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A Guide to Cabernet Sauvignon

Jordan Winery Estate and Vineyard in Alexander Valley

It's hardly surprising that Cabernet Sauvignon is popular in Sonoma County, as it’s the most popular red varietal wine in the world, which is why we put together a guide to Cabernet Sauvignon. Intensely tannic and long-lived, Cabernet Sauvignon initially gained fame as a principal contribution to the great wines of Bordeaux, while today, comparisons to the wines of Sonoma County’s neighbor to the east are just as inevitable.

Cabernet Sauvignon Key Facts

Planted on some 12,000 acres of Sonoma County vineyard land, Cabernet Sauvignon is now just about tied with once rapidly ascendant Pinot Noir. Representing 20% of the county’s total red wine grape acreage, Cabernet Sauvignon is only second to Chardonnay among all grapes, red and white. Cabernet Sauvignon, or “Cab,” as it’s nicknamed, is mainly grown in the warmest of Sonoma County’s diverse growing regions.

Compared to other wine grapes, even those it is closely related to, like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon has smaller berries, and thicker skins. These properties contribute to its famously tannic structure and concentration of flavor, as well as the relative ease of growing it—at least, in a favorable Mediterranean climate like that of Sonoma County. The grape’s unique parentage accounts for some of its aromatic complexity.

From Left Bank to Left Coast

Both the figurative and literal home of Cabernet Sauvignon is in southwestern France. DNA analysis in the 1990s determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was born from the likely random union of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, the latter of which now plays second or third fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon in most regions.

For centuries, Cab shared the limelight with grapes like Malbec in wines that were better known by their chateau or village name than for any specific grape variety.

Overall, Cab still isn’t really the dominant grape in the Bordeaux region—that’s Merlot—but it’s the main player in key Left Bank wines, which is why big-dreaming nineteenth-century California winemakers often called their Cabernet-based wines “Médoc,” just as their best sweet white wines might be fancifully termed “Sauternes.”

Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County

Sonoma County may be famous for its old vine Zinfandel vineyards, some of them planted in the nineteenth century, but Cabernet Sauvignon followed not far behind. Budding vintners imported the grape in the 1850s, and it was certainly planted in the 1880s. The ambitious John H. Drummond won acclaim for Cabernet from his Dunfillan vineyard near Glen Ellen, which today is part of the Kunde ranch.

In the 1970s, legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff consulted on Cabernet for estates such as Alexander Valley’s Jordan, and wineries like Rodney Strong and Chateau St. Jean gained attention for their Cabernet Sauvignon. While the Paris Tasting of 1976 and the success of Robert Mondavi in Oakville shifted the spotlight on Napa Valley, icons of the industry like Beringer and Louis Martini were sourcing some of their best Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Sonoma County vineyards.

Cabernet Sauvignon Style

From Margaux to Mount Veeder to Moon Mountain, Cabernet Sauvignon displays an ever-changing but usually recognizable suite of aromas and flavors. Some of these do not have not particularly “fruity” analogs—cigar box, cigar wrapper, pencil lead and gravel being among the most popular. Top notes of raspberry, blackberry and blueberry are often noted; most often of all, cassis or black currant—more familiar to wine tasters from England or the Continent.

Unlike Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon is but rarely seen in rosé form, and winemakers seldom opt to skip oak barrel aging for their Cabernet.

Sonoma County’s Key Cabernet Sauvignon Regions

Sonoma Valley

There’s a “sweet spot” in the heart of the Sonoma Valley AVA that’s just made for Cabernet. Here you’ll find the legendary Monte Rosso vineyard, as well as others that have been more recently planted. 

Wineries: Arrowood, Benziger, BR Cohn, Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood, Laurel Glen, St. Francis, Sebastiani, Ty Caton.

Alexander Valley

The unofficial Napa Valley of Sonoma County, Alexander Valley is warm and gravelly, a Cabernet match made in…Sonoma County. From the valley floor and the mountaintops, Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley is as powerful as any.

Wineries: Alexander Valley Vineyards, Clos du Bois, Francis Ford Coppola, Jordan, Rodney Strong, Silver Oak, Stonestreet.

Knights Valley

In the shadow of Mount St. Helena, Knights Valley is sandwiched in between Calistoga and Alexander Valley. With few wineries and no town, it’s a rural, vineyard and ranching region that’s prized by both Sonoma and Napa wineries for Cabernet.

Wineries: Peter Michael.

Dry Creek Valley

If it’s warm enough for Zinfandel, and Grenache is gaining ground, surely Cabernet Sauvignon has a place in this classic Sonoma County wine valley, with its toasty summer days tempered by cooler evenings.  

Wineries: Dry Creek Vineyards, Lambert Bridge, Mauritson, A. Rafanelli

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