Varietal 101: Cabernet Sauvignon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am feeling pretty inspired by our trip last weekend to Perrucci Family Vineyards. Harvest was in full swing, and we watched them pick thousands of pounds of beautiful fruit. The Perrucci’s produce a lot of wines, but their flagship is made from Cabernet Sauvignon. Above is a photo of some of their estate fruit, hiding safely behind some bird netting.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. That’s right, it’s half red grape and half white grape. Totally odd, but grapes are funny like that. It originated in southwestern France in the 17th century, and since then it’s become the most widely recognized grape in the world. It’s planted in nearly every major wine producing country and makes some of the world’s most sought-after, expensive, and powerful wines. It’s pretty easy to grow, due to its thick skin and resistance to rot and frost. It’s America’s darling for sure.

The style of Cabernet Sauvignon wines can range from low in alcohol, restrained, lean and austere to ripe, spicy, and powerful with lush flavors and round edges. Cab tends to be lower in acid than other grapes, which means that it has to be grown and made into wine very carefully if it’s going to be built for long-haul aging (acidity helps preserve a wine). Many high end cabs are built to age, but most of them you find in stores are meant to be consumed within the first 3 or 4 years. If you spent less than $40 on your bottle of cab, chances are you should drink it up sooner rather than later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPairing food with rich, red wines can be a little tricky, but there are some rules of thumb you can follow to ensure the best results. First of all, tannin plays a major role in the types of food you can pair with a wine. Young, tannic cabs should never be paired with spicy food, because the tannins will make the spice even hotter (sometimes uncomfortably so). Additionally, tannins pair harmoniously with fatty meats, such as a rib-eye steak. Softer, aged, or less-tannic styles of cab are better off with leaner cuts of meat like a filet mignon. Acidity also plays a role – it helps cut through the fattiness like tannins do. Think of a rich, firm tannined, juicy young cab paired with slow-braised beef or lamb. YUM. Red meat really is the classic accompaniment to Cabernet Sauvignon, so you can’t really go wrong with it. Just be sure to match your tannin with the fattiness of the cut of meat and you will be in for a treat. One final thing to consider when pairing a cab with your meal is that it can clash with certain vegetables. Tannic red wines do not go well with brussel sprouts, asparagus, and artichokes. So if you are cooking up a veggie to serve along-side your delicious steak, steer clear of those.

Choosing the correct stemware for your Cabernet Sauvignon is also a great way to accentuate its complex flavors and aromas. I like to serve it in a “Bordeaux” style wine glass; a large bowl, tall sides, and tulip shape with bring out the best in your cab. The shape of the glass increases the rate at which the wine oxidizes, softening the tannins and showcasing the complexity. While it’s always best to drink your wine out of the proper glass, any large wine glass will do in a pinch.

The world’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the Bordeaux region of France, but Napa is making some strong contenders as well. We really love Cathy Corison’s cabs, made with organic, dry-farmed grapes grown between Rutherford & St. Helena in the Napa Valley. She makes wines with power, grace, and elegance. The style leans towards restrained and low in alcohol, which is unusual for the Napa Valley. She is one of the oldest-school winemakers in the area, her career starting in the 1970’s when it was unheard of to have a woman as a winemaker. She is an inspiration to us ladies in the wine biz, and having met her just once I was in awe. If you see Cathy’s wines for sale, be sure to pick a bottle up.

Whatever your persuasion is, Cabernet Sauvignon is a great grape to get started on if you are just getting into wine. It’s the “gateway wine” for many, and it might just make you fall in love. What are your favorite cabs? Let us know in the comments!