Inspired by one of VinePair’s most popular site sections, the Wine 101 podcast takes an educational, easy-to-digest look into the world of wine. This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Louis M. Martini Winery. For more than 85 years, Louis M. Martini Winery has crafted world-class Cabernet Sauvignon from exceptional vineyards of Napa and Sonoma Counties. Our founder believed in a simple, honest premise: The best grapes make the best wine. Today, his legacy of ingenuity, endurance, and passion continue at our historic winery in Napa Valley, with an acclaimed collection of Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Louis M. Martini: Craft your legacy.

Welcome back to Wine 101. In this week’s episode, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the most planted grape varietal in the world: Cabernet Sauvignon. For a long time in the U.S., drinkers most often associated red wine with Cabernet Sauvignon. Unlike other wines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with other varieties. Despite this, the grape retains its distinctive, structured character: A deeper hue from its blue-colored berries, higher amounts of phenolic material, and more tannin structure. Cabernet Sauvignon ages well over a long period of time in French oak barrels, and also evolves year-to-year in the bottle.

The grape was born in the Bordeaux region of France, and it is theorized that the variety didn’t exist before the 18th century. Cabernet Sauvignon is the progeny of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that crossed and produced the new varietal. In the 1800s, the grape made its way into Tuscany — and outside Europe, Cabernet Sauvignon was being grown in Chile and California. In 1976, in the same competition discussed in last week’s Chardonnay episode, a California Cabernet Sauvignon won out over a Bordeaux Cab, skyrocketing the popularity of the California wine. By 2013, there were 80,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards throughout the state. Today, a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon on the market in the U.S. comes from California.

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My name is Keith Beavers and I think I enjoyed the eighties more than the nineties … I think.

What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to episode 19 of VinePair’s “Wine 101 Podcast.” My name is Keith Beavers, and I’m the tastings director of VinePair. How are you doing? Cabernet Sauvignon. We all know Cabernet Sauvignon, but what do we really know about Cabernet Sauvignon? And what do you need to know about Cabernet Sauvignon to really understand Cabernet Sauvignon? And I just keep on saying it. Let’s talk about Cabernet Sauvignon.

During the Chardonnay episode, when I was throwing some stats, and was like, “wow, that’s mind boggling, geez, Chardonnay is everywhere, it must be the most planted grape variety for wine on the planet. Right?” Nah, that’s Cabernet Sauvignon, wine lovers. And I’m sure as an American wine lover and American drinker, you know Cabernet Sauvignon, right? It’s one of those wines that we just know. For a long time in the United States, red wine was Cabernet Sauvignon and white wine was Chardonnay. That’s just how we roll, man. There’s a reason for it.

But what’s unique about this great variety is that with Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, they’re not often blended with other varieties. You’re usually getting a Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay. They’re blended sometimes, but the majority are not. With Cabernet Sauvignon, two things. Number one, it’s often blended with another variety. And number two, even with its blending of other varieties, it’s always pretty much distinctly Cabernet Sauvignon. And what I mean about that is there is a character to this wine that is undeniable. Even if it has other varieties blended with it, it’s one of the most structured wines out there.

It has more phenolic material in it than other well-known varieties. It has more tannin structure. It has a deeper color. The berries are very distinct and very blue. And that distinct blue allows it to really macerate for a long time, you can get it nice and deep. And in the wine cellar, this is the wine that has an affinity for French oak. French oak and Cabernet Sauvignon are almost made for each other.

And with all this, it is very much of a long-term aging wine. When people talk about aging wine, this is one of the first wines people think about. It’s Cabernet Sauvignon. When we talk about Pinot Noir, it was a lot about terroir, right? This is where terroir basically came from, the idea that Pinot Noir can translate the soil or the micro-climate into the wine. And when we talk about Chardonnay, a lot of that is mostly about the malleability of Chardonnay. Plant it wherever you want, make your own style. So it’s about style. And then so with Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s really about structure and vintage.

Yes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir do age, and they do evolve. But the thing about Cabernet Sauvignon is that its evolution in the bottle is very distinct from year to year, as it evolves and ages in the bottle. And what’s just so amazing about Cabernet Sauvignon is that even though it’s blended with other varieties, those other varieties are just supporting actors. They have roles to play, but by no means as much as the Cabernet Sauvignon. And as it does age and evolve, it’s the Cabernet Sauvignon that is showing its evolution more so than the other varieties it is blended with. And that’s why it’s always distinctly Cabernet Sauvignon.

And I’m probably going to get crushed by the industry when I say this, but this is not really a terroir situation. Yes, it is. Yes, there is terroir involved in every grape that’s grown, and the sense of place makes it into the wine. But the blending and the aging and the structure and the watching it evolve, and the “wow, this is an amazing natural phenomenon,” that’s really what I think Cabernet Sauvignon is all about. All of this blending and everything began in the place where the wine grape was born, in the Bordeaux region of France.

