the vineyard.” But, he says, you have to choose the right sites. “It’s a late-ripening variety and it can ripen well in regions like Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu and Shandong, in most vintages.” Changyu and other producers are now increasingly experimenting with Marselan, a disease-resistant Cabernet Sauvignon-Grenache cross.

While the Chinese are considering alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon, researchers elsewhere are looking for ways to improve the variety, and to ensure its survival as the climate changes. In California, the University of California, Duarte Nursery and Beckstoffer Vineyards have jointly launched a trial called “Climate-smart Solutions for Cabernet Sauvignon Production” involving 3,600 vines, ten different clones and ten rootstocks. Across the Pacific, the Australian Wine Research Institute is continuing its own trial of 17 different examples of the variety, with wide-ranging harvesting dates and fermentation techniques.

And then of course, there’s the more radical possibility of manipulating the variety’s genes to remove the bell pepper character altogether. 
For the moment, there appears to be limited likelihood of this being achieved, but even if it remains a pipe dream, industry observers like Rob McMillan aren’t expecting another grape to be challenging Cabernet Sauvignon any time soon. 

Robert Joseph

This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription

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