One of the most popular wines in the world, the cabernet sauvignon grape variety has helped make Napa Valley one of the most expensive wine producing regions in the world. It is loved by millions of wine drinkers globally from the tweed and red trouser wearers of old-money Britain to the modern social media superstars. And to everyone else just looking for a glass of red with their steak. But what exactly is the cabernet sauvignon taste profile?
Cabernet Sauvignon is a bold, full-bodied red wine with notes of blackcurrant, blackberry, pencil shavings, herbs, and baking spices. It has moderate to high acidity and high tannins. The region the grapes are grown in and how they’re handled at the winery will change the precise flavors in the wine. But this is generally what you can expect cabernet sauvignon to taste like.
The universal appeal of this grape variety not only comes from the intrinsic qualities of the grapes but also from the brilliance of winemakers in creating unique styles at different prices worldwide. Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t just for the super-rich. There is a whole world of great cabernets out there that us normal folks can afford and enjoy.
Cabernet Sauvignon Tasting Notes
There is a huge variety of styles within cabernet sauvignon (kab-er-nay soh-vin-yon) wine that can change dramatically depending on where the grapes were grown.
We’ll look at each region individually so you can pick the one that best suits your tastes. This should simplify things for you when looking for a cab sauv (the shorthand all the cool kids are using) to drink.
Bordeaux, France (bor-doh)
Main Flavors – Blackcurrant, tobacco leaf, pencil shavings, anise, plum
Bordeaux is the homeland of cabernet sauvignon and also where you’ll find the wine’s most savory style. Although it is rarely used as a single varietal, it is the dominant grape in some of the most famous (and expensive) wines in the world.
The gravelly soils of the “left bank” of the Bordeaux wine region are ideal for growing cabernet sauvignon. Here, you’ll find the cabernet-dominated “Bordeaux Blends”. If you’re after a Bordeaux wine blend like this, look out for wines from the following appellations: Medocs, Moulis, Margaux, Paulliac, Saint-Estephe, Saint-Julien, and Pessac-Leognan.
Even within appellations, the styles will vary between winemakers. But these appellations mostly produce cabernet sauvignon dominant wine blends meant for aging. If you’re a fan of the more savory flavor notes from cabernet, then these are the best areas to buy from.
Napa Valley and Sonoma, California
Main Flavors – Blackcurrant, blackberry, tobacco leaf, mint, graphite
Everything is bigger in the US. Well, cabernet sauvignon wines certainly are.
The blackcurrant and blackberry flavors dominate with an immense concentration in the most expensive bottles. These wines can take a lot of oak and are often dizzyingly intense. One famous Californian winemaker suggests that these wines are “great for tasting, but not for drinking” as getting through a full bottle can feel like a battle.
There are, of course, lots of less intense cabernet sauvignon wines from California which are very enjoyable at a younger age. They tend to be appealing, fruit forward wine styles, offset with more savory and herb notes.
Trying to find anything from Napa or Sonoma that is “affordable” is an arduous task however as many of these get very high scores from top wine critics and rating sites like Parker and Wine Spectator. This makes them very popular with collectors, investors, and rich people who like to pretend they know about wine.
Lake County, just to the North of Napa Valley, is a good place to look for some more affordable cabernet sauvignon. It’s slightly “dustier” in style (referring to the feeling after swallowing), but is still a fruit driven, intense wine.
Central Valley, Chile
Main Flavors – Blackcurrant, black cherry, spices, green bell pepper, violets, graphite
If you’re looking for inexpensive wine, Chile offers a much more affordable collection of cabernet sauvignons with their own distinctive style.
Chilean cabernet wines taste more earthy with spice notes and the classic blackcurrant and dark berry flavors. The “green” cabernet sauvignon flavors are also more dominant here. This gives a slightly “fresher” feel to the wines – somewhere in between the savory style of Bordeaux and the intense blackcurrant/berry of California.
Central Valley wines are easy drinking although some have very intense, unpleasant, “pencil shaving” notes. But there is some very high-quality cabernet sauvignon wine produced here too. These will generally be labeled as coming from one of the smaller regions within the Central Valley area:
- Aconcagua – The northernmost region growing cab sauv produces wine with more structure (tannins) and savory notes. These wines are ideal for aging and can be a bit “rough and ready” if drunk young. If you enjoy a more rustic French style, this is your region.
