First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 19th October, 2019
It is the world’s most popular and most famous grape, grown in virtually every wine-producing country, from China to Lebanon. It is a major component of many of the world’s greatest wines, from Bordeaux to Australia, California, Chile and even Italy.
So why don’t we see more Cabernet Sauvignon? I counted fewer than a dozen bottles with the word Cabernet on the label at my local wine shop, and not even that many at Tesco. True, they had many Bordeaux, some of which would have contained a proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon, but others wouldn’t; on the Right Bank of Bordeaux, Merlot rules supreme, augmented by Cabernet Franc, an earlier-ripening cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is only in Médoc and Pessac-Léognan that Cabernet Sauvignon is dominant.
Part of the problem is Cabernet Sauvignon can be dry and tannic in its youth. Merlot, on the other hand, is ready to drink straight away. This is why the Bordelaise have traditionally blended the two varieties together. One retailer I spoke to said that her customers were more likely to ask for Merlot or Pinot Noir by name.
Another reason for blending is the “doughnut hole”: Cabernet has plenty of aroma, structure and length but can be a little hollow; Merlot (or in Australia Shiraz) fills the centre palate with fruit. Winemakers are allowed to add 15 per cent of another variety to a wine, so a wine labelled Cabernet Sauvignon may actually contain a sizable dollop of Merlot.
South America offers Cabernet in all price brackets; Chile made its name with Cabernet Sauvignon, and still has substantial ungrafted plantings; the wines are typically forward and full of ripe fruits. Those from Argentina tend to be rich, powerful and smooth. Western Australia and Coonawarra both produce some great Cabernet, as does Stellenbosch, in South Africa. Napa Valley, in California, is home to some of the very finest, and most expensive, Cabernets of all.
Classic Cabernet Sauvignon flavours include blackcurrants, cassis and plums, as well, sometimes, as hints of mints and cedar, usually with a good backbone of tannin and acidity (unless it comes from a very warm climate). It is one of the great food wines. Just about any red meat, preferably rare, will go well with Cabernet Sauvignon; choose from steak, roast beef, lamb, ribs, beef cheek, duck breast, venison, meatballs and burgers. Vegetarians should look at mushrooms, red peppers, creamy, cheesy vegetable bakes with beans, and hard cheeses such as Cheddar.
Today, a mini-celebration of Cabernet from four countries, in four very different categories, and all ready to drink. I didn’t want to feature very expensive wines, but the Cathy Corison Napa Valley Cabernet (€132 at Green Man Wines) is amazing.
Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Mendoza, Argentina
Elegant and smooth, with cassis and blackcurrants overlaid with hints of cedar and herbs. Try it with grilled lamb chops or a fillet steak.
From Donnybrook Fair, Dublin 4, donnybrookfair.ie; D-Six Wines, Dublin 6; peggykellys.ie; Deveneys, Dublin 14; Fresh Outlets, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; Grapevine, Dalkey, Co Dublin, onthegrapevine.ie; Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.ie; Wicklow Wine Co, wicklowwineco.ie; the Yard Food Market, Dublin 8.
Montes Alpha Colchagua Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Chile
A very elegant, linear Cabernet with ripe damsons and blackcurrants, a touch of spice and very fine tannins on the finish. A rare steak with chips, or roast stuffed Portobello mushrooms.
From 1601 Off-licence, Kinsale, Co Cork; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Fresh Outlets, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; Dwan’s Off-licence, Dublin 16; wineonline.ie
Mitolo Jester McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Australia
Made partly using the Amarone method, this is a rich powerful, smooth Cabernet with soft, gently rippling ripe dark cherry and cassis, overlaid with dark chocolate. Pair with a grilled or barbecued butterflied leg of lamb.
From Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Fresh Outlets, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.ie; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, jusdevine.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; Sweeneys, Dublin 3, sweeneysd3.ie; Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; wineonline.ie
Clos du Marquis 2006, Saint-Julien
From Médoc, in Bordeaux, this wine is only 44 per cent Cabernet, but it tastes as if the grape makes up a lot more of it. Impeccably balanced and restrained, with fresh blackcurrant fruits and lead pencil and a long, dry finish. Fully mature. Perfect with a rare roast of beef or lamb.