Defy Expectation: Beyond The Boundaries of Traditional Cabernet Sauvignon

Photo by Kate Sears / Prop Styling by Maeve Sheridan

It’s no secret that Cabernet Sauvignon is a versatile grape. Accounting for about 5% of the globe’s total vineyard acreage, it’s got many faces.

Still, the influence of classic versions from Bordeaux and Napa looms large. Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be associated with full-bodied wines whose tannins and alcohol levels linger on the high side. So beloved are these styles, they can eclipse others.

But as the world in which we grow and enjoy wine changes, so too does Cabernet.

Fortunately, the happy-go-lucky grape isn’t too fussy. While it’s often been planted historically in temperate regions with long, sunny days and cool nights during the summer to achieve winemakers’ desired styles, it can grow elsewhere.

Climate change means that some regions are not as well-suited to the grape as they used to be, and others once thought unfit for it now produce it with aplomb. At the same time, winemakers around the globe look to put their own stylistic stamp on it, even in regions where those classic Napa and Bordeaux profiles are achievable.

On the following pages, we look at bottles that will change the way you Cabernet.

A Six-Bottle Master Class to Cabernet Sauvignon

Regions on the Rise

Several areas once thought too cool for Cab are suddenly looking better. Bottlings from Alkoomi in Western Australia and Dehlinger in California’s Russian River Valley are two cool characters you won’t want to miss.

The Rocks District on the WashingtonOregon border was once thought too hot for Cab, but Cayuse is giving it a shot to excellent effect. Yolo County, California producer Great Bear is doing the same. And in South Africa, Stark-Condé is looking up to benefit from cooler conditions at higher altitudes.

Meanwhile, some winegrowers have implemented agricultural techniques that might help stabilize and protect land and climate. That’s Reyneke’s mission as one of the few biodynamic farms in all of South Africa.

Cab Sauv bottles on chessboard
Photo by Kate Sears / Prop Styling by Maeve Sheridan 

Dehlinger 2018 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon (Russian River Valley); $70, 96 points. This refined and elegant wine is from an unusual place, but the producer has remained committed to it and this bottling shows exactly why. Classic elements of clove, dried herb and juicy red fruit combine around silkysmooth tannins and well-integrated oak, each part completely in sync with the others with a lift of acidity throughout. This is a gorgeous wine. Editors’ Choice. V.B. 

Reyneke 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Stellenbosch); $136, 94 points. From biodynamic/organic producer Reyneke comes this special-release wine that’s sourced from a single block and made only in exceptional vintages, which 2017 certainly was in South Africa. This is just about everything you’d want a Cab to be—concentrated in ripe but not overly done black fruit, with earthy elements of turned soil, woodsy spice, pressed purple flowers and singed tobacco leaf, all framed by boldly structuring yet somehow simultaneously elegant tannins. Long and evolving on the finish, this is beautiful from start to finish and will age well through 2036. Vineyard Brands. Cellar Selection. —L.B.

Alkoomi 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon (Frankland River); $25, 93 points. Alkoomi’s Cab, from Western Australia’s deep south, is a seriously structured wine with chiseled shoulders. It’s a deep well of flavors: blueberry, currant, dark chocolate, black olive, eucalyptus and savory, earthy herbs. In the mouth, there’s a silkiness to the fruit, backed by fistfuls of earthy herbs and spices, all held firmly in place by muscular yet fine, chalky tannins. This needs protein and a decanter if drinking now but could cellar until 2030 at least. Little Peacock Imports. Editors’ Choice. —C.P.

Cayuse 2018 The Widowmaker En Chamberlain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley); $102, 93 points. Aromas of cassis, herb and ash lead to full, fleshy, palate-coating flavors. It has plenty of hang time on the finish. It’s an unabashedly delicious expression of the variety, appellation and vintage. Editors’ Choice. —S.S.

Great Bear 2018 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Yolo County); $45, 93 points. Well concentrated and firmly structured, this full-bodied wine coats the palate with rich, ripe black-fruit flavors and subtle dark chocolate, cassis and blueberry accents. It is big, moderately tannic and well-balanced for a wine of this size and depth. Best from 2024. —J.G.

Stark-Condé 2017 Oude Nektar Cabernet Sauvignon (Jonkershoek Valley); $85, 93 points. This wine, sourced from a high-elevation site, leads with earthy aromas of fresh mentholated herbs, raw tobacco leaf and licorice root partnered with snappy currant and blackberry liqueur tones. The palate is plush and robust from first sip, with big, gripping tannins that are tight and structured, framing the skin-driven black fruit flavors and fueling the length and astringency on the finish. Additional earthy tones of cigar-box spice and chicory root unfold on the back of the close. Young and youthful now, give this time to show its best potential; drink after 2026 and through 2033. Vineyard Brands. Cellar Selection. —L.B.