- Maipo – Moving south we get to Maipo Valley where the cooling winds and summer heat produces a more “Mediterranean” climate. Most cabernet sauvignons from Maipo resemble the intensity and fruit style of Californian wines. Maipo Alto is the best region for these wines, though you’ll still pay a pretty penny for one.
- Cachapoal – Chilean cabernet sauvignon wines from Cachapoal are more “elegant” than those from Maipo. This means the flavor wheel is more balanced and subtle with fruit, savory, and spice notes. These wines are a bit “brighter” and more accessible from a young age than those from Aconcagua. The fruit notes are slightly more dominant.
- Colchagua – Blackcurrant, plum, pencil shavings, and clove dominate the rich cabernets from Colchagua Valley. These are often made with more age in mind, giving a bit too much tannin and spice in their younger years. Wines from Colchagua can be drunk young but the sub-region Apalta produces wines that need some bottle age.
Main Flavors – Blackcurrant, blackberry, pencil shavings, bay leaf, white pepper
Coonawarra and Langhorne Creek in Southern Australia both produce exceptional cab sauv with unique bay leaf and white pepper notes added to the classic flavors of the grape.
Langhorne Creek – Home to some seriously hot temperatures and seriously big wines. You can expect intense savory notes of graphite, licorice, and spices alongside the concentrated berry notes. These wines can reach an ABV of around 15% too.
If you like big, bold wine that’s not too fruity then Langhorne Creek should be right up your street.
Coonawarra – Considerably further south we have Coonawarra. Here we find some very affordable cabernets with bay leaf and mint balancing the black and red fruit flavors. Mechanization has allowed a lot of really good value wines to be produced in this region. But you’ll also find some top-quality, hand-harvested cabernets too.
Both regions will often bottle even their best wines under a screw cap – a common practice with South Australian wine. The closing doesn’t matter for quality, and any wine enthusiasts who tell you otherwise are lying. The only thing to note is that screw cap wines age much more slowly than cork.
I was fortunate to inherit bottles of the same wine, from the same vintage, under both cork and screw cap. Letting my inner geek out, I kept them under the same conditions and tasted both after 10 years in the bottle.
The result: the screw cap was considerably “younger tasting” so keep that in mind.
Eucalyptus in Australian Cabernet
There have been rumblings, suggestions, assertions, and various other noises about the presence of a “eucalyptus” note exclusive to Australian cabernet sauvignon. This was first dismissed as silly. Then suggested that perhaps it was because the grapes were grown near eucalyptus trees. And finally declared “a mystery”.
My opinion is that the unique “green herb” character of the Australian cabernet wine profile was described as eucalyptus by some PR company. And, since both things are Australian, loads of wineries ran with it.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Taste is subjective.
Australian cabernet sauvignon is undoubtedly unique. Just don’t believe anyone trying to sell you an Australian cab on some story about eucalyptus trees. It’s marketing and only marketing.
Origins of Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon (literally “Wild Cabernet” in French) is native to the Bordeaux region of France. It is the result of a natural cross between sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc grape varieties.
Initially, nobody believed that this world-class black grape could be the result of a cross with a white grape variety. But, in 1997, researchers at UC Davis confirmed that it was.
First cultivated in France in the 17th century, cabernet sauvignon is now the most widely planted wine grape variety in the world. This popularity is partly due to the immense success of Bordeaux blends and Napa Valley Cabernet as premier wines.
But it is also a popular red wine grape with growers as it is very easy to cultivate. Thanks to thick skins, naturally hardy vines, late budding (to avoid frost), and low yields, this plant produces high-quality ripe cabernet grapes with minimal effort.
How to Serve Cabernet Sauvignon Wine
Cabernet sauvignon should generally be decanted for around 1 hour and then served in a large wine glass at 17-20°C (62-68°F).
The air exposure will allow the wine to fully release all the flavors.
However, I’m a big believer in drinking the wine you like how you like. So, it’s totally ok to serve however you would normally prefer it. But this is generally the best way to get the full cabernet sauvignon taste profile and the most enjoyment from the wine, which is kind of the point.
Cabernet Sauvignon Food Pairing
I will always say you should eat whatever you enjoy with your wine. It’s your wine and your food after all.
