Big. Full-bodied. Powerful. Elegant. Cabernet Sauvignon is widely considered to be the king of wine varietals. Of the 25 most expensive American wines, nearly 100% are Cabs. Cabernet Sauvignon commands some of the highest prices per bottle but also per ton (fussy, difficult Pinot Noir can often be costlier, but not much else ever is). Cabs can often age for decades and still punch above their weight, thanks to epic tannin structure and favorable acid balance. They are dignified wines, with gravity and heft.
The regions most synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon are Bordeaux (where it is usually blended with Cabernet Franc and Merlot) and Napa Valley (where it’s almost always a varietal expression). However, the extremely popular grape is grown in Italy and Argentina, China and Canada, Australia and Chile, and elsewhere around the world. It’s becoming more common in more northerly regions (Germany and British Columbia are experimenting with it a lot), as it tolerates a more intense climate situation than some grapes might. Cab likes gravel soils, summer sun and high altitude-though great ones are definitely grown at sea level too, when Cab comes from a mountain vineyard site winemakers tend to point that out, and with reason.
Expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon can be pretty varied by region and winemaking style, but there are through-lines. Assertive tannins are one such through line, and the main reason why this varietal ages like a boss. Cab and its relatives tend to develop significant levels of an aromatic compound group called pyrazines, which are responsible for this wine’s often pronounced green or herbaceous notes (specifically it shares an aromatic compound with green peppers). Fruit profiles of most cabs favor cherries and blackcurrant. Other common notes include graphite or pencil shavings, chocolate, berries, warm spices, tobacco, leather and tea. Vanilla and toast notes are a result of oak barrel aging.
There are no rules without exceptions, but generally speaking, Bordeaux wines tend to come across as fresh and balanced, with a bit of green herbaceousness and cedar and violet aromas. Napa cabs tend to be fruity, with dominant black cherry, blackberry and blueberry notes alongside vanilla and chocolate. Washington might reasonably be considered a middle-path region, tending to produce cabs that are less austere than Bordeaux but also less jammy than Napa. Chilean cabs are often spice-forward and can have rather imposing tannins.
I’ve tried to include something for everyone; not all of these are my personal favorite but all of them are someone’s. Unless vintage is specifically called out, assume we’re talking about the current release at the time of writing. Cabernet can be intimidating, and some of these bottles have price tags to match, while others are affordable enough to make you think they couldn’t possibly be any good. Sometimes higher price indicates higher quality, but by no means all the time. And screwcap closures also don’t indicate lesser quality, but they do suggest you won’t have a great experience cellaring that bottle-aging wine requires the air-permeable qualities of cork, but that doesn’t mean much other than that you’re totally welcome, and encouraged, to drink Le Screwcap wines young. Of course, I also totally support a cellar-free lifestyle where it’s always “drink it now.”
Aia Vecchia Lagone (Italy, $15)
Tuscany isn’t just for Sangiovese anymore! This Cab-Merlot blend is intriguing-there’s a pretty strong red meat note, but at the same time the word “delicate” doesn’t feel wrong. Black fruit. Cherries. Vanilla and other oak notes. And the mixed aromatic herb quality that tends to permeate red wines from this region. And honestly, all wine is “food-friendly” at the end of the day, but there is something about Italian wines that is more like “food-requiring,” like you could drink it alone, but why bother? If you eat beef, this is a pretty rock-solid option.
Cameron Hughes Lot 567 Cabernet (Napa, $24)
Big, ripe style and a good “accessible” Napa Cab. Raspberry and wildflowers up front, followed by cocoa and cassis. It’s juicy and youthful and I wouldn’t necessarily favor cellaring it, but look, you have to also have something to drink now, right? This is a now wine. Vivacious, not hard to get to know.
Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, $40)
So, if you were to look up “Napa Valley Cabernet” in the dictionary, the picture would show a bottle of Charles Krug-it’s exemplary, meaning it kinda defines the genre. The fruit notes are clear and ringing (black cherry, blueberry, blackcurrant, in that order). There’s chocolate and violets and a little hit of thyme and some oakiness. It feels ripe but not overripe. The tannins are well-behaved, a bit dusty, kind of a strong silent type-William Holden has just rolled into town and he’s clearly been working outdoors kinda thing. Classic for a reason.
