Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Its History, Character & Pairings

  • Wine
  • by SHANA CLARKE
  • on JANUARY 25, 2023
  • 2829
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Wine

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Its History, Character & Pairings

By Shana Clarke January 25, 2023

No grape is more synonymous with Napa Valley than Cabernet Sauvignon. From the sun-drenched valley floor to the lofty mountain vineyards, the noble Cabernet grape shows a particular fondness for Napa’s temperate climate. With the ability to produce wines that are both dazzlingly delicious in their youth and age-worthy in their maturity, Cabernet Sauvignon truly shows off its royal range in Napa’s unique terroir.

But how did this famous French grape become a star in California? Here’s a history of how Cabernet Sauvignon became the signature variety of Napa Valley, how to pair Cabernets with food, as well as a few great Napa Cabs to look out for.

Cabernet Sauvignon’s Roots and Character

Cabernet Sauvignon traces its roots to the Gironde in southwest France. It is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and the white variety Sauvignon Blanc. Known for its thick skins, high tannins, and relatively high acidity, it is a grape that has spread in popularity across the globe. Notes of black currant and red fruits, cassis, and pepper, and sometimes hints of dark chocolate or tobacco are hallmarks of Cabernet. And, because Cabernet Sauvignon has firm tannins and a robust structure, it has the potential to age gracefully for many years, allowing its complex flavors and aromas to evolve and mature over time.

History of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley

Cabernet Sauvignon arrived in California in the mid-1800s and was planted in the Santa Clara Valley before making its way north to Sonoma later in the century. Despite being a finicky grape, its aromatic qualities were well-received by wine enthusiasts. H.W. Crabb then brought the grape to Napa Valley and planted it in the To Kalon Vineyard (which means “highest beauty” in Greek), now part of the Oakville AVA.

The double whammy of phylloxera in the late 1880s and Prohibition in the 1920s stunted the wine industry for a time, but by 1963, Cabernet Sauvignon became the third most-planted grape in Napa, after Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The 1970s were a time of great experimentation in Napa Valley, as winemakers pushed the limits of what was possible with Cabernet Sauvignon. Long maceration times were tried, and tannins were expertly softened. The decade also saw a surge in Cabernet plantings, as the industry gained momentum and confidence, but no better event exemplified all the strides made in the industry than when a Cabernet and a Chardonnay from Napa beat out French competitors in the 1976 Judgment of Paris.

Another round of phylloxera in the 1980s again threatened to destroy the region, but by this time, winemakers were armed with better plant material, rootstocks, and know-how when it came to replanting. The rise of so-called “Cult Cabernet” labels further captured wine drinkers’ attention, and by 1997, Cabernet Sauvignon was the most planted variety in Napa Valley, and remains to this day.

Napa Cabernet on the Label

In order for a wine to be labeled “Cabernet,” at least 75% of the cuvée must contain this variety. Other Bordeaux varieties, such as Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, make common blending partners. And for a label to carry a “Napa Valley” designation, or one of the sub-appellations, 100% of the fruit must come from that AVA.

Worth The Investment?

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is renowned for its rich and complex flavors, but it’s also known for its high price tag. Some of the most prestigious Napa Valley Cabernets can cost hundreds of dollars per bottle, putting them out of reach for many wine enthusiasts. However, there are also plenty of high-quality, affordable Napa Cabernets that offer excellent value for money, so don’t be afraid to explore these, as well. They may not have the cachet of the cult labels, but they still showcase the unique character of Napa Valley Cabernet and can be enjoyed by a wider range of consumers.

What to Pair with Cabernet

Cabernet Sauvignon’s bold flavors and high tannins make it a perfect pairing for a wide range of dishes. The full-bodied wine complements rich proteins, like beef and lamb, making it an excellent choice for a classic steakhouse meal, but pretty much any rich protein is a great match. Try it with braised lamb shank or veal Osso Buco to get more depth and complexity out of the flavors.

Vegetables may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Cabernet Sauvignon pairings, but they can make for surprisingly delicious matches, too. Mushrooms, stewed beans—even roasted brussels sprouts—all stand up to Cabernet. And cheese lovers will be happy to know that Cabernet Sauvignon pairs well with a variety of cheese types. Cheddar and Gouda are classic matches, but other firm cheeses such as aged Parmesan or Pecorino can also hold up to the wine’s strength. For a twist, try pairing Napa Cabernet with a creamy blue cheese to bring out its fruity and spicy notes.

Ready to dive in and explore Napa Cabernet in your glass? These historically significant producers of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are a great place to start

Pine Ridge, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon

The Stags Leap District, even before it became an official AVA, caught international attention when a Cabernet Sauvignon from the district took top honors—over French wines—in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon continues to be a marquee grape for the appellation and Pine Ridge’s appellation-specific wine, with dark fruit and spice notes, shows why.

Louis M. Martini, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

After running a successful grape-growing business in San Francisco (and creating sacramental wine to sell during Prohibition), the Martini family moved north and set up shop in St. Helena in 1933. It is a winery of firsts in Napa Valley: it was one of the first to use cold fermentation; to use wind power in the vineyards; and one of the first to bottle a varietal Merlot.

Charles Krug, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Founded in 1861, Charles Krug is considered Napa’s first commercial winery and is regarded as opening the first public tasting room, to boot. Grapes for this wine come from the estate vineyards in Yountville and produce a Cabernet with ripe red berry and mocha notes.

Corison, Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

Cathy Corison is known for her elegant and textured Cabernets, and her Kronos Vineyard is the source of outstanding fruit. Vines for this single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in 1971 and while yields are low due to age, the grapes produce wines with depth and finesse.

Lokoya, Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon

Lokoya specializes in Cabernet from mountain vineyard sites and the different bottlings show how versatile Cabernet can be at both altitude and in various terroir. Diamond Mountain is in the upper part of Napa Valley and is part of the Mayacamas Mountains. Nutrient-poor soils mean vines struggle to find nourishment, but that results in concentrated and complex fruit flavors.

Schrader Cellars, Heritage Clone Cabernet Sauvignon

Schrader works with some of Napa’s most prestigious vineyards, such as the historic To Kalon Vineyard, for its Cabernets. The Heritage Clone comes from a specific block within the To Kalon Vineyard and, as its name suggests, a very particular clone of Cabernet Sauvignon. This lush wine with beautiful acidity, a streak of minerality, and blackberry fruit is definitely a wine to age.