The success of collectable and age-worthy cabernet sauvignon-based wines made by celebrated wineries and chateaux in Napa and Bordeaux inspired many producers to have a go. As a result, cabernet sauvignon ranks as the most widely planted wine grape variety, covering roughly 5 per cent of the world’s vineyard acreage. But I wonder about cabernet sauvignon’s popularity with consumers compared with the dizzying array of wines made from other varieties?
France and the United States lead the way in cabernet sauvignon production, with significant volumes produced each year in Australia, Argentina, Chile, China and South Africa. The best bottles continue to be expensive, given the costs of production in the vineyard and winery. Extensive aging in oak barrels is necessary to tame cabernet’s firm tannins, make for a more approachable wine, with escalating costs for purchasing new oak barrels and aging wine for 18 months or longer prior to release.
Although cabernet sauvignon vines grow well in warm and cool climates, it can be a struggle to ripen the fruit if the weather is too cool. The ripe cassis, blackberry and cherry flavours of cabernet sauvignon appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Underripe flavours, often described as leafy, herbal or bell pepper, don’t impress many wine drinkers.
The challenges facing cabernet sauvignon producers mean it’s rare to encounter a wine made exclusively from the grape. Most bottles that declare cabernet sauvignon on the label are blended wines. In the United States, a winery can label its wine as cabernet sauvignon if the variety makes up at least 75 per cent of the blend; other countries insist upon a ratio of 85 per cent. In either case, there is a lot of leeway to use other varieties to build complexity by adding more generous fruit flavours while balancing aggressive tannins and acidity.
Value hunters are better served by inexpensive red wines produced from grenache, malbec or gamay, which produce softer and fruity styles of wines. Cheap cabernet sauvignon can be tough work – dry, savoury wines that need to be tamed by a meal or, perhaps, rimming your wine glass with salt. (While there are terrific values found in Bordeaux these days, affordable bottles use merlot as the dominant grape variety.) When I find successful examples, often from Chile, South Africa or Argentina, I’m sure to recommend them. But more compelling examples demand $20 or more a bottle, which makes them more a splurge item given most wine sells in Canada for $15 and less a bottle.
Bread & Butter Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (United States), $19.95
Made a modern and glossy style, Bread & Butter produces a ripe and polished expression of cabernet. Full-bodied and rich in character, this shows robust oak derived spice and chocolate notes alongside cherry and plum flavours. It’s got that Black Forest Cake character that spells mass appeal. The texture is smooth and appealing, with structure and balance that add to the appeal. Drink now to 2025. Available in Ontario at the above price, $23.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $28.49 in Saskatchewan, $22.99 in Manitoba, $23.99 in New Brunswick,
Cigar Box Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (Chile), $12.95
This fragrant and fresh expression of Maipo cabernet sauvignon displays herbal and dark fruit aromas and flavours with chocolate and smoke accents. It’s dry, with vibrant acidity and some gripping tannins, which makes it more classic in style than most similarly priced red wines, which are often sweet and simple in nature. Drink now to 2025. Available in Ontario at the above price ($10.95 until Jan. 29), $18.34 in Newfoundland.
Delheim Grand Reserve 2017 (South Africa), $31.95
Located in Stellenbosch, the family-owned Delheim Winery introduced its flagship Grand Reserve Red in 1981. Only made in exceptional years, this cabernet sauvignon-based blend (there are small additions of merlot and cabernet franc) delivers concentration and complexity. A core of ripe dark fruit gains layers from herbal, tobacco and vanilla notes, with appealing vibrancy and structure. Drink now to 2032. Available in Ontario.
Kendall-Jackson Estates Collection Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (United States), $49.95
The popularity of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve label, which blends grapes from the Jackson family’s vineyards across California to produce consistently flavourful and concentrated wines, might make some underestimate this Alexander Valley Cabernet. That would be a mistake. Alexander Valley in Sonoma County is a choice spot for cabernet in California, rivalling Napa in terms of quality and character. This estate-grown cabernet includes 22 per cent merlot in a red wine with a sweet and vibrant character. Drink now to 2030. Available in Ontario.
Left Field The Hatchling Merlot/Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc 2019 (New Zealand), $21.95
The winemaking team doesn’t have an agenda when it comes to making the Hatchling. They look at the range of grapes available from Hawkes Bay each vintage and seek to blend ones that will combine to create a compellingly tasty red wine. In 2019 that saw tempranillo join merlot and both cabernets, resulting in an aromatic and flavourful red. This is a fruity wine that gains interest from spice, olive and oak-derived vanilla and toast notes. Bright acidity and gentle tannins contribute to the structure and enjoyment. Drink now to 2025. Available in Ontario.
Primus Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (Chile), $22.95
A classically layered Maipo cabernet made by the Veramonte winery, this suggests a mix of cedar, herbs and dark fruit flavours, with polished tannins and a lingering finish. The ripe core of fruit is nicely balanced by acidity and alcohol, making for an age-worthy dry red wine with serious structure. The full-bodied yet juicy character makes this a cabernet you can enjoy on its own or with a meal. Drink now to 2026. Available in Ontario.
Sterling Vintner’s Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 (United States), $19.95
Sterling’s popular silver label Californian cabernet is made in a ripe and easy-to-appreciate style, with concentrated dark fruit and chocolate flavours. This is medium-bodied, with a round and soft texture that goes nicely with the sweet fruit character. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $17.49 in Saskatchewan, $17.99 in Manitoba, $16.95 in Quebec, $19.99 in Prince Edward Island, $20.44 in Newfoundland.
Vina Perez Cruz Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (Chile), $15.95
Perez Cruz is a specialist red-wine producer in Chile’s Maipo Valley. This Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon has been consistently well-made and enjoyable since its inception in 2002. The 2020 vintage offers a smooth and savoury expression of cabernet, with nicely integrated dark fruit and herbal flavours. Appealing depth and length. This is worthy of decanting to coax out more complexity and enjoying in a wine glass with a big bowl. Drink now to 2025. Available in Ontario at the above price, $16.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
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