Chateau de Haut Coulon (Bordeaux, $22)
The operative words here: serious color extraction. This wine from the Cadillac area of Bordeaux is intense. The 2015 expression has a noticeable Petit Verdot influence (inky color and pronounced florality). There’s a dark, wild blueberry note here, and a lot of earth and a little smoke and something that’s kind of reminiscent of thyme and fennel pollen, with a stony finish. Poised and concentrated.
Chateau Lassegue Les Cadrans Grand Cru 2015 (Bordeaux, $30)
From Saint-Emilion, this wine strikes me as kind of the “sweet spot” Bordeaux option. It’s not wildly expensive but it’s hardly Le Swill either. It’ll age ten years no problem but it doesn’t need to. It’s a non-extremist wine with a reasonable personality. Opening impressions are of its deep gem-like hue and a spicy, peppery nose (I get nutmeg). Like a lot of Bordeaux wines it leans more on minerality than fruitiness; it’s rich but also lean. Long finish, fine balance, not a prima donna.
Chateau Mont-Pérat (Bordeaux, $20)
I’m going to be very honest with you: Bordeaux wines are not my thing. I admire their epic competence and reverence for tradition, but they don’t often grab me by the heartstrings. This is an exception, and I’d be hard pressed to say why but it’s just got a certain vivacity Cabernet based wines can’t be counted on to deliver. For a Bordeaux blend it’s juicy and fruit forward (a bright wild blueberry note, with cassis and blackberry in the background), and it just feels playful and laid back. It’s juicy and ample, but still definitely French. Do you eat duck? That’s what I was served the first time I tasted this wine and it was a good, good call.
Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, $78)
From the “drinkable ink” school of Cabernet, this heavyweight has some pretty explosive aromatics. Distinctly fresh blackcurrant is prominent, and supported by wafting notes of raspberry and blueberry, but the standout aromatics are herb and spice notes, which run the gamut from cardamom to cumin, and from fennel seed to lavender. Earth and smoke notes complete the effect. If austerity is not your thing, this might be. It’s a somewhat showy wine, one you could certainly justify not pairing with food so you’re not distracted-but this is an elegant and substantial choice for red meat, aged cheese, mushrooms or nuts.
Concannon Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles, $18)
An accessible Cab that shows classic flavors of ripe cherry, cocoa, vanilla, blackcurrant, plum and cinnamon. Faintly dusty tannins. Lingering finish. Basic in a good way, this wine is a likely crowd-pleaser and versatile at the table. I’d pair it with grill-tending detail, and most anything else.
Daou Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles, $25)
This is a rich purple wine in which you can certainly detect the “mountain” qualities of serious concentration and density. It’s potent enough to potentially not appeal to folks with a strong preference for light-bodied reds, but a delight for those who appreciate a little “iron fist in velvet glove” in their glass. Aromatics are firmly in the “leaping” category and favor classic Cab notes like blackcurrant, graphite, cocoa, blackberry cobbler and wild blueberry. The palate backs up the assertions made by the bouquet and adds a hint of anise. The overall impression is of something powerful and structure-forward, but not intimidating or rigid. If this wine had a birth chart it would be an Aries-charismatic, not afraid of the spotlight, and a tiny bit loud, in a totally lovable way. There’s an unabashedness to it, a kind of raw-edged intensity and exuberance.
Double Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington, $20)
If you like your Cab juicy, this is one to look for; it features a brilliant acidity and youthful freshness that can be hard to capture in Cabernet. Lush notes of raspberry are upheld by a faint pastry note and hints of allspice and damp leaves. There’s a tiny hint of something like Maraschino, and also a bit of boysenberry. There’s a pretty strong vein of oak on the finish, so toasty, vanilla-ish flavors. It’s lively and well-structured and an excellent value at its unpretentious price point.
Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Paso Robles $20)
2016 was good to Paso Robles, but it kind of seems like most years are. A wine for steak lovers for sure, this Cab is showing definite varietal typicity and wall-to-wall Paso terroir. Cherry. Mocha. Pencils. Cedarwood. Cumin. Cinnamon. Stone. There’s a smoothness and unctuousness to this wine that I’d say suggested the presence of Merlot but this one’s 100% Cab. Firm tannins, excellent balance. If it were a building you’d say it had good bones.
