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Everything You Need to Know About Cabernet Sauvignon

(4 minute read)

International Cabernet Sauvignon Day is almost upon us (3 September – or just behind us, as some people say it’s 30 August!) so it’s the perfect time for a quick primer on the world’s most widely grown black grape. Yes, here in Australia Shiraz is the undisputed king of red wine (all wine?!) but for the rest of the world, it’s a crown which rests squarely on Cabernet Sauvignon’s shoulders.

Australia

In Australia we have roughly 25,000ha of Cab Sav planted, making up just over 18% of all plantings and almost 30% of black grape plantings. The Riverland, Murray-Darling and Riverina come in as the top regions for crush – at first I found this a little surprising but Cab Sav is pretty easy to grow and is used a lot for bulk wines (yes, you can buy a bottle of Cabernet for less than $5 …). The Coonawarra (a much smaller region) does come in fourth but Margaret River doesn’t make the top 5.

For comparison – Shiraz accounts for 46% of our black grape plantings … there’s not too much room for everything else!

The World

The question is more ‘where is Cabernet NOT grown?’ … because, really, Cabernet is loved the world over. It’s found throughout south-west France – most famously in Bordeaux, and there are plantings throughout Europe. From the usual suspects (Italy, Spain, Portugal) to much further east (Ukraine, Russia, Moldova …) you’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon being grown. Similarly, when we head the Americas we find it hugely popular. It’s only once we hit the cooler climate of New Zealand that we find Cab Sav less well-represented.

The Key Facts

  • Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc
  • The grapes are small and thick-skinned so it produces densely coloured wines with high tannins
  • Key descriptors include blackcurrant, mint (menthol, eucalypt), green capsicum, cedar and more blackcurrant
  • The oldest planting in the world is Penfold’s Kalimna Block 42, (here in SA!) planted in the 1880s.
  • Key Australian regions are the Coonawarra (SA), Margaret River (WA), Limestone Coast (SA), McLaren Vale (SA) and the Yarra Valley (Vic). Also look out for wines from Great Southern (WA).

Food Pairing

Thanks to Cabernet’s high tannins it’s an amazing wine to pair with anything high in protein. Its very intense palate means that it can handle that char-grilled steak while the lively acidity will work beautifully with a hard cheese. It’s a food-friendly wine – just steer clear of anything delicate because the wine will swamp it!

You might want to avoid spicy (chilli) foods (the tannin will enhance the spice, the spice will enhance the tannin – you’ll know if this is your thing or not!) and I’d avoid pairing it with oily fish – the tannins can make everything seem a bit metallic.

Anything Else I Should Know?

Cabernet is really commonly blended with other black grapes. The typical Bordeaux blend is Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (with a few friends) and in Australia we love to blend Cabernet with (you guessed it!) Shiraz.

Thirsty?

Our budget pick is the Forest Hill Highbury Fields at just $24 a bottle. From WA’s Great Southern, this wine is just delicious and absolutely over-delivers. Pop some away and revisit in 5, 10 or even 15 years time.

Our luxe pick is the Bellwether Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coonawarra ($70). A 2014 it’s drinking beautifully now but still has cellaring potential.

You can browse all our Cabernet Sauvignons (and Cab Sav blends) here.

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Friday Drinks

Join us here at 6pm (Adelaide time) Friday for a weekly wine (& beer & all things drinkable) wrap up …

I put together this video and blog post after being at an event where more than one winery noted that their sparkling wine had been made by the Charmat method. My first thought was that I was surprised they were making note of that … but this was closely followed by the thought that how many normal people (ie not wine trade!) would know what the Charmat method was.

It’s reasonable to assume that a good proportion of the wine buying public probably doesn’t care – ultimately, if a wine tastes good and is at the right price point, most of us aren’t that interested in the ins and outs of production. But … if you’re one of the ones who is interested … here we go!

This method of sparkling wine production was first patented by an Italian, Federico Martinetti, in 1895 – and it was, unsurprisingly, know as the metodo martinetti. In 1907, after some tweaks and development, it was patented again in 1907 by a Frenchman from Bordeaux, Eugène Charmat – which is where it gets one of its modern names. It’s also referred to as cuve close (in French), the tank method, granvas (Spanish) or autoclave (Italian).

In Champagne (and other premium sparkling wine) production, a still base wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in a bottle. This fermentation (and subsequent ageing) can be anywhere from 15 months up to … well, as long as you want really. Vintage Champagne is required to spend a minimum of THREE YEARS in bottle. Above all, this is time consuming – as a producer you can’t react to consumer demand and get more wine out there quickly! But it’s also expensive (you’ve got bottles sitting around for years not generating cash flow) and labour intensive (in some instances, those bottles will be turned by hand).

The Charmat method solves all of these problems. You take your still base wine (made the same as any wine) but instead of putting it into individual bottles, you put it into a pressurised tank. You then add your yeast and sugar and allow the secondary fermentation to happen. This is a rapid secondary ferment – you’re most certainly not hanging around for years – you’re looking at one to six weeks. The longer the ferment, the finer and more durable the bubbles and the better preserved the wine’s aromatics. Once the winemaker is happy with where things are at, the contents of the tank are chilled to below 0°C and fermentation stops. Keeping the (now bubbly) wine at a low temperature and under pressure, it is then filtered and then bottled (using a counter pressure filler – keeping all those bubbles in).

Straight away – you can see that this is FASTER. It’s also CHEAPER – you don’t need to have hundred or thousands of bottles hanging around the winery and monitoring what’s going on in one large tank is a lot easier than worrying about all those bottles – making it LESS LABOUR INTENSIVE. And guess what? The wines are sometimes (but not always!) cheaper.

Of course, you don’t get to take a few shortcuts without some impact on the finished product. While sparkling wines made using the Champagne/traditional method will often be described as bready, yeasty, toasty, brioche-like you don’t get any of those characteristics with a wine made by the Charmat method. Wines made by the Charmat method are more likely to taste like the base wine plus bubbles. This means the method is really well suited to wines that drink well young and don’t have great ageing capacity.

In general, you won’t find CHARMAT METHOD plastered all over a wine’s label – so it’s not going to be immediately obvious if a wine has been made by this method. If you’re at a cellar door or talking to winery staff, they might be able to tell you and often the tasting/technical notes for a wine will include this information.

If you want to try a Charmat method wine – check out the Golding Last Hurrah. This is an incredibly consistent sparkling from one of our favourite Adelaide Hills producers.