One of the keys to Cabernet’s success in Bordeaux is that it has always been prized for its resistance. Many etymologists believe that Cabernet relates to the Biturica grape that the Roman poet Pliny recorded in the year 71 A.D. as being planted in Bordeaux because of its hardiness. It is certain that Cabernet’s first sighting in more recent history was in the 18th Century when Baron de Brane, owner of Château Mouton, pulled up many of his white grapes and replaced them with the black variety, Vidure (from the words Vigne Dure or hardy vine). Today Cabernet is still sometimes referred to as Vidure in the Graves . Yet Cabernet’s true recognition as the great grape variety of Bordeaux only came towards the end of the 19th Century when, after the ravages of phylloxera and oidium, it was widely planted.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a brash, vigorous vine that grows easily in a variety of different soils all over the world. It survives cold winters and buds late. However it does need dry, well-drained soils and lots of sunshine to ripen properly. This explains why the gravel peninsula of the Médoc and Graves is its perfect environment. On the Right Bank , the more temperate climate and the damp clay soils have not been so favorable to Cabernet.
The key to producing good quality Cabernet is to control its growth. It grows extremely easily, producing lots of leaves and shoots, and therefore needs to be pruned quite severely and hedged during the summer months. Cabernet produces small, round berries that are thick skinned and blue tinged. This can be crucial at the end of the growing season when rain can risk piercing and rotting the grapes and diluting the juice. Its thick skin also means the variety is not attacked by insects. In the past, the disadvantage of Cabernet Sauvignon was its relatively low yields. Yet today, in our search for quality, this characteristic has become more of a virtue.
Cabernet’s berries contain a very high ratio of pip to pulp (almost one to 12), which can make the wine harsh and tannic if it is not tempered by other grape varieties. In California, Cabernet Sauvignon is chiefly produced as a single varietal wine. But more recently,Cabernet Sauvignon is increasingly being produced as part of a ” Bordeaux blend” or “Meritage” wine. In the cool maritime climate of Bordeaux , the lush acidity and soft fruitiness of Merlot or Cabernet Franc fleshes out the sometimes hard structure and austere tannins of Cabernet. In the various appellations of the Médoc the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon varies according to the changing nature of the soils. In Margaux, which has a high proportion of gravel, one finds a higher percentage of Cabernet in the blend. To the north, in St. Estèphe, the soil has more clay content; one therefore finds more Merlot and Cabernet Franc grown here. Throughout the New World , Cabernet is successfully blended with a wide variety of grapes including Syrah, Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Merlot to soften it.
A word should be said here about Cabernet Franc. In spite of its name, it bears little relation to Cabernet Sauvignon. In hot years, Cabernet Franc comes into its own in Bordeaux , bringing wonderful spicy, minty aromas and fresh acidity to the blend. At times, however, it takes a great effort to ripen the grape sufficiently. It is much more at home on the clay limestone soils of the Right Bank of Bordeaux than in the Médoc, and it plays its starring role in the wine world at Château Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion where it makes up an important 65 percent of the blend.
Cabernet Sauvignon is usually harvested during the month of October. Most winemakers juggle between waiting for optimum ripeness in their grapes while gambling with the vagaries of the autumn climate. When the gamble pays off, this can make the difference between an average and a great vintage.
During vinification, Cabernet grapes release a high level of phenolics that provide a rich palate of aromas in the resulting wine. To encourage these aromas and to make the wine softer, Cabernet is often fermented quite fast with frequent pumping over and quite high temperatures. A host of concentration techniques are increasingly being employed in the top estates of Bordeaux to accentuate the rich fruitiness of Cabernet.
An important quality of Cabernet is its affinity with oak. The tough fruit tannins of the grape are gradually leached by wood aging, especially if the wine is stored for a year or so in small new barrels made from tightly grained French oak. One of the great joys of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux is its ageability; it takes time and patience for a wine to evolve from a young, tannic wine into the hallowed great clarets of legend. It is certainly due to the classic vintages of Bordeaux that the grape has such a lofty reputation today. It is the most long-lived of all wines and, as it develops over the years, unfolds into a delicious palette of aromas and flavors that will continue to fascinate and tantalize.