Flambeaux Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Sonoma, $60)
This bottle has won a lot of accolades and awards, and not without reason. A wine of heft and gravitas, but not full of itself (the winemaker’s own notes call it “iron fist in a velvet glove” and I’m not inclined to argue). Kirsch and aniseed, oolong tea and tobacco, mocha and blackberries. Integrated and balanced. Tannins somewhere between “grippy” and “needs a time out in the cellar” (it’ll last a long time, I think, but you can totally drink it now, just give it some air). The finish is long and silky. Completely lovely.
Frank Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, $55)
The operative word for this wine is “concentrated,” which is distinct from heavy-bodied (which this wine is not). The color is intense (garnet heading toward purple). The nose is intense (cooked plums sprinkled with allspice, hints of bay laurel and graphite). The first sip conveys a strong impression of chocolate covered cherries, and then expands to include blackberry and cassis notes. The finish underscores the chewiness of the tannins.
Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Napa, $60)
“Fleshly” is the first word that comes to mind on first sip of this Cab from Oakville. There’s a decent amount of Merlot in there, which probably contributes to the bigness and roundness of this wine. Very much on the fruity side of the spectrum, it’s got effusive notes of blackcurrant and cherry, along with a pretty penetrating vanilla note. Will get more seamless with a little bottle time. But entirely worth your time right now.
Gundlach-Bundschu Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Sonoma, $50)
I’ll never forget the first time I blew into the Gun-Bun tasting room in the middle of a bike ride-for one thing, the end of that bike ride was moved up considerably between the tasting flight and the bottles I couldn’t not buy. This Cab is … I want to say understated, and in a pleasing way. California Cabs can punch hard; this one is quite restrained, very balanced, and very elegant. Cassis and kirsch, blackberry and autumn leaves. Definitely has the structure for extended cellaring, but it’s so nice now that I’d have mixed feelings recommending it. Get the cork pull and go for it.
Imagery Cabernet (Sonoma, $18)
An addition of 15% Petite Sirah gives this Cab a particular opulence, so if “rich” is your Cabernet buzzword, be on the lookout. Deeply saturated color, beautifully integrated tannins. Nice black fruit notes but also pronouncedly spicy (clove, cinnamon, allspice, peppercorn), along with noticeable oak influences (vanilla, toast). Biodynamic bonus points!
Intrinsic Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Washington, $18)
A modest addition of Cabernet Franc gives this wine complexity and spice and flower notes on the nose. This is a savory sort of Cab, with herb and resin notes floating around ripe pomegranate, wild blueberry and subtle cherry flavors. It has a leathery quality, and good tannin structure. This is an unpretentious wine, party-friendly, almost a little rustic, but it’s not unsophisticated. What it is is friendly, which is a quality often missing from Cabernets, and a welcome one here.
Joseph Phelps Insignia 2016 (Napa, $300)
Well, wouldn’t that be a thoughtful gift! If you’re going to shell out some not-fooling-around money for an occasion bottle, welcome to Joseph Phelps’ Insignia range. Even Robert Parker gave this puppy a 99 point rating. A 10% addition of Petit Verdot contributes depth and subtle florals to an already deep situation-color doesn’t always correlate with flavor intensity in a wine, but it sure does here. Deep purple tone in the glass, and an intriguing party trick involving a sort of subdued bouquet that begs you to get closer instead of putting up a wall. If you have the patience to let it open up, the situation quickly becomes gloriously complicated: black fruits, graphite, cedar, violets, cloves, cinnamon, chocolate, stone, cured meat, mixed herbs and a pleasingly oak-influenced finish.
L’Ecole 41 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Washington, $35)
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself standing in L’Ecole’s storied Ferguson vineyard, you can look down and see some next level soil drainage-Washington terroir is all about weathered basalt. It can deliver an almost bloody note to Syrah and it concentrates the flavors of Cabernet. This one’s all about purity and freshness, with nimble acidity and great balance. The aromatics and the mid-palate feel very stratified or layered, but I mean that as distinct from non-integrated, if that makes sense. Violets, Plums. Cherries. Cassis. Chocolate. Coffee. Thyme. Something balsamic, almost like sagebrush. And a certain volcanic je ne sais quoi. Brilliant stuff.
