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Cabernet Sauvignon: A Wine Lover’s DIY Starter Pack

It’s the world’s most popular red wine for a good reason

Vicki Denig By July 22, 2022
ancient sailing ship and St Michel cathedral in Bordeaux
Ancient sailing ship and St Michel cathedral in Bordeaux. Photo courtesy of iStock.

Cabernet Sauvignon is, for many people, a gateway into wine — and for a good reason. These plush, full-bodied reds are produced all over the globe, across a variety of price points, ensuring that delicious, well-made reds are available to just about everyone at a great price. 

But not all Cabernet Sauvignons are created equal. The unique nuances found in a bottle of Cabernet depends on the region in which it’s produced, the winemaker’s particular style, and the vinification choices made along the way. Nevertheless, regardless of how it’s made, Cabernet is a grape that retains its own unique taste. This means that if you understand and recognize the grape, you can use that knowledge as a foundation to understand different terroirs. It’s a project worthy of any wine lover’s time.

Quick Facts

  • Origin: France
  • Key regions: California, Bordeaux, Chile, Australia, South Africa, Italy 
  • Grape characteristics: Dark and thick skins, late budding, low yielding
  • Taste characteristics: acid and tannins are both high 

About Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon was born in southwestern France in the 17th century, from a natural cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It remains a significant grape, particularly in Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon has also found great viticultural success across the U.S., South America, Australia, Lebanon, and beyond. In Old World growing regions today, Cabernet Sauvignon is generally used in blends, where it is often vinified with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, and/or Petit Verdot. In New World regions, the grape is often made into a single-varietal wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon from cooler-climate regions tends to be more restrained and shows flavors of red fruits, eucalyptus, menthol, and hints of pepper. In warmer regions, it tends to show much more ripe and fruit-driven notes, specifically of jammy red and dark fruits, ripe cherries, and sweet spice. Regardless of where it is from, well-made Cabernet Sauvignon is generally a great cellar candidate, thanks to its high tannins, and ample acidity. 

Bordeaux, France

The majority of the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in France is found in Bordeaux, specifically on the Left Bank. Here, the grape thrives in the region’s gravelly soils, which retain heat and allow fruit to optimally ripen. Cabernet Sauvignon is frequently blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and/or a handful of other permitted varieties. 

California, USA

Cabernet Sauvignon plays a starring role in California, particularly in the Napa Valley. Well-made expressions are known for their palate-coating flavor profiles and distinct ability to age. Outside of Napa, Cabernet Sauvignon is also a key player in the Central Coast, specifically within the Paso Robles AVA. 

Chile

Cabernet Sauvignon is finding a solid home in South America, particularly in Chile. Cabernet Sauvignon is most widely cultivated in the Colchagua Valley, located in central Chile, as well as in the more northerly Maipo. Well-made Cabernet from Chile will generally cost much less than well-made expressions from California or Bordeaux. 

Australia

Although Cabernet Sauvignon is planted across Australia, its top-tier expressions hail from Coonawarra in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia. Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the signature terra rossa soils of Coonawarra, as they provide excellent drainage for the plants.

South Africa

Cabernet is the most widely planted red wine grape in the country, particularly in Paarl and Stellenbosch. South African Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be medium-to-full bodied and shows ripe, fruit-driven flavors of cherry, cinnamon, chocolate, and sweet spice. 

12 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon to try:

Argentina

bottle of Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon

Catena Alta Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon (~$55)

The Catena family has been pioneering Mendoza’s potential for high-quality wines for more than 120 years, and although their main focus has long been Malbec, this varietal Cabernet Sauvignon is not to be missed. Fruit for this wine comes from Luján de Cuyo, the unofficial grand cru growing site of Mendoza, and ages for 18 months in French oak barrels prior to bottling.

Australia

bottle of Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Black Label

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (~$36)

Coonawarra is one of Australia’s most lauded areas for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, thanks to its signature terra rossa soils. These red-hued soils are well-draining and help regulate the amount of water that goes to the vines, meaning that fruit can reach optimal ripeness without becoming too flabby. Approximately 63% of Coonawarra’s vineyards are dedicated to the grape. Wynns is one of the region’s renowned producers, and this Black Label cuvée shows why. The wine’s plush yet balanced profile is characterized by firm yet approachable tannins, which render it beautiful to drink now but also worthy for short to medium-term aging.  

Chile

bottle of 2019 Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvée Alexandre Apalta Vineyard

Casa Lapostolle Colchagua Valley Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (~$23)

Lapostolle was founded by Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle — of the famed Grand Marnier liqueur — and her husband Cyril de Bournet, in the heart of the Colchagua Valley. After stumbling upon 100-year-old, pre-phylloxera vines in the area, the couple recognized the potential for making top-tier wines in the region. Lapostolle wines are vinifed by Chile-born winemaker Andrea León. The estate describes the wines as “French in essence, Chilean by birth,” and this Cabernet Sauvignon is no exception. Fruit for this wine is harvested entirely by hand, vinified in steel, and aged for 14 months in a variety of oak vessels. The entire winery is slated to be fully biodynamic certified by the end of 2022.

