It’s hard not to love Cabernet Sauvignon, but with so many good options available, it can be tough to know where to begin.
From traditional French examples and iconic Bordeaux estates to New World cult classics that hail from Napa, Australia and beyond, consider this your go-to resource for the world’s favorite red-wine grape. You’ll get a global view of the best the variety has to offer, no matter what corner of the world you turn to. Explore the top regions, the typical representations and bottles to stock up on, and discover the beautiful bounty of this versatile variety.
André Tchelistcheff, a legendary Russian-born, European-trained winemaker, was among the earliest champions of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. He honed in on the region’s ideal set of circumstances, from varying volcanic and alluvial-influenced soils to its warm summer days and cool nights.
“When [Tchelistcheff] first tasted Napa wines, he decided that Cabernet Sauvignon grown in this climate was destined to become one of the great wines of the world,” wrote Leon Adams in The Wines of America (McGraw-Hill, 1973).
Tchelistcheff persuaded his employer, Georges de Latour, to build a cellar to age Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in oak barrels for at least two years. That was followed by another two years of aging in bottle. The 1936 Georges de Latour Private Reserve introduced fine Napa Cabernet to the world.
Some 30 miles long and four miles wide, Napa Valley’s long, narrow shape masks considerable variations in elevation, temperature and topography throughout its 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), from Coombsville to Calistoga. Cabernet Sauvignon is planted on more than 24,000 acres, 51% of the region’s acreage planted to wine grapes.
Napa Cab reflects the region’s warmth and sunshine. It offers a diverse exuberance of red to black fruit with plenty of power and concentration, and captures the variety’s compelling savory components of cedar, clove and sage. —Virginie Boone
From the 1960s into the ’90s, the Central Coast’s reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon was tenuous, as cooler regions typically produced reedy, herbal wines. Santa Cruz Mountains powerhouses like Ridge Vineyards and Mount Eden Vineyards never wavered from their classic, savory styles, but it was the rise of Paso Robles in the early 2000s that put Cab back on the region’s map.
With hot summer days, Paso Robles puts out lush Cabernet bottlings of concentrated fruit characteristics and velvety tannins. They offer a familiar profile that many have come to expect from a California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Meanwhile, as viticulture knowledge grew in Santa Barbara County, a wave of plantings took root in the Happy Canyon AVA of the eastern Santa Ynez Valley. Those Cabs combine suave fruit with elegant dried herb and turned earth tones. —Matt Kettmann
Lake and El Dorado Counties and Livermore Valley
Livermore, Lake and El Dorado may not have the same ring to them as Napa, but these Northern California wine regions punch above their weight when it comes to high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon. They have value going for them, too, as these wines are usually priced well below their more famous counterparts.
Southeast of San Francisco, the Livermore Valley enjoys coastal valley growing conditions similar to Napa. These factors, which include gravelly soils and sloped vineyard sites combined with warm days and cool nights, favor quality Cabernet Sauvignon production.
To the north of the Bay Area, Lake County, especially the Red Hills District, and El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills boast high-elevation vineyards on volcanic soils. This means low yields of Cabernet grapes, for firm tannins and great fruit concentration in the resulting wines. —Jim Gordon
Cabernet Sauvignon is the cornerstone of many of the finest red Bordeaux. It’s the building block for the wines of the Médoc, including Appellation d’Origine Protegées (AOPs) like Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Saint-Estèphe and Pessac-Léognan. In some stellar years, it can make up more than 90% of a wine, which leaves only a small corner for Merlot, Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc, the other primary permitted components in a Bordeaux red blend.
These wines are distinctive, with a dominant fruit flavor of black currant, and bold tannins and a firm structure that give shape and longevity. Those tannins never totally disappear. They keep some dryness at the core of the wines, but melded with fruit and acidity, bringing elegance and harmony that can be heart-stopping.
The secret behind the success of these Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines is the gravel. The wide Garonne River and the Gironde estuary that flow from the city of Bordeaux to the ocean have deposited mounds of gravel on the flat left bank in varying depths. Cabernet Sauvignon thrives where these deposits are deepest, benefitting from the gravel’s good drainage and retained heat from the summer.
With climate change, Cabernet Sauvignon is gaining richness and the ability to ripen easily without becoming too heavy. That’s why the variety is now successfully cultivated in areas of Bordeaux where it never matured before. The Côtes de Bordeaux, Entre-deux-Mers and regions around Saint-Émilion have increased Cabernet Sauvignon plantings, which have added structure to their fleshy, higher-alcohol, Merlot-dominated bottlings. —Roger Voss
Cabernet Sauvignon is far and away Washington’s most planted and produced variety, but only within the last five short years has it moved from third in state production to its present dominance. Not long ago, the grape’s prospects in the state were uncertain.
