Cabernet Sauvignon and its cousin Cabernet Franc (see below) are the foundation of red bordeaux. The Cabernet Sauvignon has been the most successful of the classic varieties in travelling the world: it is planted wherever wine is made, and its character is strong enough to present a recognizable basic taste whatever the context.
The variety developed in Bordeaux, and began to be noted by name in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Chateau Latour archives hold a letter from the regis-seur, Lamothe, recording his plan in 1808 to plant "8,000 cuttings of the best variety, the Cabernet; they will be planted with care".
Cabernet Sauvignon gives low yields, and is thus only grown where quality wine is the aim. It produces small berries, with thick and very dark skins, which means that there is a low ratio of pulp to skin. This gives a wine that is tannic and very dark in colour. Consequently it is often blended with other varieties, such as Cabernet Franc and Merlot. This is the recipe for the "Bordeaux blend" which has become popular in many New World vineyards as 100% Cabernet Sauvignon has proved too austere. The variety is a late ripener, which restricts its use in the cooler vineyards of France, such as the Loire: Cabernet Franc ripens earlier. It requires moderate temperatures: in over-warm conditions, and with rich soil, the wine can be "jammy", lacking in acidity and with dominant vegetal, "grassy" favours. Despite this, and while the meagre Medoc gravel seems to provide the ideal soil for Cabernet Sauvignon, it will flourish under most conditions.
Tasters identify Cabernet Sauvignon through its colour: dark red with a little purple in it when very young. The colour fades towards brick red with age. The aroma prompts mentions of blackcurrants in young wines, cedar-wood on more mature ones. The taste of young Cabernet Sauvignon is often harsh because of the abundant tannins. It reacts well to oak-ageing, so tasters look for oak notes, and appreciate the harmony between the variety's fruit, tannins and the contribution of new oak when
the wine is aged in new casks. Un-oaked Cabernet Sauvignon will be softer, more direct in taste. Cabernet Sauvignon has a good capacity to mature: great red bordeaux from a good vintage will improve for decades.
Apart from Bordeaux (where it is blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and other more minor varieties), Cabernet Sauvignon is found elsewhere in south-west France in wines such as Bergerac; in the Midi and elsewhere in vins de pays; in the central Loire where it is blended with Cabernet Franc; in the rest of Europe as a modern introduction into Spain and north and central Italy (though isolated plantations date back a century in Rioja, the Duero and Chianti).
In eastern Europe, Bulgaria has 18,000ha (45,000 acres) of Cabernet Sauvignon — as much as Bordeaux — and has established a thriving export market to the UK and Scandinavia for its wares. It is also grown in Romania, Moldova, Russia, Georgia, Greece, Turkey and the Lebanon.
In the USA, California produces serious, quality wines from its 9,060ha (22,400 acres) of Cabernet Sauvignon, mostly in the North Coast counties. It is used as a single variety and, increasingly, blended with other varieties. Chile has had Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards for a century, with very good results.
Australia has had success with the variety in Coonawarra in South Australia, in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, and in isolated cool vineyards in other areas. New Zealand has had less success, but Cabernet Sauvignon vines need a long time to become truly mature (12-15 years) and many of New Zealand's vines are still young. South Africa grows the variety with some success: it is at its best blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc.