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WINE SAVVY: Cabernet the king of wine

David Devere

Cabernet sauvignon is the most popular red wine grape in the world.

It is planted in France, Spain, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and the U.S. It often produces soft, supple, velvety wines that can have aromas of blueberries, raspberries, licorice, cedar, tobacco and chocolate. It pairs wonderfully with a wide variety of foods from cheddar cheese to grilled steak and baked potatoes. It’s often called the king of wine because producers like to grow it and sellers know we will buy it. Cabernet is king.

But just like most royalty — it has some secrets. Here’s the gossip, the dish and the dirty laundry on cabernet sauvignon.

Secret No. 1

Cabernet sauvignon is a cross between the red grape cabernet franc and the white grape sauvignon blanc. Curiously, the name cabernet sauvignon, while it is a combo name of its parents, it is a coincidence that it is named that, as only recently, in 1997, was it discovered that cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc were the parents of cabernet sauvignon.

It was originally named cavernet sauvignon. “Sauvignon” in French means wild, thus sauvignon blanc is wild white. The first reference to what we call cabernet sauvignon was in 1777 and presumably it was named that because its wood and leaves resembled that of sauvignon blanc, which makes sense because sauvignon blanc is one of its parents.

When this news of parentage was released to those who care, it created quite a stir. White grapes mating with red grapes to produce the most famous red grape the world has ever known? It’s a bit salacious, a bit unbelievable, but our planet is marvelously unpredictable.

Secret No. 2

Cabernet sauvignon is almost always blended with other grape varieties and most often with merlot. Let that sink in for a bit.

When your wine bottle is labeled cabernet sauvignon you could be led to believe that what you’ll eventually pour into your glass is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon — but you’d be wrong. Just like all royalty, the king needs helpers and cabernet sauvignon has an entire court of wine grapes propping up its right to the throne.

Who are these king makers? They are well-known grapes in their own right: merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot, petit sirah, cinsault and sometimes zinfandel. Next time you hear some wine snob bash poor merlot, kindly remind them that their glass of cabernet sauvignon is leaning pretty heavily on merlot to make it palatable.

How is this possible? Are the producers trying to fool you? Yes and no and actually it’s quite common. U.S. law requires that if a grape variety is noted on the bottle, then 75 percent of the wine in that bottle has to be from the grape noted on the label.

Cabernet sauvignon is a grape that was discovered in the Bordeaux region of France. In Bordeaux they blend all their reds and their whites. It’s just what they do. And since they’ve been doing it like that since before anyone can remember, and their wines are delicious, it makes perfect sense to copy that technique.

Some people think drinking a single variety is preferable to a blend. Think single malt Scotch verses blended whiskey, or pure breed dog verses mutt. The truth is that mutts make great dogs and blended wines can be superior to single variety wines because when you work together you often get more done. The more done in cabernet sauvignon’s case is more taste, flavor, body and the potential to improve with age. But cabernet sauvignon can’t do it alone, it needs its kingly court and its best friend merlot.

You can find many examples of cabernet sauvignon locally. They range in price from $5 to $250. Expect to get what you pay for, but if you’re looking for consistently rewarding cabernet sauvignon I’d shop in the $15 to $25 price range.

David Devere is teaching wine classes locally. Contact him at or visit for the schedule and register for a class.