Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world's most widely recognized red wine grape varieties. It is grown in nearly every major wine producing country among a diverse spectrum of climates from Canada's Okanagan Valley to Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. Despite its prominence in the industry, the grape is a relatively new variety, the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon Blanc during the 17th century in south-western France. Its popularity is often attributed to its ease of cultivation - the grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy and resistant to rot and frost - and to its consistent presentation of structure and flavours which express the typical character of the variety.
For many years, the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon was not clearly understood and many myths and conjectures surrounded it. The word "Sauvignon" is believed to be derived from the French “sauvage” meaning "wild" and to refer to the grape being a wild “Vitis Vinifera” vine native to France. Until recently the grape was rumoured to have ancient origins, perhaps even being the Biturica grape used to make ancient Roman wine and referenced by Pliny the Elder.
The grape's true origins were discovered in the late 1990s with the use of DNA typing at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, by a team lead by Dr. Carole Meredith. The DNA evidence determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc and was most likely a chance crossing that occurred in the 17th century. Prior to this discovery, this origin had been suspected from the similarity of the grapes' names and the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon shares similar aromas with both grapes-such as the black currant and pencil box aromas of Cabernet franc and the grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc.
Cabernet Sauvignon has a long history in Italian wines, being first introduced to the Piedmont region in 1820. In the mid-1970s, the grape earned notoriety and controversy as a component in the so-called "Super Tuscan" wines of Tuscany. Today the grape is permitted in several Denominazioni di origine controllata (DOCs) and is used in many Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) wines that are made outside DOC perimeters in certain regions. For most of its history the grape has been viewed with suspicion as a "foreign influence" that distracts from the native grape varieties. After decades of experimentation, the general view of Cabernet Sauvignon has improved as more winemakers find ways to complement their native grape varieties with Cabernet as a blending component.
In the DOCs of Langhe and Monferrato, Cabernet is a permitted blending grape with Nebbiolo as well as Barbera. Wines that are composed of all three grape varieties are often subjected to consider oak treatment to add a sense of sweet spiciness to compensate for the high tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo as well as the high acidity of Barbera. There are varietal styles of Cabernet Sauvignon produce in Piedmont with qualities varying depending on the location. In other regions of northern Italy, such as Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the grape is often blended with Merlot to produce Bordeaux style blends. In the Veneto region, Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes blended with the main grapes of Valpolicella-Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella. In southern Italy, the grape is mostly used as a blending component with local varieties-such as Carignan in Sardinia, Nero d'Avola in Sicily, Aglianico in Campania and Gaglioppo in Calabria.
Cabernet Sauvignon has had a controversial history in Tuscan wine, particularly for its role in the arrivals of "Super Tuscan" in the mid 1970s. The origin of Super Tuscans is rooted in the restrictive DOC practices of the Chianti zone prior to the 1990s. During this time Chianti could be composed of no more than 70% Sangiovese and had to include at least 10% of one of the local white wine grapes. Many Tuscan wine producers thought they could produce a better quality wine if they were not hindered by the DOC regulations, particularly if they had the freedom to use Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend and not require to use white grape varieties.
The marchese Piero Antinori was one of the first to create a "Chianti-style" wine that ignored the DOC regulations, releasing a 1971 Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend known as Tignanello in 1978. Other producers followed suit and soon the prices for these Super Tuscans were consistently beating the prices of some of most well known Chianti. Other Tuscan wine regions followed suit, blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Sangiovese and even making varietal versions of the grape.
Gradually the DOC system caught on and began allowing more regions to use the grape in their DOC designated wines. Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany is characterized by ripe black cherry flavors that can give a perception of sweetness as well as strong notes of black currant. The wines typically reach an alcohol level around 14% but can still maintain notable levels of acidity. When blended with Sangiovese in significant quantities, Cabernet Sauvignon can dominate the blend with most Tuscan producers aiming to find a particular balance that suits their desired style.
While Cabernet Sauvignon can grow in a variety of climates, its suitability as a varietal wine or as a blend component is strongly influenced by the warmth of the climate. The vine is one of the last major grape varieties to bud and ripen (typically 1-2 weeks after Merlot and Cabernet franc) and the climate of the growing season affects how early the grapes will be harvested.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a large part of Cabernet Sauvignon's reputation was built on its ability to age and develop in the bottle. In addition to softening some of their austere tannins, as Cabernet wines age new flavours and aromas can emerge and add to the wines' complexity. Historically this was a trait characterized by Bordeaux with some premium examples in favourable vintages having the potential to last for over a century, but producers across the globe have developed styles that could age and develop for several decades. Even with the ability to age, some Cabernet Sauvignon wines can still be approachable a few years after vintage. In Italian Cabernet Sauvignons the tannins of the wines tend to soften after ten years and can typically last for at least another decade-sometimes longer depending on the producer and vintage, but most examples are typically made to be drunk earlier.
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