Black currant, vanilla, cedar, chocolate and mint; full-bodied, structured and robust: These are words which commonly describe cabernet sauvignon, the varietal that has come to be known as ‘the noble grape.’
Cabernet sauvignon, a cross varietal of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc grapes, is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world. Thick-skinned and hearty, it ripens better in warmer climates, excelling in areas such as Australia, Chile and the U.S. But when grown in cooler climates, it can give unwanted green pepper flavors and thus, is better for blending.
Ever wonder why one bottle of cabernet sauvignon costs $12, while another is $100? What’s the difference and why do some bottles cost significantly more? Let’s examine the difference in price. Land, labor, barrels, aging, status all are major factors in wine pricing.
The main price affecters for wine are cost of land and labor. Additionally, the winemaker and owner have some decisions to make during the wine-making process: Should this be a wine that is worthy of aging and cellaring? The quality of the grapes from the vineyard is the discriminating factor in this case.
Barrels: There are many options in barrels. A quality French oak barrel usually costs about $1,200 each, while an American oak barrel costs approximately $700, with every barrel yielding 25 cases of wine. If the wine producers decide they want a wine to get to market quicker at a reasonable price, they may use no oak aging or wood chips added during the process. All of these choices and decisions are determining factors in the price of the end product.
Why would one want a cabernet sauvignon that is made to age 20 to 30 years? For wine enthusiasts and collectors with cellars, there are two reasons: the pure enjoyment of experiencing the wine when it reaches its premium, and for investment purposes. If you had invested (bought, aged and sold) in the correct wines over the last 30 years, you would have outperformed the stock market.
One factor that allows wine to age is tannins—natural in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. Tannins are what make your mouth pucker when tasting a wine; it is the dry-out sensation. When the winemaker decides to leave the skins in contact with the juice longer, it extracts more tannins and this allows the wine to age longer. Wine is like a life cycle. When young, the tannins can be aggressive and unpleasant to drink, but over a few years, the wine will soften and reach it’s optimum and best time to drink. Over time, the wine will deteriorate and become oxidized and not drinkable.
The status of high-end wines elevates prices on some bottles. Wine competitions and wine reviews by esteemed publications such as The Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast are price-influencers and consumer perception plays a big role.
Cult cabernet sauvignon wines such as Bryant, Harlan, etc. run several hundreds of dollars a bottle. Are they worth it? These wines have limited production and distribution in some of the best markets around the world. Supply and demand come into play here, which inflates value and price. I believe with any expensive wine it is what the buyer derives from the wine that matters most.
TASTING TIP:We drink most of our big reds too young. When consuming a cabernet sauvignon with bigger tannins, pair it with bigger-flavor foods such as steak and lamb. The tannins will soften and not come across as aggressive. Decanting or aerating the wine before drinking can also reduce tannins.
WINE RECOMMENDATION: Try cabernets from different regions such as Napa, Washington state, Australia, Chile and Bordeaux. Try these at different price points, as well. Have fun and find your style! Stanley Browne is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, and the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves. He is a 30-year veteran of the restaurant, hospitality and wine industry.