PA Wine School: Cabernet Sauvignon

Need some help demystifying some of Pennsylvania’s most essential grape varieties? The PA Wine Land Post is at your service, schooling you on the grapes you need to know.

Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon (kab-er-nay soh-VIN-yohn)

Grown: Across Pennsylvania, but especially in the Southeast

Similar to: Merlot, Petit Verdot

For most of the 20th century, Cabernet Sauvignon was the world’s most planted red wine grape (Merlot stole its crown in the 1990s). How’s this for a comeback story: By 2015, Cab was yet again on top.

Long subject to theories and legends about its origins, DNA testing done in 1996 at University of California Davis determined, definitively, that the grape is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc — most likely the result of a serendipitous crossing in 17th century France. It’s a viticulture meet-cute.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy, though the plant prefers warm, dry temperatures when it comes to ripening. This is often the last block in the vineyard to bud and mature (typically one to two weeks after Merlot and Cab Franc). Winemakers who grow this varietal spend September praying for sunny skies.

Classic Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied, with high tannins, jammy red-fruit flavors, and great potential for aging. Cooler climate wines — like those made in Pennsylvania — often showcase notes of blackcurrant, green bell pepper, mint, and cedar.

Cabernet is an exciting canvas for winemakers. First, it is a classic player in blends, notably those inspired by the iconic reds of Bordeaux (typically a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot). Then there is the fact that the grape thrives in oak, either during fermentation or barrel-aging. The wood softens powerful tannins and imparts notes of vanilla, spice, and tobacco.

When it comes to pairing, this is a bold wine that can stand up to rich, earthy flavors — there’s a reason why it’s the classic steakhouse choice. Serve it with your favorite cut of beef (au poivre if you’re feeling daring) or pasta with mushroom cream sauce. Bitter foods such as endive salad or charred radicchio are also a fun option — that note will help neutralize the rustic tannins. This philosophy also applies to dark chocolate; think dessert or a Mexican mole poblano. Beyond specific foods, method matters: Play off the oak-driven notes by deploying your grill, smoker, or cedar plank.

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