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