As with most myths there is some truth to this. Cab is king if you look at current sales figures, at least in terms of the dollar value of sales. (Chardonnay beats it if volume sold is the measure.)
There is good reason for Cab’s prominence. It is the principle varietal grown in the most storied of wine regions, the Left Bank of Bordeaux where some of the most esteemed wines in history had their origin. It ages well, a crucial consideration for people paying top dollar for wine as an investment. It’s a reasonably undemanding grape in the vineyard, growing in diverse soils and climates. When the wine industry took off in the U.S. after prohibition it was easily transplanted from France to the Napa Valley where it then defined new world winemaking as well. It makes deeply concentrated, high alcohol wines that take well to oak thus satisfying the current preference for that style.
Among grape varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon would seem to have all the credentials for top dog? But I suspect part of the reason for Cabernet’s popularity is simple inertia. People like to stay in their comfort zone and Cabernet has been there for many years. Moreover, if you’re thinking of planting a vineyard, what varietals will you choose to plant?—Cabernet that will get you $7500 a ton in Napa in the right location or Syrah that will get you $3700? The answer is obvious. There is a lot of Cabernet on the shelves because there is a lot of it in the ground.
But does the wine world really need more Cabernet? The downside is if you’re looking for something different you won’t find it buying Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It does concentrated and oak influenced quite well. But that’s about it. If you’re looking for something lighter and with more life, it usually won’t be Cabernet Sauvignon. If you want a grape that is uber-sensitive to a vineyard site, Cabernet would not be the first choice. And it pairs well only with robust meat dishes. As diets become more diverse and plant based, will Cabernet maintain its dominance?
Our tastes may be changing as new wine drinkers come of age. As Amber LeBeau recently documented, millennials tend to look for something unique.
A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages”. And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.
When I visit wineries that are experimenting with new techniques and new approaches to winemaking, few are using Cabernet Sauvignon. And acreage of lesser known varietals is exploding, especially as more emerging regions with their own taste preferences come on line. If you’re an emerging wine region and you want to get noticed, trying to compete with Napa may not be the best idea. Planting Cabernet might not be the best choice.
My general point is that if wine lovers become more diverse and acquire a greater interest in diverse experiences, Cabernet Sauvignon may lose its position as the varietal of choice. In other words what counts as “best grape varietal” depends on the kind of experience you’re looking for and that is unlikely to remain fixed.
Cabernet is the best varietal only if you have a limited vision of what wine can be.