CABER­NET SAUVI­GNON

Caber­net sauvi­gnon is now the world’s most planted vine va­ri­ety, with a fame eclips­ing even that of its home vine­yard, Bordeaux

France - - Contents -

Do­minic Rip­pon charts the spread of the grape va­ri­ety from its Bordeaux home.

As re­cently as 1990, caber­net sauvi­gnon was only the world’s eighth most planted grape va­ri­ety. Top slot was held by the pro­duc­tive, droughtre­sis­tant white airén grape, which still cov­ers vast swathes of its Castil­ian heart­land in Spain.

By 2010, the pic­ture had changed dra­mat­i­cally. As grape va­ri­eties be­gan to dou­ble as brands, caber­net sauvi­gnon elbowed its way into more vine­yards, be­com­ing the world’s most planted – and most recog­nis­able – grape.

De­spite its whirl­wind fame, caber­net sauvi­gnon is a rel­a­tive new­comer even to the French vine­yard; the prog­eny of an in­spired (or lucky) cross­ing of the dark-skinned caber­net franc with the white sauvi­gnon blanc va­ri­ety in 17th-cen­tury Aquitaine. The cassis and pen­cil-shav­ing aro­mas of the for­mer melded with sauvi­gnon blanc’s fresh herba­ceous flavours to yield thick-skinned, dis­ease-re­sis­tant red grapes pro­duc­ing richly tan­nic wines with good acid­ity.

Caber­net’s affin­ity with oak age­ing has helped pro­pel it to the top of the qual­ity hi­er­ar­chy, spear­headed by the fa­mous Bordeaux Grands Crus châteaux of Mé­doc. In­deed, it was at Château Mou­ton-roth­schild (then called Brane-mou­ton) and Château d’ar­mail­hac (then called Mou­ton-d’ar­mail­hacq), in the Haut-mé­doc vil­lage of Pauil­lac, that records show the first cul­ti­va­tion of caber­net sauvi­gnon for wine pro­duc­tion.

The va­ri­ety joins its par­ent caber­net franc and sib­ling mer­lot (which is also de­scended from cab franc) in Bordeaux blends, with a sea­son­ing of the spicy petit ver­dot and the oc­ca­sional dash of mal­bec. But al­though caber­net is Bordeaux’s best-loved berry, it is not its most planted: be­yond the cel­e­brated stretch of Mé­doc vine­yards on the left bank of the River Garonne and Gironde es­tu­ary, it makes way for the less fash­ion­able mer­lot as Bordeaux’s dom­i­nant red grape.

Herba­ceous flavours

Many years be­fore it con­quered the world’s vine­yards, caber­net sauvi­gnon spread south through Aquitaine, where it is used as an in­gre­di­ent in red wines ev­ery­where, from Berg­erac in Dor­dogne (by vi­gnerons such as Chris­tian Roche) to the small Irouléguy ap­pel­la­tion in the Pays Basque (where wine­mak­ers claim its par­ent, caber­net franc, as their own). It makes char­ac­ter­ful rosés in Buzet and Berg­erac, where it is prized for its herba­ceous flavours and fresh acid­ity.

To the north of Bordeaux, caber­net sauvi­gnon also found its way into the Loire Val­ley vine­yards of Chi­non, Bour­gueil and Saint-ni­co­las-de-

Bour­gueil, where up to ten per cent can be in­cluded in their sappy red blends; the ear­lier-ripen­ing, lighter-bod­ied caber­net franc counts for the ma­jor­ity. Fur­ther to the west, it is also blended to make the de­li­ciously dry Caber­net d’an­jou rosé.

In Provence, caber­net sauvi­gnon had es­tab­lished it­self as a blend­ing part­ner for syrah by the mid-19th cen­tury and plant­ings in­creased in the 1960s. It is listed as a ‘sec­ondary’ grape in the large Côtes de Provence ap­pel­la­tion, adding ro­bust tan­nins and rich fruit flavours.

In Langue­doc-rous­sil­lon, caber­net plays a con­fus­ing dual role as a va­ri­etally la­belled, pop­u­lar al­ter­na­tive to New World plonk – often called IGP Pays d’oc – and a blend­ing part­ner in some of the re­gion’s most pres­ti­gious wines. In 1978, near the vil­lage of Ani­ane, in the Hérault dé­parte­ment, the now leg­endary Mas de Dau­mas Gas­sac es­tate re­leased its first vin­tage. Made with 80 per cent caber­net sauvi­gnon, from vine­stocks sourced from some of Bordeaux’s finest prop­er­ties in the 1930s and 1940s, the wine re­ceived rap­tur­ous praise in the Lon­don wine trade.

The ge­nius be­hind the es­tate was Aimé Guib­ert, who died last year at the age of 91. A wine­mak­ing icon in Langue­doc-rous­sil­lon, Aimé starred in Jonathan Nos­siter’s 2004 doc­u­men­tary film Mon­dovino, in which he railed against the im­pacts of glob­al­i­sa­tion and big busi­ness on tra­di­tional wine­mak­ing. The Dau­mas Gas­sac wines are slow to show the full ex­tent of their char­ac­ter, but de­velop ex­quis­ite com­plex­ity with age.

For all of its virtues, caber­net sauvi­gnon can mostly thank the caprices of fash­ion for its sta­tus as global top dog – a wave that will one day break as surely as it has gath­ered. We are still liv­ing in the age of va­ri­etal su­per­stars, but a new era is slowly ap­proach­ing, in which more ob­scure, once-de­rided, in­dige­nous vine va­ri­eties are res­ur­rected, re­planted and pop­u­larised.

In south­ern France, for ex­am­ple, carig­nan is al­ready en­joy­ing a resur­gence, while fur­ther north Cham­pagne Moutard in­cludes the al­most for­got­ten va­ri­eties petit mes­lier and ar­bane in its top-end Cu­vée 6 Cé­pages.

There are prag­matic rea­sons for the new in­ter­est in in­dige­nous grapes, too. Most French wine­mak­ers agree that har­vests are on av­er­age ear­lier than they were 40 years ago; and as con­di­tions be­come more ex­treme, lo­cal grapes often do best, es­pe­cially where heat and drought re­sis­tance are re­quired.

In Bordeaux, there are mur­mur­ings about the long-term suit­abil­ity of mer­lot to warmer vine­yard con­di­tions. Prior to the 1970s, caber­net sauvi­gnon was Bordeaux’s most planted red va­ri­ety; grad­u­ally dis­placed by its ear­lier ripen­ing cousin, which tended to pro­duce a more re­li­able crop in cool years. Fifty years later, it is caber­net’s abil­ity to keep its vi­tal acid­ity, with re­strained sugar lev­els, that is re­cap­tur­ing wine­mak­ers’ imag­i­na­tions. So even af­ter ‘the al­pha grape’ loses its global crown, there is a good chance it will once again reign supreme on home turf.

Caber­net sauvi­gnon can mostly thank the caprices of fash­ion for its global sta­tus

Caber­net sauvi­gnon vine­yards at Château Pi­chon-longueville in Mé­doc

Do­minic Rip­pon has many years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine mer­chant busi­ness Strictly Wine.

ABOVE: Berg­erac vi­gneron Chris­tian Roche ( cen­tre) of the Do­maine l‘an­ci­enne Cure

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