Long Meadow Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Napa, $50)
Pretty dang bright, with ripe cherry and berry flavors, chocolate, oaky vanilla and a bit of a cinnamon toast note. Nice balance. Has a fairly dense or even “thick” mouthfeel. A wine for carnivores, no question (shortribs anyone?), but I confess to feeling it would be stellar with polenta and porcini mushrooms.
Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Sonoma, $90)
The truth is, a grapevine’s an adaptive and flexible beast and they can grow nearly anywhere. But every region has a handful of “magic” vineyards whose very names provoke swooning from connoisseurs and buy you a Magic Vineyard Markup that no one even complains about because yep, the fruit from that spot is always amazepants. Monte Rosso, on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas mountains, is one of those. This Cab is very concentrated, but also supple. Red and black fruit notes intermingle as spice and earth notes lift up the nose. There is a certain chewy dried fruit quality (kind of like you’d find in an Amarone, but also different); a note of dates or figs or dried mulberry (I’m not 100% sure). Tannins are firm, but I wouldn’t say strict. Chocolate and French Roast notes trail across the finish alongside oak-vanilla tones and a bit of fennel seed. Classy, dignified, and likely to impress your date.
Marshall Davis Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Oregon, $40)
This wine is made in primo Pinot country, from Washington fruit. Marshall Davis focuses on single vineyard bottlings, of which this one is their biggest and most full-bodied. It’s a high-extraction, “big” style Cab, with layers of licorice and leather, nutmeg and allspice, bay and bell pepper, graphite and cherry cola, baked blueberries and cherry compote. Tannins are supple and nicely integrated. If big and intense is your Cab style, you could do worse than this one. It’s a jolly little phenol-bomb, and quite fetching.
Mayacamas Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, $125)
The Mayacamas range is a ridge of small mountains that separates Napa and Sonoma counties, and it is home to some of the most sought-after vineyard sites in the region. Mayacamas is an old winery, started in the 19th century, and you could say they’ve had time to hone their craft-even during Prohibition, when they produced Communion wine for the Catholic church (and maybe did some bootleggin’ on the side; talk about a gig economy). This estate Cab is pretty magnificent. Fermentation in concrete followed by aging in rather antique (so, neutral) oak foudres means a brighter, snappier expression of the grape (in Napa it is common to be in a fairly torrid affair with one’s cooperage; they love their oak). Ripe raspberry leads, but the panoply of intense and ringing flavors and aromas moves from root beer to Black Mission fig, licorice, lavender, leather, balsam, blueberry, chapparal, blackcurrant and something meat-like. It’s dense, explosive and a good choice for cellaring—the 2015 has not fully integrated but it’s already powerful and fascinating, and will become more so.
Oak Farm Cabernet Sauvignon (Lodi, $20)
From the persistently unsexy (and thus free of fetish-pricing) land of Lodi, Oak Farm Cab is strong and direct, with a deep, rich color (helped out by a little Petite Sirah), firm tannins, and a full, weighty body. The texture is dense, layered and very pleasing. Raspberry and chocolate at the core, but also notes of mint (around here that often comes from nearby eucalyptus), cassis, and oolong tea leaves. It’s a very textural wine, with a bit of brashness to it. I tasted it solo, but if I were doing it again I’d consider pairing it with charcuterie or a cheese plate.
Pahlmeyer Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, $75)
Yes, this is the budget option from Pahlmeyer-their flagship Bordeaux blend will run you about $200. This high-density wine is a black fruit rhapsody (Bing cherry, blackcurrant, blackberry, Japanese plum) with a flavor-chord at the mid-palate that evokes an affogato, so let’s say espresso and creamy vanilla. Accent notes include anise and bay, sage and dust, and maybe a hint of cocoa powder and autumn leaves. A heavyweight with a strong personality, but not domineering or ponderous. Just big and sturdy. Eminently giftable.
Trapiche Medalla Cabernet Sauvignon (Argentina, $20)
Plum sauce. Blackberries. Vanilla. Bell pepper. Smoke. Herbs. This Cab is deep and dark, with an almost violet color. It’s an excellent value (if the same wine were made in Napa, the price would at least double). The tannins are a little feisty, even mouth-drying, but not out of control. There’s a fairly prominent smoked quality to it; the black fruit notes seem like they were grilled on charcoal, and the finish is all about dark-roast black coffee. This one broods a bit, which can be delightful. It will pair with lots of things, but it seems to want red meat so you might start there.