We have a whole Bordeaux episode coming up, so I’m not going to get too into the Bordeaux thing. But what’s very interesting when you’re reading about Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s actually a theory that the variety didn’t even exist before the 18th century. That’s crazy. Right? Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay all come from the same part, pretty much, of France. And they are old, old, old, old.

This is the first grape we’re talking about that’s not that old, comparatively. So if it’s not that old and it may not have shown up before the 18th century, what happened? It all seems to have started by an orphan grape that was originally from the Basque region of Spain, all the way in the North Eastern part of Spain, where it was called Achéria. I’m probably butchering that. We’ve established that monks and monasteries were very involved and responsible for the maintaining of varieties and wines and the documentation of this. Well, there was clergy all over this part from France, Germany, Spain, everywhere, and they were moving all over the place from one diocese to the next.

So they’re bringing grapes with them. This grape, Achéria, makes its way into France, and eventually gets into the Loire Valley. Here, it finds a home primarily in a little town called Chinon. Here, the grape changes names. The people of the Loire Valley call it Breton. And to this day, this grape is still sometimes called Breton. Interestingly enough, another grape variety that we’ve talked about before, Sauvignon Blanc, another grape that’s never blended, it’s working its way from where it was born, supposedly, and it’s making its home in Sancerre, which is in the Loire Valley. But then eventually it starts working its way down towards the southwestern part of France, where Bordeaux is. This grape, Breton, through all this connection, all this network of clergy and monks and all this stuff, eventually makes its way down into Southwest France to where Bordeaux is today. And when it finds its home here, it’s name changes again to Cabernet Franc. There’s a lot of theories as to how it became the name Cabernet Franc.

But in this region — again, we’ll talk about this when we do the Bordeaux episode — but there’s all this hodgepodge of vineyards and a lot of the vines mixed different varieties. There was a moment where Cabernet Franc spontaneously crossed with Sauvignon Blanc, and the progeny of that union was Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s the theory, that it was a spontaneous crossing in a vineyard. But the fact, through DNA profiling, is that Cabernet Sauvignon is the progeny of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Pretty awesome.

And by the end of the 18th century, things really started moving in Bordeaux and wines of longevity were starting to emerge and all this stuff — we’ll get into that when we do that episode. But the power and structure of Cabernet Sauvignon was undeniable from the get. But the thing is in this climate, even though it’s from here in this Bordeaux region, sometimes it would struggle to fully ripen. And in those cases, sometimes the wine needed a little bit of heft. It had the tannin, it had the structure, it had the color, it just needed a little more body.

So sometimes, some of the other native varieties of the area would be blended with it to heft it up. Plump and fruity Merlot from the region would be added to add some fruitiness. Another native grape, Petite Verdot, would be added for a little bit of spice. And then of course, Cabernet Franc can sometimes be added for more aroma, more perfume to the wine. This is the Bordeaux blend. This is what we in America and all around the world try to emulate with Cabernet Sauvignon.

And Bordeaux is a complex place. And we’re going to talk about that in the episode. But the real headquarters, the hub, the stronghold, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives the most in what is called the Left Bank of the Girond. The Girond is this estuary that comes in from the Atlantic Ocean, and on the left-bank of this are places with names Medoc, Graves, Pessac-Léognan. These areas here have some of the most luxurious, exquisite, small production Bordeaux wines made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the place that you hear all about when people are in movies that are ordering very expensive wines from Bordeaux. These are the places they’re ordering it from. So this is where it all began. Everything I talk about after this is pretty much inspired by what happened here. So, because this variety is the most planted variety on the planet, and pretty much because of the success of Bordeaux, we’re not gonna talk about it at all, because we just can’t.

But I want to tell you about the specific places you’re going to see on the American market, where Cabernet is going to be readily available that you can enjoy, whether it’s a blend or not a blend (it’s mostly going to be a blend). And for this, we have to leave France, ‘cause outside of Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and France is basically just here and there, and you might see some of it on the American market from places like Languedoc, but it’s not as prevalent. It’s Bordeaux that’s prevalent.

So we have to leave France. And before we get away from Europe, I want to talk about — I know I do this all the time — Italy, and specifically Tuscany. We have a whole Tuscany episode coming, Cabernet Sauvignon came to Italy early on in the 1800s, it came into Piedmont and made its way into Tuscany. And there’s actually the whole Super Tuscan thing — you guys have heard about the Super Tuscans? We’ll talk about that at some point. But the Super Tuscans in Italy were popular because they were made from Cabernets Sauvignons, and they were being blended with the native grape, Sangiovese, which is a Chainti grape of that area. And it brought this power and structure to the wines of this area and became very popular on the American market. So Cabernet Sauvignon is very popular and very important. So important in this area that there are two appellations that are fairly new, Bolgheri and Maremma. These Tuscan wine regions don’t require Cabernet Sauvignon, but they allow up to 50 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, and all these different varieties from France. So it shows you how important Cabernet Sauvignon can be in this area. And often Cabernet Sauvignon is blended into Sangiovese in these two DOCs. DOC is just an Italian acronym for an appellation or area of wine region.

