red wine being poured into a glass

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most-grown wine grape variety in the world. Around 840,000 acres of vineyard are dedicated to growing Cabernet Sauvignon vines, surpassing all other red and white wine grapes. Its nearest red rival is Merlot on 653,000 acres. Chardonnay, the most-grown white wine grape, manages 5th in the ranking at under 520,000 acres. 

It should come as no surprise that the “King of Red Wines” occupies the most vineyard space. From its origins in France, it spread throughout the Old World and then to the New. Today, it has pride of place in many of the most prestigious wines.

However, although Cabernet dominates the wine scene today, that wasn’t always the case. Over the centuries, the popularity of grape varieties has waxed and waned, especially since vignerons—the people who cultivate and grow wine grapes—began to understand how to cross different vines to create new varieties.

All of which raises an interesting question: What are the origins of Cabernet Sauvignon? Is it an age-old grape variety or a new creation? Did the Romans in Ancient Gaul drink wine we’d recognize as a Cabernet, or do we have to look later in wine’s long history for its beginnings?

What is Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cabernet Sauvignon wine is known for its deep color, full body, and rich flavor. It’s a tannic wine with a robust structure and the potential to age well. Cabernet Sauvignon’s taste profile foregrounds hints of dark fruits like blackberry and plum, along with overtones of spices and often a touch of green pepper, an unusual flavor for a red wine.

Many Cabernet Sauvignon wines are aged in oak barrels to soften the tannins and add complexity to the wine’s flavor. Oak aging imparts various flavors, including vanilla, cedar, and a smoky character.

The grape is notable for its late ripening. It’s harvested after many other red wine grapes, and the longer maturation allows it to develop a fuller flavor profile. Cabernet Sauvignon wines can have overly sharp flavors and astringent tannins if the grape is picked too early. However, picking too late can produce excessively ripe flavors and higher alcohol content.

The grape’s late ripening demands a climate with warmth and dryness late into the season. It finds the perfect home in France’s Bordeaux region, where it is blended with other varieties to create complex wines. Other key growing areas include California’s Napa Valley, Australia’s Coonawarra, and Chile’s Maipo Valley

The Cabernet Sauvignon Origin Story

Only recently have we had the technology to analyze grapevine genetics and determine their origins. Science has overturned the long-accepted wisdom about the history of many grape varieties, and that’s what happened with Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Before we get to its true origins, let’s explore where Cabernet Sauvignon was once thought to originate. 

The Myth

Over the years, various histories have been suggested to explain the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon. One story claims the grape is of ancient stock and a direct descendant of the Biturica grape, which was drunk in Ancient Rome and mentioned in Pliny the Elder’s historical writing. Biturica was named after the Bituriger tribe, who lived in the part of Gaul that later came to be called Bordeaux.

During the 18th Century, Cabernet Sauvignon was often called Petit Verdure; the “Verdure” part was thought to be a corruption of Biturica. At the time, the Carménère grape variety, also grown in Bordeaux, was known as Grand Vidure. It was supposed that there was a close relation between these two grapes. 

Later in the 18th Century, the name Cabernet Sauvignon became more prevalent, giving insight into the grape’s actual origin. 

The Science

In the mid-1990s, genetic technology advancement made it possible to carry out genetic typing on grape varieties. By examining the DNA of multiple varieties grown in Bordeaux, scientists determined that Cabernet Sauvignon results from the crossing of two varieties: Cabernet Franc, a red wine grape used in Bordeaux blends, and Sauvignon Blanc, a white wine grape. 

The crossing of these two varieties is thought to have occurred at some point in the 17th Century, most likely on the Château d’Armailhac or Château Mouton estates in the Pauillac municipality of Bordeaux’s Medoc region. 

Earlier, we mentioned that Cabernet Sauvignon has a green pepper or grassy, vegetal flavor that isn’t present in many other red wines. It is, however, a characteristic feature of Sauvignon Blanc white wine. The unique flavor combinations that distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon wine result from the genetic blending of the red and white wine grapes. 

Five Cabernet Sauvignon Wines You Should Try

Cabernet Sauvignon was created in Bordeaux but has traveled far beyond the heart of French viticulture. To conclude this article, let’s look at five wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon that represent its long history.