Nearly every red wine lover has a special place in their heart for classic Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it’s so well-loved, it just recently became the world’s most planted wine grape variety. Despite how well distributed Cabernet Sauvignon is, it’s surprisingly difficult (and expensive) to find a decent bottle. So to expand your palate (and preserve your wallet), let’s take a look at some lesser-known wine grapes that are great alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Fruit-forward Alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine Keywords: Supple, black fruit, opulent, round, velvet, mocha, plum… If these words sing to your wine drinking sensibilities check out the following alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon.
1. Hillside estate/high elevation Merlot
Merlot can be just as rich and full-bodied as Cabernet Sauvignon, you just need to get the right one. Keep your eyes peeled for Merlot that has moderate alcohol (above 13.5%) and about 16 to 24 months of oak aging. Higher alcohol and oak aging are the basic indications of a Merlot wine with a full-bodied flavor. Also, a great place to find richer styled Merlot wine is from hillside estates. Higher elevation vineyards tend to produce smaller grapes making more intensely-colored and higher-tannin wines. Some examples of higher elevation vineyards include the hills around Napa and Sonoma Valley (such as Diamond Mountain AVA, Howell Mountain, Clear Lake AVA). You might also check out Walla Walla in Washington State and Mendoza, Argentina.
2. Nero D’Avola from Sicily
Sicily’s great wine red grape Nero D’Avola has so much potential and, for the price, you’ll find it’s worth checking out. The grape often has black fruit characteristics and chalky tannins. Nero D’Avola will frequently be blended with other grapes such as Syrah, or the other local red Frappato, which makes the wine taste lighter but have a longer finish.
3. Touriga Nacional from Portugal
Portuguese dry red wines are becoming more and more available. Touriga Nacional is a black grape that’s traditionally used in making Port but when produced in a dry style it takes on flavors very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the best Portuguese dry reds include Touriga Nacional mixed with several of the other local varieties. By producing blends, the flavor profiles are extended and taste more complex. Check out a dry red wine from the Douro Valley.
4. Malbec-Cabernet from Argentina
Malbec is a grape variety that puts out all its power within the first 5 seconds of tasting it. However, when you pair its explosive front-loaded personality with a little bit of actual Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine will sing. Since Argentina is home to about 90% of the world’s Malbec, you’ll find many great examples there.
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Check out the Different Types of Wine infographic as a guide (by flavor) to explore new wine. If can’t live without it, you can even have it as a poster.
Herbaceous Alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine Keywords: Tobacco, meaty, black pepper, bell pepper, smoke, herbs, graphite, structure… If these words sound like music to your wine drinking preferences check out the following alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon.
1. Aglianico from Italy
Aglianico grows in the southern part of Italy around Campania and Basilicata. You’ll find this wine to have rich tannins and a meaty flavor. It’s surprisingly long and complex on the palate which is what makes it such a great alternative to savory Cabernet Sauvignon. Seek out 6+ year old vintages where the tannins have calmed down a bit.
2. Lagrein from Italy
Lagrein is a very fascinating variety from Northern Italy in Alto Adige with black peppery notes and good acidity. It makes wines that have a striking resemblance to Cabernet Sauvignon. As with Cabernet Sauvignon, pay attention to winemaking practices to give you hints at how bold the wine will be because, for the most part, Lagrein tends to be slightly lighter in color and density than Cabernet Sauvignon.
3. Monastrell from Spain
Rich dark and meaty are the Monastrell (a.k.a. Mourvedre) from Spain. These wines are usually sold young and fresh, but because of the hot growing conditions they are usually slightly lower in acidity making them smooth and lush on the finish. While Spain offers some of the best valued Monastrell, you can also look to Provence in the Bandol region to find a great (but more pricey) French version.
4. Carmenere from Chile
Chile is famous for producing what people now consider the ‘lost grape of Bordeaux’. Carmenere is very savory with flavors of bell pepper and black pepper. As a wine grape that’s lighter in color and has higher acidity it will come across more ‘elegant’ than Cabernet Sauvignon, but some examples have moderate oak-aging making them rich and lush.
Why does Cabernet Sauvignon taste so good?
Let’s identify what it is about Cabernet Sauvignon that you go crazy for.
What does the chart mean?
Basically, Cabernet Sauvignon tends to linger longer on your palate. This ‘lingering’ helps the drinker taste many different components within the wine over a longer period of time. Think about how a wine builds in your palate the next time you taste wine.
- Tannin tends to come in after the initial burst of fruit
- The finish of a wine will either give the sense of sweetness or of tartness
- Some wines have very little mid-palate
- Some wines build over time, some diminish
Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a relatively new grape variety in terms of age as it’s only been around for about 350 years. Compare that to Muscat Blanc — at close to 2000 years— suddenly Cabernet seems like a baby. Despite its youth, wines made with Cabernet grapes have nuanced flavors, fruit and boldness that all come together to make a wine that’s very special.
Cabernet Sauvignon has primarily dark fruit flavors including:
Currant, Blackberry, Plum, Boysenberry, Black Cherry, Blueberry, Jam
Herb, Spice, Other
Cabernet Sauvignon offers very savory flavors in addition to fruit with the following nuanced flavors:
Mint, Black Pepper, Red Bell Pepper, Violet, Eucalyptus, Anise, Bay Leaf, Cinnamon, Menthol, Camphor
The tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon are bold, but when made well they come on smoothly:
Cedar, Tobacco, Sandpaper Grit, Gravel, Bitterness, Dark Chocolate, Grip, Graphite, Charcoal
Oak aging Cabernet Sauvignon smooths out grippy grape tannins and makes the wine feel more concentrated:
Smoke, Vanilla, Clove, Milk Chocolate, Fenugreek, Roasted Coffee, Dusty, Mocha
Read more about Cabernet Sauvignon