The Evolving Portrait of Cabernet Sauvignon Around the World
Written by Kathleen Willcox Published on March 4, 2023 by The Vintner Project
Cabernet Sauvignon takes up 5% of the world’s total vineyard acreage. That may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that there are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon came by its “King of Grapes” nickname honestly, occupying more acreage than any other grape on the planet, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV).
But, unlike Zinfandel, which has been cultivated in some form since 6000 B.C., Cabernet Sauvignon is a relative newcomer, making its stratospheric rise to dominance even more impressive. The birth of Cabernet Sauvignon is believed to have happened in the 1600s in France, when Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc got together. By the 1700s, it was already planted widely in Bordeaux, but, according to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, Cab’s monarchical rise truly began in the 1990s, when it was then “just” the world’s eighth-most planted grape. Since then, Cabernet’s empire of acreage has more than doubled.
It’s easy to see why: Cabernet Sauvignon is so in demand, it consistently fetches ever-higher prices on the market. This year, the average price for Cabernet Sauvignon in California was up 13.8% year-over-year, according to the California Grape Crush Report.
Cab’s ubiquity prompts the question: what makes this grape so treasured and sought after?
In tastings and conversations with producers across what many consider to be the best regions for Cab, as well as regions in which Cab is emerging as an up-and-coming option, several sentiments emerged: First, Cabernet Sauvignon on its own and in blends is distinct in flavor and structure, and more recognizable across terroirs and aging regimens than most grapes, with signature aromas of blackberry, blackcurrant, black cherries, blueberries, chocolate, tobacco, cedar, and eucalyptus as its calling cards. Secondly, it is brimming with tannins, which give its wines excellent structure. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Cabernet Sauvignon can showcase both a region’s unique characteristics, and a winemaker’s style. A contradiction? Not when it comes to this grape.
More than 70% of the grapes grown in Arizona come from the Willcox AVA. While it is still flying decidedly under the radar, it is a region to watch. With vineyards up to 4,400 feet in elevation, a serious shift from day to night temperatures, and volcanic and alluvial soils, it has the ingredients for a serious winemaking region.
At Chateau Tumbleweed, co-owner and winemaker Joe Bechard, says the terroir allows them to produce Cabernet Sauvignons that “walk the razor’s edge between New World and Old World. We don’t make big, rich, opulent Cabs like Washington or California.”
Instead, Tumbleweed’s Cabernet Sauvignons tend to be more “red fruit driven, spicier, and somewhat leaner, while still having decent tannins,” he says. Part of this comes from the terroir, but it’s also the farming and aging decisions.
“We try not to pick too ripe to keep the fruit and spice fresh and vibrant, and alcohols low,” Bechard explains. “We also try to keep new oak to no more than 20-25%.”
Cabernet Sauvignon will never blend in, even in a blend. But, thanks to the creativity and resourcefulness of producers across the world, it can span a gamut of terroirs and styles, without losing its essence.