France

bottle of Chateau La Fleur Peyrabon Pauillac

Château La Fleur Peyrabon Pauillac 2019 (~$405)

While finding quality Left Bank Bordeaux on a budget is a difficult feat nowadays, Château Peyrabon regularly over delivers. While the estate dates back to 1766, its modern day story begins in 1998 with Patrick Bernard, one of the key players in the Bordeaux-based négociant Millesima. La Fleur Peyrabon is produced mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Pauillac. A designated Cru Bourgeois, the wine is medium-bodied, floral, and shows beautiful tension. Unlike the more fruit-driven wines of the New World, this is a restrained, earthier expression of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Italy

bottle of Tenuta dei Sette Cieli Indaco Toscana IGT

Sette Cieli Tuscany Indaco 2014 (~$85)

Sette Cieli was founded by the Ratti family in 1994, and today encompasses 17 acres of vineyards between Bolgheri and Castagneto Carducci. The winery’s name translates to “Estate of Seven Skies,” which pays homage to the property’s hilltop location. Winemaking at the estate is spearheaded by Elena Pozzolini, who honed her skills alongside Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman on the West Coast of the United States. Indaco is crafted from an organically-farmed blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot. Post native yeast fermentation, the wine ages for 18 months in French oak, 35% of which is new.

Spain

bottle of Miguel Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon

Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon Black Label 2015 (~$103)

Fruit for this wine comes from a 71.5-acre vineyard site and is vinified in steel prior to aging for 18 months in French oak, 85% of which is new. The estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon is best known for its triumph at the Paris Wine Olympiad, where it beat out some of the most famous red wines in the world. The wine continually garners high praise from critics worldwide and has become a sought-after bottle for collectors around the globe.

South Africa

bottle of Boekenhoutskloof Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon

Boekenhoutskloof Franschhoek Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (~$147)

Don’t let the spelling scare you away. Founded in 1776, Boekenhoutskloof is one of South Africa’s leading estates for high-quality wines. The estate’s name translates to “ravine of the Boekenhout,” a beloved indigenous tree that’s native to the area. Fruit for this wine is picked from individual vineyard sites that have been organically farmed for over a decade, and the winery describes this cuvée as “a classic Cabernet Sauvignon that respects the signature Boekenhoutskloof style.” 

California

bottle of 2018 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (~$125)

Legendary winemaker Cathy Corison first began buying grapes in Napa back in 1987. Her focus was always to make bold-yet-elegant wines with a distinct sense of place; more than three decades later, her wines have become benchmark bottles for site-specific Cabernet from Napa Valley. Fruit for this pioneering wine comes from three different vineyards in St. Helena and the wine ages for 20 months in oak, 50% of which is new, prior to bottling. Corison has also made wine at a number of legendary estates, including Staglin, Long Meadow Ranch, and Chappellet Vineyard. 

Bottle of Stags Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon (~$201)

Back in 1976, the Judgment of Paris tasting shook the wine industry to its core, as it was the first time that American wines publicly beat their French counterparts. In the red wine sphere, Stag’s Leap Cabernet took home the trophy — meaning that drinking the wine today is like drinking a piece of history. 

bottle of Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Terrace

Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (~$330)

Although Diamond Creek wines cost significantly more than many of their California counterparts, these age-worthy wines merit a place in reputable cellars everywhere. Diamond Creek is unique, in that the entire estate is solely focused on the production of single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines. This Red Rock Terrace cuvée comes from a 7-acre vineyard sited rooted in red-hued soils, due in part to its high iron content. The estate describes this wine as their most accessible and earliest drinking, thanks to its velvety tannins and well-balanced flavor profile. 

bottle of Foxglove Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles

Foxglove Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (~$21)

Contrary to the three California Cabernet Sauvignons above, this affordable and delicious bottling comes from the more southerly Paso Robles AVA, located on the Golden State’s famed Central Coast. Foxglove was founded in 1991 by Bob Varner of Varner Wines, with the goal of bringing budget-friendly yet high-quality wines to the masses. Fruit for Foxglove wines comes from just south of San Luis Obispo and is greatly influenced by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Beyond its location, this wine is also unique in that 94% of it is aged in stainless steel rather than oak, so as to preserve the wine’s fresh, fruit-driven character.

Washington

bottle of Andrew Will Cabernet Sauvignon Champoux Vineyard

Andrew Will Winery Yakima Valley Champoux Cabernet 2017 (~$42)

Inspired by the great wines of Bordeaux, Chris Camarda planted 30 acres of vines in the Yakima Valley back in 1989. Since its early days, all wines at Andrew Will have been labeled with their specific vineyard site displayed, so as to pay homage to the unique corners of the AVA from which their fruit comes. Camarda believes that all of his vineyards boast unique character traits that set them apart from one another, and thus their vinification and bottling should reflect the same. Camarda first vinified this Champoux Cabernet Sauvignon in 2017. Fruit comes from the Horse Heaven Hills appellation and spends 19 months in barrel prior to release. For a full-yet-balanced expression of Washington Cabernet,  this bottle is the answer.