No grape is more synonymous with Napa Valley than Cabernet Sauvignon. From the valley floor to mountain vineyards, Cabernet shows a particular fondness for Napa’s sunny climate. Capable of producing wines that are both enjoyable in their youth as well as age-worthy, Cabernet flexes its range in Napa’s 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, as well as a few great Napa Cabs to look out for.
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.
Cabernet Sauvignon made its California debut in the Santa Clara Valley in the mid-1800s, but didn’t make its way north until the latter half of the 19th century when it was planted in Sonoma. It was considered a finicky grape but people liked its aromatics. H.W. Crabb was the first to bring it to Napa a few years later and planted it in the To Kalon Vineyard (meaning “highest beauty” in Greek) in what is now 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 experimentation: trials with longer maceration times proved to soften tannins, for example. The decade also saw an expansion of Cabernet plantings, 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.
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.
With its medium-to-full body and high tannins, there’s a reason why Cabernet is the go-to choice for steak. Any rich protein is a great match, from braised lamb shank to veal Osso Buco. But vegetables shouldn’t get short shrift: Mushrooms, stewed beans—even roasted brussels sprouts—all stand up to Cabernet. When it comes to cheeses, cheddar and gouda create an ideal pairing.
If you’re ready to dig into the history of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, here are some wines to try:
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.
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.
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.