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Insider’s guide to...Cabernet Sauvignon


With its blackcurrant fruit and punchy tannins, Cabernet Sauvignon has established itself as the world’s favourite quality red grape. Chris Losh takes a closer look

cabsav - cab_sav.jpg

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most-planted quality red grape variety – the secret behind some of the world’s most expensive red wines and some of the most affordable. The key to its success hinges on two factors: fruit and structure.

When you’re talking Cabernet Sauvignon, you’re looking in that dark-fruit area of the flavour spectrum, specifically blackcurrants. Ripe Cabernet is a joy – all deep, silky currant fruit, topped off with any
or all of plums, mint, chocolate and eucalyptus.

Now, structure… Here, we’re looking at the elements that hold a wine together in the mouth and stop it being a mess of alcoholic fruit juice. For red wines that means tannin, the tooth- and gum-drying sensation the flavours hang off. It’s essential to red wine, and no grape ‘does’ tannin quite like Cabernet Sauvignon. 

This isn’t always a good thing. In cold or wet years the Cabernets in Bordeaux can strip the enamel from your teeth, while some over-enthusiastic New World winemakers who leave the skins to soak for too long to extract maximum colour,
also extract tannins that could stun a condor/wallaby/bald eagle (delete as appropriate).

But when both nature and winemakers behave themselves, and Cabernet Sauvignon is in balance, the result is a wine that is fabulous, firm, flavoursome and great with food.

The other benefit of having fairly punchy tannins is that it allows the wine to age for a long time. And this is at least part of the reason for the huge success of the A-list Bordeaux châteaux listed below. Elsewhere in Europe, Cabernet has become an increasingly popular addition to native grape varieties. In Spain, for instance, it’s added to Tempranillo, in Italy to Sangiovese to bring structure and a little elegance to the local brew.

The New World has taken to Cabernet in a big way. New Zealand, except Hawkes Bay, may be too cold to ripen it properly, but in Australia, Chile, South Africa, California and Argentina there are superb examples.

With more sun to ripen the grapes, New World Cabernets are inherently sweeter and riper, with softer tannins. At one time too many of the ‘top’ wines were simply over-concentrated monsters, chasing high scores from the Wine Spectator by being huge and over-oaked. Happily, there has been a shift towards elegance and complexity, aided by the willingness of wineries to take a leaf out of the Europeans’ book and blend Cabernet with other grapes, such as Merlot, Syrah, Pinotage (South Africa), Carmenère (Chile) and Malbec (Argentina).

‘Ripe Cabernet is a joy – all deep, silky currant fruit, topped off with any or all of plums, mint, chocolate and eucalyptus’

Key regions

Mendoza (Argentina); Coonawarra, Margaret River (Australia); Napa Valley (California); Maipo Valley (Chile); Bordeaux (France); Stellenbosch (South Africa)

Key producers

Bordeaux châteaux

Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild (first growths); Léoville-Barton, Montrose, Pichon-Lalande, Pichon-Longueville (second growths); Palmer (third growth); Lafon-Rochet (fourth growth)


Catena, Doña Paula (Argentina); Cape Mentelle, Cullen, Moss Wood, Penfolds (Australia); Concha y Toro, Cono Sur, Errazuriz, Montes, Von Siebenthal (Chile); Mondavi, Shafer, Stag’s Leap (Napa Valley, California); Jordan, Vergelegen, Warwick Estate (South Africa); Gaia (Tuscany, Italy)

Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2009

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