Cabernet Sauvignon is one of South Africa’s most-loved grape varietals. It is a small, black grape variety that results in wines with a deep, rich colour and intense fruit flavours. It typically has high levels of tannin, high acidity and pronounced aromas, making it a good variety for producing wines that age well.
This particular grape variety is actually not as old as one might expect. In 1996, Professor Carole Meredith, from the University of California Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, established that the Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety was less than 600 years old. The oldest recorded Cabernet Sauvignon seems to appear in the 18th century with reference to Baron de Brane, who planted a red variety called “Vidure” on Chateaux Mouton. “Vidure” comes from the French words, Vigne Dure, or ‘hardy vine’, which is indicative of Cabernet Sauvignon’s robust nature.
The origin of the grape itself is quite unexpected. Professor Carole Meredith was researching the history of Zinfandel, when she discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon was actually the result of the cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc – a white varietal. She estimated that this unintentional crossing occurred in the 17th century and most likely in Bordeaux.
Today, Bordeaux is the classic home of Cabernet Sauvignon. Situated around the Gironde estuary in southwest France, Bordeaux has an ideal moderate, maritime climate with long, warm autumns. Cabernet Sauvignon needs a moderate or hot climate to reach its potential, as it cannot fully ripen in cool climates or cool years. Due to its thick skins, it is also typically a ‘late ripener’ and so wines from hot climates are thus fuller-bodied, with softer tannins, more black cherry fruit and a less herbaceous character.
Although Cabernet Sauvignons can be found throughout South Africa, the area that produces the most premium Cabernet Sauvignon wines is Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch has a similar climate to Bordeaux and is fortunate to have well-drained soils, making the area a prime spot to produce such good Cabernet Sauvignon wines – often actually made in the typical Bordeaux style and combined with Merlot.
The earliest known production of Cabernet Sauvignon in Stellenbosch was in 1973, when Kanonkop released it into the market. This was quickly followed by Meerlust, who produced their first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1975. Both wine estates produced Bordeaux-style red blends in the 1980s and this style of blend is still quite successful in Stellenbosch today.
The Stellenbosch wine region includes 5 sub-routes, each with slightly different climates and terroirs. In general, the Stellenbosch climate is relatively hot, with generally good rainfall and some cooling influences from False Bay. The morning sun is typically quite hot, but the vines are often cooled in the afternoons by the south-easterly breeze. The region is surrounded by the Helderberg, Simonsberg and Stellenbosch mountains which are home to the more granite-based soil types. Further away from the mountains, the soil types are sandier. All areas can produce good Cabernet Sauvignons, but many people have come to enjoy the minerality that appears in the wines from the more mountainous areas.
The typical flavours of a Cabernet Sauvignon can include black fruits, such as blackcurrant and black cherry, and herbaceous notes, such as bell pepper and mint. The Cabernet Sauvignons from Stellenbosch in the mid-1990s were a lot less herbaceous than they are now, as the focus then was more on establishing the fruity flavours. Today, most people tend to enjoy wines with a good balance of the two flavours.
The more premium Cabernet Sauvignons from Stellenbosch are frequently aged in oak. This softens the tannins and adds flavours of smoke, vanilla, coffee and cedar, resulting in a more complex wine. Cabernet Sauvignons can also develop some tobacco and leather flavours with age.
Due to the high levels of tannin and acidity in Cabernet Sauvignon, it pairs wonderfully with proteins – red meat, in particular – and thus is a good accompaniment to the South African “braai”. It’s also generally full-bodied, making it a good “winter wine” that can easily be enjoyed in front of a fire.
Browse South African Cabernet Sauvignon wines on the Cybercellar.com Cabernet Sauvignon cultivar page. If you know of any interesting Cabernet Sauvignon trivia, share in the comments section below!