In the 1970s, some thought the state was too cool for the variety, while others believed its growing season too short. However, pioneers showed that conditions could be just right.
Improved site selection and vineyard management, with a helping hand from global warming, have since allowed Washington’s winemakers to craft world-class Cabs in a range of styles.
Due to the warm summer days in the desert-dry Columbia Valley, the state’s largest growing region, Washington Cabernets are known for ripe, plush fruit flavors. But these wines often benefit from other climatic factors, too. They tend to have a good measure of natural acidity, locked in by the area’s cool nights, and their tannins possess a bit more firmness than many warm-climate regions, thanks to the area’s windy and somewhat shorter growing season.
Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla Valley are Washington’s other Cabernet centers. The state’s expressions still fly largely below the radar, so these wines provide exceptional value. —Sean P. Sullivan
After Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon is Australia’s most-planted red variety. The country is home to what many believe to be the oldest-producing Cabernet Sauvignon vines on earth, planted in 1886 in the Barossa Valley.
While South Australia regions like Barossa, Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale produce Cab, three regions have emerged as epicenters. Each are blessed with dry, moderate, maritime climates where the sponge-like Cabernet soaks up the unique terroirs.
In the west, a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean, Margaret River produces Cabernet often likened to Bordeaux, thanks to its fine tannin structure, complexity and ability for lengthy aging. But regional characters like eucalyptus, graphite, currants and briny sea spray are unmistakably its own.
On the edge of South Australia’s southeast border, Coonawarra’s relationship with Cabernet stretches back 130 years. This cigar-shaped region’s unique, terra rossa soils produce rich Cabernet, with structured tannins enveloped in fleshy dark fruit and minty herbs.
Cabernet is at its freshest in the cool-climate Yarra Valley appellation of Victoria, located east of Melbourne. Red fruit, florals and spice mingle with powdery tannins and medium body.
Like elsewhere, Aussie Cab finds happy companions in other Bordeaux varieties like Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, as well as Shiraz. —Christina Pickard
Penley Estate 2018 Phoenix Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra); $20, 92 points. Old Bridge Cellars.
Cabernet Sauvignon is Argentina’s “other” big red, a reliable supporting actor worthy of its time in the spotlight. It works best alongside Malbec, the country’s heartthrob starring wine, but there are times when it deserves to be appreciated as a bold red wine capable of enhancing a juicy steak, something Argentines know a thing or two about.
That Cabernet Sauvignon performs well in the New World’s hotbed of Malbec is not a shock. Both grapes are members of the “Bordeaux Club,” approved for use there along with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Both were also brought to Argentina from France around the mid-19th century. And both have adapted well to the country’s sunny, dry and mountainous terroirs.
Among premium red grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is the third-most planted variety in Argentina, behind Malbec and the less-regarded Bonarda. Within Argentina, Cabernet excels in regions that have a mix of high altitude and warm days coupled by cool nights that can help preserve natural acidity, a vital ingredient in any balanced wine.
Known to offer just those ideal conditions, Mendoza is the source of the country’s best Cabernet Sauvignon. Northerly Salta, southerly Patagonia and interior regions like San Juan and La Rioja also produce Cabernet Sauvignon. —Michael Schachner
South Africa has a long history with Cabernet Sauvignon both as a varietal wine and in blends. The most widely planted red-wine grape in the country, it has provided many highly rated examples throughout the last few decades. Yet, South African Cabs have largely failed to be identified as a consistent exemplar on the international wine stage. That oversight is ripe for change.
Most of the variety’s plantings lie within the country’s largest Wine of Origin (WO) area, the Stellenbosch district of the Coastal Region, with more than 7,300 acres under vine. It’s here that the cultivar shines, thanks to the appellation’s mountainous topography and proximity to the ocean.
Along with the region’s warm climate and cooling, southeasterly winds, these factors yield the definitive South African Cab: ripe and fruity, not overly jammy, with ample acidity and moderate alcohol. New World fruit meets Old World structure.
Beyond Stellenbosch, superb Cabernet Sauvignon can be found in the Paarl and Robertson regions. Paarl, Stellenbosch’s northern neighbor on the other side of the Simonsberg mountain, generally offers concentrated, dark-fruited pours with structured tannins and medium-term aging potential. To the east, vines in Robertson tend to produce rich, full-bodied and velvety Cabernets with ripe cassis, plum and mulberry characteristics. —Lauren Buzzeo