Wine Growing Areas
Cabernet Sauvignon in California
Here is an overview of principal California American Viticultural Areas, (AVAs), the U.S. equivalent of appellations, associated with Cabernet Sauvignon. For a deep dive into specific regions, please visit our Regional Guides.
California Cabernet Sauvignon Acreage by County (2020)
|COUNTY||2020 TOTAL GRAPE ACRES
(bearing and non-bearing)
|2020 TOTAL GRAPE HECTARES
(bearing and non-bearing)
|San Luis Obispo||14,809||5,993|
Yountville, Oak Knoll, Oakville, Rutherford, Saint Helena, Calistoga, Coombsville, Pope Valley, Stag’s Leap, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak
Cabernet Sauvignon and Napa Valley are knee-jerk synonymous, and for good reason. Although accounting for just 4% of the state’s production, Napa Valley (and Napa Valley Cabernet in particular) go a long way in creating the quality reputation statewide.
- Valley Floor (Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Calistoga, Stags Leap, Coombsville): The fertile floor is home to many of the state’s most well-known vineyard sites for this defining variety. From Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard to Robert Mondavi Winery’s To Kalon, from the estate vineyard of Spottswoode to Dominus’ Napanook, valley fruit creates wines that are comparatively opulent and polished, punctuated by flavors of blackberry/blueberry, ripe plum, black cherry, licorice, mocha, mint, violet, and, on occasion, eucalyptus. While structures are firm, tannins are not as concentrated and intense as they are in the mountain plots.
- Mountain AVAs and more (Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Chiles Valley, Atlas Peak): Wines from Napa’s myriad hillsides (ranging in elevation from 400 to 2,200 feet/122 to 670 meters), with their meager colluvial soils, are architecturally leaner, often with rapier-sharp acidity. The tannins here are defining and require ample work in managing their otherwise ferocious nature. Acclaimed winemaker Tom Rinaldi playfully refers to this as “anger management.” Concentrated and flavor-packed, mountain fruit in Napa explodes with flavors of black currant, black cherry, wild berry, spice box, anise, espresso, cedar and sage. Here, wines often have a more rustic profile with intensified minerality.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Spottswoode Winery, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards
Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Moon Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Knights Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, Fountaingrove
Cabernet is the most planted grape variety in Sonoma County and with good reason: it performs well in the region’s diverse and warmer AVAs.
- Lower/floor (Sonoma Valley, Valley of the Moon, Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Dry Creek Valley): Many lower altitude/floor vineyards are what first put the county on the map, with estates including Jordan, Arrowood, BR Cohn and Saint Francis. As in neighboring Napa, wines here are defined by their richness and elegance, with tannic structure being a touch milder. Herbal notes– from laurel and marjoram to thyme and sage– give Cabernets here a Euro-slant, akin to what one finds in Bordeaux.
- Mountain AVAs and more (Sonoma Mountain, Moon Mountain, Rockpile, Fountaingrove, Knights Valley, northern end of Alexander Valley, western Dry Creek Valley): Compared to other winegrapes, even those it is closely related to, like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon has smaller berries, and thicker skins. These properties contribute to its famously tannic structure and concentration of flavor which are exacerbated in higher altitude mountain vineyards. Not unlike their Napa neighbors, Sonoma’s mountain vineyards are renowned for their more austere elements than their lower altitude peers, sharing a similarly concentrated profile. Sonoma’s range of flavors is often savory, with black olive and herbal notes, a slightly more matte fruit profile and accompanying mountain minerality.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Silver Oak , Jordan Winery, Alexander Valley Vineyards
Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County (CARMEL VALLEY)
Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains is among America’s best, particularly for fans of classically structured, savory examples, yet only small amounts are produced. It is one of the few wine regions defined by elevation and the vineyards must largely be above the fog line, from about 800 to 2,700 feet (244 to 823 meters), to thrive. Moreover, and unlike Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, it’s a struggle to ripen Cabernet in these hills. Maritime winds keep the nights cool.
Located 12 miles inland from the California coastline, and within Monterey County, is the Carmel Valley AVA. Due to its elevation among the steep hills of the Santa Lucia Range, Carmel Valley is sheltered from Monterey’s cool maritime fog, allowing for Bordeaux-style wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Santa Cruz Mountains: Thermal amplitude and varied soils (decomposed rock, clay, loam, limestone) result in wines with mineral character. Here, Cabernets are defined by red fruit and herbs, with signature notes of stony graphite and purple flowers and an accompanying freshness (acidity).
- Carmel Valley: Spicy and dark-fruited, Cabernet here is all about licorice, dark blue/black fruit and sweet herbs (basil, chervil).
