Red, red

“Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.” – Paulo Coelho, author

Cabernet sauvignon is the king of red grapes, cultivated in vineyards from Chile and South Africa to Australia, Georgia, California and its home in Bordeaux. It’s the most widely planted wine grape in the world, with 341 000 hectares of it globally.

The interesting thing about cabernet sauvignon – cab to its friends and lovers – is that it’s a “relatively” new grape. (Not as new as pinotage, the grape created by crossing pinot noir and cinsaut/hermitage in South Africa in 1925.) Nonetheless, the grape is a crossing of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, believed to have happened by chance in France’s southwest around the 1600s.

Bordeaux is the world region most commonly associated with cabernet sauvignon, specifically for the role it plays in the typical Bordeaux blend. Traditionally it’s blended with merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec – although recently carmenere has been added to the permissible varieties due to global warming.

What makes cab perfect as a hearty, warming winter wine, perfect with red meat and cozy fireside relaxation is that it makes big, bold, full-bodied wines. Wines with ripe fruit flavours buffered by oaky notes and accompanying high alcohol levels – and sometimes big prices too!

America, or rather California’s predilection for cab came after Steven Spurrier set a cat among the pigeons with his blind tasting in 1976. It was called the Judgement of Paris and it was where a host of top French wine makers and writers unwittingly scored American wines higher than some of France’s finest equivalents. Stags Leap cabernet sauvignon from the 1973 vintage soundly beat out some heavyweight First Growths like Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut Brion and acclaimed Second Growth Chateau Leoville-Las Cases. It put American and Californian wines – cab and chardonnay specifically – on the map.

Around the same time there were some Italian winegrowers who challenged convention by including this international grape in a blend with sangiovese customarily used in the making of Chianti. Because the grape was not on the ‘approved’ list of traditional grapes for Tuscany, the wines could not be certified. And thus the SuperTuscan was born with Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia and Ornellaia leading the charge. Even today these wines command eye watering prices and are highly sought after. In actual fact, Italy had cab planted in its soil from around 1820 but it was only after this 1970s ‘revolution’ that it gained prominence. Needless to say, because of the popularity and prices which the SuperTuscans got, the Italians changed the laws and nowadays the grape is allowed in certain Denominazioni di origine controllata (DOCs) – but it was always regarded with some suspicion as a “foreign influence”.

In South Africa, cabernet sauvignon is the most planted red grape – but it still only ranks fourth on the list of all plantings, with chenin blanc, colombar and sauvignon blanc boasting more vines in the ground. SA Wine Information Systems (Sawis) stated that in 2021 9 811 hectares of cab were planted, equating to 10.8% of the national vineyard. Shiraz is nipping at its proverbial heels with 9 010.68 (9.96%) – well ahead of the next red grape, pinotage at 6 570 hectares.

The problem in recent years is that cab and Stellenbosch – have been in danger of being overlooked. All the headlines in wine circles were being grabbed by chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, old vines and the big daddy of them all, shiraz and the Swartland Revolution.

So Stellenbosch decided to fight back. In 2017 a group of 35 cabernet producers in Stellenbosch banded together to remind the country and the wider wine world that it was the heartland for this grape. The message was succinct: to showcase the region’s cabernet. Some of the country’s top producers are there: Rust en Vrede, Tokara, Waterford, Le Riche, Neil Ellis, Rustenberg, Thelema, Hartenberg, Bartinney, Delaire Graff, Ernie Els and a host more.

In an interview with British trade publication The Buyer, Warren Ellis said “there are so many more micro climates in Stellenbosch. It’s why it’s not renowned for producing one style of wine. There are so many options: you can produce sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon on the same property at different altitudes. Cabernet has so much potential here thanks to the different soils, slopes and altitude that we have.”

Louis Strydom, MD and cellar chief at Ernie Els on the slopes of the Helderberg said it was easy for Stellenbosch producers to make big wines in the past. “Now we are looking for more balance.” One of the methods or innovations producers have adopted more and more is the use of alternative vessels – not simply relying on stainless steel tanks and oak barrels as in the past. Clay amphora and concrete eggs are now encountered in wineries more frequently. “There are no silver bullets between them,” Stydom said, “they just help us look at the wines in a way we had not done so before.”

As Johan Jordaan of Spier put it: “We are not seen as an Old World wine country but our wine history goes back to the 1650s. We don’t fit into the Old or New World exclusively. It’s the same with our cabernets. We don’t fit into a classic Bordeaux style, or Napa, or Chile. We sit on our own. We are more of a gateway wine country to go from one to another.”

But the big take out for the collective is the role of time. Changing perceptions is not going to happen overnight. Good cabernet needs time for the vine to mature sufficiently to deliver good grapes – and once turned into wine, it needs time to mature in both barrel (or amphora) and in bottle. After all, a truly delicious cabernet is one which is at least five years on from vintage. The spectacular 2017 vintage is a good example with reds from that year hitting their straps now.