Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape of two worlds

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely cultivated grape in the world. To give you some idea of its popularity, the famous journalist and wine critic Jancis Robinson has described it as the “chocolate” to “Chardonnay’s vanilla”. In the global imagination, this grape conjures up wines, often fine ones, of international repute.

The origins of Cabernet Sauvignon long remained mysterious. Certain theories held it to be a grape that hailed from Epirus and which had found its way to Gascony, there being named Carbonet. Others maintained that it dated back to the Ancient Romans, who knew it as vitis caburnica, a descendent of the Greek Kapnios grape. What is for sure, though, it that by the end of the nineteenth century Cabernet Sauvignon had become a symbol of the Bordeaux region, the Haut-Medoc especially, and there it seemed to have found its spiritual home. In 1996, a study from the University of California showed that Cabernet Sauvignon was born from a cross between red Cabernet Franc and white Sauvignon Blanc, a cross that probably happened spontaneously in the seventeenth century on the banks of the Garonne.

One of Cabernet Sauvignon’s defining features is its small size and thick skin, rich in color and tannins. If well looked after, it lends itself obligingly to the creation of fine wines, ageworthy and powerful. Since it ripens late, Cabernet Sauvignon needs to be grown in warm or temperate areas. In regions where it labors a little more to mature, it evinces sharper tannins and distinct herbaceous notes; in environments that help it reach full maturation, however, it bursts with dark fruity aromas, suave tannins and a higher alcoholic content. It loves being stored in wooden barrels, especially new French wood, which softens and invests it with spiced, toasted notes.

For many, the Haut-Medoc remains the area of choice of this grape variety. Here, Cabernet Sauvignon is an essential part of the legendary wines the region yields: aged at length and often typified by the persistent balsamic aroma of cedar wood. Beyond its birthplace, Cabernet Sauvignon’s two most prominent global stages are found in the Napa Valley’s Rutherford zone, which uses the grape for intense, tannic, full-bodied wines, and the Coonawarra zone in Australia, which produces wines dark in color, soft and dense in texture.

Apart from being an expert soloist, Cabernet Sauvignon is capable of surprising duets. It lends a hand all over the world to various native varieties, highlighting or complementing their profile on both the palate and nose. We could look to Chile’s Carmenere, Australian Shiraz or Pinotage in South Africa, to name just a few prestigious examples. Its most famous partnership, however, is without a doubt with Merlot. It’s a perfect marriage, one that is solemnized all over the world, from France to Italy, from California to Australia, from China to New Zealand.

In Tuscany, Cabernet has always enjoyed a historic enclave in the Carmignano wine region. The presence of this grape here dates far back in time, to the extent of being considered almost indigenous. It put down roots here as early as the 1500s, when it was planted at the behest of Caterina de Medici on the Medici family estates. At the time, Cabernet Franc was probably the only Cabernet variety in existence: it was also known as uva francesca – a name that certain vine growers still use today, and one that underlined its French origins. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese form the backbone of Carmignano DOCG.

As for the rest of Tuscany, Cabernet Sauvignon’s journey began as late as the latter half of the twentieth century, when Bolgheri, on a hunch of the Marquis Incisa della Rocchetta, created the Supertuscan phenomenon. Riding the wave of its success, Cabernet Sauvignon landed in the Chianti and never left. Not only did it become an integral component of the Supertuscans, it was even recognized by the Chianti and Chianti Classico regulations as an approved blending partner with Sangiovese.

Modus by Ruffino is a quintessential example of how Cabernet Sauvignon is used in Tuscany.