There are a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in the world. In fact the world total area under vine is roughly equivalent to that of all Chardonnay plus all Sauvignon Blanc.

Cabernet Sauvignon is found everywhere in the world, especially in newly emerging wine countries – in China, for instance, it is the most popular grape and plantings amount to about 7% (and counting) of the world’s Cabernet Sauvignon. It is also particularly concentrated in Chile (14% of the world’s total); USA (mostly California, 12%); Australia (9½%); Spain and Argentina (6%+ each).

However, nearly 20% of Cabernet Sauvignon is to be found in France, about half of it in its home in the Gironde area, near Bordeaux. The other half is planted over the rest of France – from Provence, through Languedoc-Roussillon, the South-West and up to the Loire. In most cases, but with more exceptions outside Bordeaux, it is in blends where it makes up 60% or 70% with a variety of other grapes, most often Merlot. Sometimes elsewhere it is only a minor partner in a blend (e.g. 20% with the other Cabernet, Franc, in the Loire); or sometimes it will be a varietal wine.

This classic claret “formula” (say 70% Cabernet, 25% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and/or Cabernet Franc) is widely copied around the world and divides the Cabernet Sauvignon camp into two – varietals and claret blends.

Cab Sauv

There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all Cabernet Sauvignon is a small thick skinned grape – producing wines with high tannin, acidity, colour and ageing potential. Where it is on the margin of ripening, historically in Bordeaux, it can be heavy on structure and light on fruit so the option of including a much softer, more fruity grape in the blend can bring balance. Also when there are weather threats to ripening or successful harvests, as in Gironde, having different grapes with different ripening times is an insurance policy.

However there is another factor in the blending question and that is the shape or structure of Cabernet Sauvignon itself. It can be all beginning and end with a “hollow” middle. It has powerful sharp black fruit attack and a long, gripping, tannic finish, and although great ripeness (as found in hotter New World climates) can close the “hollow middle” gap with fruit (or, in evolved examples, mushroom or savoury flavours) it is still detectable in my opinion.

A little Merlot fills that gap with plum fruit and a smoother “chocolate” late palate. Other grapes can be used too, but the issue is to fill that hollow middle.

Sometimes one can look at it the other way round, for Cabernet Sauvignon to complete the profile of another grape. For example (and actually it’s one of my most favourite examples) Sangiovese has quite an even profile with a sour-cherry attack, spice and dried fruit middle and prune, slightly grainy tannic finish. A wonderful grape but the finish does slightly fade, a small amount (10%-20% maybe) of Cabernet Sauvignon can add that final definition as well as a general gravity to the wine – lovely! Something similar might be said about complementing Cabernet with Tempranillo…

I digress… this month’s tasting will focus on New World and Old World Cabernet, but the forgoing suggests the problem. Most New World Cabernet are varietal (or nearly) wines whereas classic old world claret will typically be only 60% or 70%.

So a comparison is not exactly like-with-like, it is more to see if the warmer, riper and sometimes sweeter New World product will compare with the softening effect of added Merlot to the cooler firmer French Cabernet. So that’s the issue: what is the relative success of these two ways of expressing the grape? It isn’t really a case of comparing attempts at the same style – in fact they aren’t the same style at all and can’t really be looked at like that…

So we will try varietal examples from Chile, Australia and California (the three leading New World Countries for Cabernet) against three clarets of increasing Cabernet proportion (rising to 80%).

I’ll report on the tasting in a few days…

Until then.