Outside of Europe, before we get to California, ‘cause we have to, I want to talk about Chile because you’re going to see a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile on the American market. Cabernet Sauvignon has grown in all of Chile’s wine regions, and I can’t get into all of it now, but what I will say is this: Chile has a full range of Cabernet Sauvignon styles. They blend, or they make a hundred percent Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on whatever they want to do. And it can be green and herby, or it can be big and structured, like a new California style Cabernet Sauvignon. You’re going to see a lot of it out there, and it’s all very affordable. So it’s fun, it’s a fun country to play around with Cabernet Sauvignon and see what kind you might like from that country.

By the end of the 19th century, Cabernet Sauvignon was already in California. In the late 1800s, it was known as a variety that did well in the area. But we have a very weird history in California and in the United States where we had this thing called Prohibition, where for 10 years, we couldn’t drink. Well, we did, but it decimated the entire wine industry basically of the United States, and especially California. And it wasn’t until the late 1960s, early 1970s, that Americans already started drinking dry red wine again. It was all sweet wine up until then.

All that changed in 1976. Remember the Chardonnay episode when we talked about this competition outside of Paris, where a white wine from California won out over a white Burgundy? Well, a red wine from California won out over a Bordeaux in that same competition. This competition was called the Judgment of Paris, and a Cabernet Sauvignon — a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars — came in first. And this is that watershed moment. From here on out, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, this is when they began to be the varieties that we understand that became the red and the white wine of the United States through California.

In 1933, just after the Volstead Act was repealed, after Prohibition was over, there were actually fewer than a hundred acres of Cabernet Sauvignon throughout California. In 2013, that is now 80 thousand acres. So today, California’s got Cabernet Sauvignon all over the place. So we’re going to concentrate in a few places that you can find. And again, a lot of this stuff is going to be blended. If it’s a single vineyard wine, and it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon, it will not be blended. If it’s an estate wine, it may or may not be blended. But we have to understand that Cabernet Sauvignon does well with blends. It likes to be blended. So that’s what you’re going to see when you get California wine. It’s often going to be that when it comes to the Napa Cabs.

When we hear about the legendary Napa Cabs that we hear about, it’s probably going to be from Napa Valley. Napa Valley by far has the majority of these age-worthy, luxurious, big, beautiful focused wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon. And Napa Valley, as an American Viticultural Area or AVA, has a bunch of sub-AVAs or sub-regions within it, with names like Oakville, Rutherford, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Carneros, the famous Stags Leap District. These areas are known for their specific soil content, their elevation from above sea level, and the concentration of microclimates in that area.

These are very braggy, well not braggy, they’re very proud of these small little areas. I’ve been up on the mountains – Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder – where you get to the top of the mountain and there’s this little corner, and you go around this little corner, and there’s a little vineyard tucked away of Cabernet Sauvignons. They’re very proud of their small production and its beautiful stuff. And it’s crazy expensive. But if you have one of these wines, you understand why they’re expensive. The power, the structure, the immensity, and the balance of these wines are just stupid. As in, stupid good.

Neighboring Napa to the west is Sonoma. And in Sonoma, there are two places, two sub-regions called Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley. You’re going to see big, powerful Cabernets coming out from there. And I really want to mention Mendocino. It’s north of this area. It has a nice, cool climate and there’s a lot of sub-regions in this area, as well, but Anderson Valley is the most well-known, and that has just wonderful, big, powerful balance Cabernet Sauvignon, as well. Again, most of these are blended.

And the blends are usually the varieties that you would see in Bordeaux: Merlot, Petite Verdot, sometimes Malbec. Because Malbec is originally a Bordeaux variety. But they take advantage of that 75 percent rule we talked about in a few episodes ago.

Down south, in the Central Coast of California, there was also Cabernet Sauvignon, and they’re full-bodied, they’re plump, they’re structured, they have high alcohol, but they’re very balanced, there’s a ton of acidity. And it’s a really interesting style of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Central Coast has a lot of other stuff we’re going to talk about in another episode, but there are some cool ones down there.

And the blends are usually the varieties that you would see in Bordeaux: Merlot, Petite Verdot, sometimes Malbec. Because Malbec is originally a Bordeaux variety. But they take advantage of that 75 percent rule we talked about in a few episodes ago.
Down south, in the Central Coast of California, there was also Cabernet Sauvignon, and they’re full-bodied, they’re plump, they’re structured, they have high alcohol, but they’re very balanced, there’s a ton of acidity. And it’s a really interesting style of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Central Coast has a lot of other stuff we’re going to talk about in another episode, but there are some cool ones down there.

If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.

Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.

Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo. And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.