You would think that Cabernet Sauvignon was the most planted red grape in the world. There is little argument that some of the most expensive wines in the world are based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. But, it is actually Merlot that wins the race with vineyard plantings.
The origin of Cabernet Sauvignon has been in dispute, but recent DNA testing shows that it is actually a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. The grape is thick skinned, with small black berries in loose, long bunches. The grapes have large pips (seeds) and tough stalks, which add to their natural tannins (that gum drying sensation you get). Since Cabernet Sauvignon buds late and ripens late, it needs a fairly long growing season, and well drained soil, which really limits the places it can be planted.
In the winery, Cabernet Sauvignon typically has long contact with the skins, pips (and sometimes stalks) during the fermentation process. This leads to heavy extraction of color and tannins. Traditionally, Cabernet Sauvignon was blended with Merlot, to add some richness to the mid-palate, but now we are seeing more and more 100% Cabernet bottlings and blending with other local varieties (Sangiovese in Italy, Tempranillo in Spain, and Shiraz in Australia). Most Cabernet wines have extended oak aging in oak barrels, but newer techniques (and cheaper ways to produce low cost wines) have led to oak chips, or even oak extract being added to the wine. The oak adds some spice, or vanilla flavors to the final product. Most top wines will benefit from some extended bottle aging (and can improve in the bottle for decades), but the newer styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, are meant for more immediate consumption.
In the glass, the wine is typically ruby or purple (depending on the age) and somewhat opaque. On the nose, you should be able to pick up black cherry, blackberry, cassis, bell pepper, tobacco, and in California and Australian wines, eucalyptus or mint. The wines are going to be medium to high acid, tannin, body and alcohol.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a big wine, and can overwhelm light or delicate foods. The Classic wine and food matches are going to be fatty red meats (where the tannins are neutralized by the fat, allowing the fruit in the wine to come through). Typically beef and lamb are the most desirable. Meats that utilize mild spices, like black pepper, pair well with Cab since the mild spices help to minimize the perception of tannins. Bitter foods, like endive or cooking methods like grilling can also counterbalance the tannins. Some strong cheeses, like aged cheddar, Brie or Camembert work well, as does bitter dark chocolate (remember, your wine should be sweeter than your dessert, so the more bitter the chocolate, the better). Also, different regions, of production can affect your food pairing. Old world wines tend to be earthier, and can pair well with mushrooms. Cool climate Cabs will have a more noticeable vegetal aroma and flavor, so vegetables are a possibility. New world wines are more fruit forward, and usually higher in alcohol (so stay away from hot spices, which will elevate the heat levels).
So what are your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon based wines?