But let’s look at some ideas if you’re looking to pair cab sauv with food:
It’s a full-bodied red wine with intense fruit and savory notes, high tannins, and medium to high acidity. Looking at each of these characteristics in turn allows us to build a complete picture of what pairs well with the cabernet sauvignon taste profile. For even more information on what makes the perfect food pairing for cab sauv, check out our full article here.
Intense Fruit and Savory Notes
Cab sauv has a big and bold flavor profile. So you want to look for food with similarly intense flavors to pair with it so one doesn’t overwhelm the other.
In general, steak and beef dishes are the obvious choices. Beef is full of flavor and tends to be roasted/cooked in a lot of butter or oil, often served with heavy or rich sauces. All this makes an ideal pairing with cabernet sauvignon wine.
Be careful with filet though. The lightest flavored cut of beef may not have the richness needed to stand up to the flavors of cab sauv depending on how it is cooked and what it is served with. More delicate dishes like steak tartare will similarly be overwhelmed by cabernet sauvignon.
Other red meats can work well, but the same principles apply. Venison and lamb when roasted or sauteed in butter will go really nicely with a big cabernet. But sous vide or grilled may work better with a lighter wine so you don’t lose the flavors.
Rich sauces made with demi-glace, beef stock, and red wine pair nicely with great cabernet sauvignon wines. An intense meat ragu, made in the traditional way with bone marrow, bacon, and mince along with tomatoes will also go really nicely. Think dark sauces and decadent red meat dishes and you’ll be fine.
Most cabernet sauvignons work beautifully with dishes that are heavy in umami flavor – mushrooms and truffles being the big two.
Roasted portabello mushrooms, mushroom pizza, or even something that has a porcini mushroom cream sauce may work really well, especially if there’s truffle shaved on it.
The reason? The umami in the dish brings out the fruit flavors in the wine.
It’s got to be BIG umami flavors though, anything subtle will still be overwhelmed.
Full Body and High Tannins
Most wine recommendations usually suggest “protein with tannins”.
So to match the high tannins of the wine we’re looking at chunks of meat. Steaks, roasts, and rich stews (generally with red meat) are friends of high tannin wines.
The full body style means you need intensity in the sauce too. Beef Bourguignon would be too light for a cab sauv. Whereas short ribs, often in an intense, sticky sauce, are perfect as you’ll feel the fruit and savory notes bursting from the wine when paired with the meat and rich sauce.
This may seem like a cabernet won’t work with vegetarian dishes. But cabernet sauvignon tastes amazing with mushroom risotto, I know it’s the laziest example of vegetarian food ever.
Seitan will also work nicely though, especially if there’s a rich sauce to go with it and some roasted potatoes and vegetables. Braised red cabbage is another awesome veggie side that works well with cabernet.
Medium to High Acidity
Higher acidity wants to be paired with other acidic things, or fat. So ideally you’re looking at roasted red meat with fat on it and/or a rich sauce. The sauce is best when finished with butter – or “monter au beurre” if you’re feeling fancy – which is most common in restaurant environments or if you just have an unhealthy butter obsession like me.
This also makes cabernets great for pairing with cheeses.
With so much intensity in the wine though, we need strong cheese to pair with it. In France, it is a good rule of thumb that regional cheese matches the regional wine so, following this logic, Roquefort is the obvious choice. It’s a big, powerful blue cheese with flavor intensity to spare and goes great with cab sauv.
If you prefer hard cheese then aged cheddar, Gruyère, or Gouda also make great pairings. However, they need to be as aged as you can get to make sure they have enough punch to go with the bold wine.
Soft cheese lovers can enjoy baked camembert, as long as it’s a stinky one.
Is the Cabernet Sauvignon Taste Profile for You?
Cabernet sauvignon produces a bold red wine with blackcurrant and dark berries, hints of mint, green pepper, pencil shavings, and baking spices. It’s ideal for anyone who likes full-on flavor from their wine and isn’t scared of some tannins and the flavors that come with oak contact.
Wine drinkers today can explore a diverse range of cabernet sauvignon wines. From the more fruit-forward styles of California, to the more savory offerings of Bordeaux, to the earthy and spicy wines of Chile. There really is something for everyone within the broad cabernet sauvignon style.
So, if the cabernet sauvignon taste profile sounds like your ideal drinking buddy, go forth and drink great wine.