Truchard 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Carneros); $40, 93 points. This wine remains one of the finest values in the Napa Valley and a cool-climate example of the variety to boot. With a great opening nose of blackberry, clove and dried herb, the lifted, balanced flavors follow suit, showing plenty of freshness and length around a well-integrated and elegant core. Editors’ Choice. —V.B.

Cab Sauv bottles on green background
Photo by Kate Sears / Prop Styling by Maeve Sheridan

Changing Styles

In California’s Livermore Valley, Mia Nipote and Page Mill Winery are taking the grape to new, premium heights. Farther south in Paso Robles, established producer Daou offers a lighter, lower-alcohol expression, as is Bec Hardy, farther south still in South Australia.

For a bright, juicy option that also offers a nod to the historic Cab-based blends from the country, Leeu Passant in South Africa’s Western Cape blends in old-vine Cinsault and Cabernet Franc.

Finally, Cabernet is emerging as one of Washington State’s key grapes. To show off how well the grape expresses here, Passing Time and Quilceda are among those doing a lineup of Cabs from different appellations.

Quilceda Creek 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $200, 98 points. The aromas explode from the glass, with notes of dark raspberry, dried herb, piercingly pure cherry, incense, cranberry and spice. The flavors undulate across the palate, creamy in feel with layer upon layer of fruit and barrel flavors. It is completely seamless, with outrageous balance—the quintessential hammer in a velvet glove. The finish carries off into the distance. Best after 2032, with no end in sight beyond that. Cellar Selection. —S.S.

Passing Time 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Horse Heaven Hills); $85, 96 points. Cabernet from the Discovery Vineyard makes up a full half of this wine, with the rest of the grapes from Champoux Vineyard (41%) and Wallula Vineyard (9%). Blended with 9% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc, this wine is locked up tightly out of the gate, with notes of dried herb, coffee, black cherry leaf, spice, bittersweet chocolate and scorched earth. The flavors are bold and rich, with oodles of sophistication. There’s impressive layering, midpalate density and structure. The finish is eternal. Full of intensity, sophistication and grace, it’s one for the ages. Cellar Selection. —S.S.

Mia Nipote 2017 Lencioni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $50, 95 points. Deep in flavor, exceptionally well balanced and polished, this sleek wine delivers power with grace. It shows great concentration in the black currant and dark chocolate flavors that are wrapped in silky tannins for an almost delicate presence on the palate. Best from 2025. Cellar Selection. —J.G.

Daou 2018 Cherem Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles); $90, 94 points. Making lower alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon is a fascinating step for the Daou brothers, who’ve always pushed ripeness and depth. This bottling is full of umami character, showing bloody steak flavors, but also dark plum, charred blueberry and purple flowers. The palate displays toasted nut, grilled lamb and dried flowers, and it only grows more fascinating the longer it’s open. Drink now through 2038. Cellar Selection. —M.K.

A Global Guide to Great Cabernet Sauvignon

Leeu Passant 2017 Dry Red Wine (Western Cape); $105, 94 points. A blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Cinsault and 18% Cabernet Franc, there’s an immediate draw to this wine’s bouquet. A complex mix of fresh, snappy black cherry, cassis and plum is partnered with tones of pressed violet and carnation, all hit by licorice, clove and rooibos dust. The palate is like crushed satin, with ripe fruit flavors that are perfectly framed by fine yet supportive and structuring tannins that carry it all through to the enduring finish. It comes across more red fruited than black on the palate, with lingering notes of incense and sweet spice on the back of the close. So lovely and layered, it’s hard to pass up now but this should mature well through 2033. Skurnik Wines, Inc. —L.B.

Page Mill 2017 VS Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $48, 93 points. Outstanding depth and concentration lift this full-bodied wine well above the crowd. Opulent baking spices, earth and tobacco nuances accent ripe blackberry and cherry flavors, while a texture laced with fine-grained tannins carries them to a lingering finish. —J.G.

Bec Hardy 2019 Pertaringa Lakeside Cabernet Sauvignon (South Australia); $17, 92 points. This rose-colored South Aussie Cab delivers in a big way, particularly for a wine that’s less than $20. Light and fresh, it opens with bright, lucid aromas of red berry, baking spice, tree bark and flowers. The tannins are well-integrated, soft yet present, gently tugging on the fruit, which gets a lift from the crunchy acidity. It’s a modern, medium-weight Aussie Cab that should be a weeknight staple. Mack & Schuhle Inc. Editors’ Choice. —C.P.

Published on July 28, 2021
Topics: Cabernet Sauvignon