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Ridge Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Kathryn Kennedy Winery, Jouillian Vineyards, Boete Winery
Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon is distinctive. Like Napa Valley’s Cab, wines in Lake County can be generous and full-bodied, but generally less sculpted and with more savory notes. It’s not unusual to find woodsy flavors like sandalwood and cedar, in addition to nuances of leather and graphite. If you enjoy structured Cabernet that is not all about big, rich fruit, these examples are worth exploring. Located in the northern Mayacamas Mountains, the Red Hills of Lake County frame the southwest edge of Clear Lake, comprising dozens of volcanic hills ranging from 1,350 to over 3,700 feet/411 to 1,128 meters.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Obsidian Ridge, Derenoncourt, Steele Wines
As previously noted, Cabernet has been cultivated in the greater Tri-Valley’s Livermore since the 19th century, with Concannon in particular playing a leading role. Fast-forward to today, Livermore, technically occupying an area at the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay AVA, with its Bordeaux-like deep, gravelly soils, is excellent for production of premium Cabernet. Dark chocolate, berries, cola nut, pepper and the occasional note of mint form the profile of local Cabernet.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Las Positas Vineyards, Steven Kent Winery, Wente Vineyards, McGrail Vineyards & Winery, Dante Robere Vineyards, Wood Family Vineyards
Paso Robles (Adelaida, Estrella District, Geneseo, Santa Margarita Ranch)
At the southernmost tip of the Salinas Valley, the San Luis Obispo County town of Paso Robles is Cabernet country. The variety claims almost half of the 40,000-some acres (16,187 hectares) of vineyards across the region’s 11 nested AVAs. Cabernet does especially well in the nested AVA’s of Adelaida, Estrella District, Geneseo and Santa Margarita Ranch.
- Paso Robles: Generally speaking, Paso Cabernets are brighter in flavor, naturally higher in acidity, with tamer but still present tannins. Occasional herbal and mint/eucalyptol notes; time-honored flavors here include blackcurrant, tea leaf, dark spices and cedar.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Daou Family Estates, Adelaida Vineyards, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wine
Quietly, Lodi-grown Cabernet Sauvignon is hugely important to the California wine industry. How huge? It ranks third, after only Napa Valley and Paso Robles for acreage and is number one in crush ahead of both. So do a little math and you would guess correctly that Lodi is super-important when it comes to California Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly in terms of supplying the premium wine market. While not unique to the Delta, maritime breezes pulled from the Pacific ocean moderate the general climate so that the fruit doesn’t overly ripen. Cabernet Sauvignon here is as rich and flavorful as elsewhere, but given the warmer inland location, a little rounder, plumper and more fruit-forward than what you might find in other spots. The Borden Ranch AVA is worth seeking out.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Mettler Family Vineyards, Van Ruiten Family Winery, Michael David Winery
Sierra Foothills Cabernet demonstrates a clarity, freshness and structure that combines dual goals of providing immediate enjoyment while also heightening the likelihood of a long and rewarding evolution. Equally divergent in flavor, some lean to the freshness, crunch and burst of red fruit, while others have deeper richness and layering of darker berry, plum and black cherry notes.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Mount Bullion Vineyard, Lava Cap Winery, Omen
In Santa Barbara County, if the Sta. Rita Hills is Burgundy reincarnated, then Happy Canyon is Bordeaux. Differentiated from the rest of Santa Barbara County, Happy Canyon’s inland location equates to a significantly warmer climate with decidedly hotter temperatures, and loamy soils that, while low in nutrients (resulting in small vines/low yield) nevertheless have a high-magnesium mineral terroir. This micro-climate and terroir make it ideal for growing Bordeaux varietals and indeed Happy Canyon has quickly made a ‘happy’ name for itself producing big, bold, concentrated red wines.
- Happy Canyon: Classic Cabernet markers include aromas of ripe crushed blackberry and dry pink and black peppercorns. Herbal and fresh ripe red bell pepper notes often punctate the palate with vibrant acidity an balanced structure.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Martellotto Winery, Crown Point Vineyards, The Brander Vineyards
Finally, while less chronicled than its more northern neighbors, Southern California’s Temecula makes wonderful interpretations of this grape. In fact, most Temecula wineries make a Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet blend.
Examples of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon true to this region and style: Wiens Family Cellars, Palumbo Family Vineyards
Cabernet Sauvignon Around The World
As the world’s most widely planted and popular red vinifera grape, it might be easier to list where it is not found! Below is a list of the principal areas associated with premium Cabernet Sauvignon.
- France: Bordeaux (Medoc, Graves), Loire Valley (Touraine, Anjou), Southwest, Languedoc
- Italy: Tuscany (Maremma), Piedmont
- Spain: Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Penedes
- Portugal: Setubal-Palmela, Tejo, Lisbon
- Germany: Pfalz, Baden
- Austria: Burgenland
- Other European countries:
- Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia
- Australia: Coonawarra, Barossa Valley, Margaret River
- New Zealand: Waiheke Island, Hawkes Bay
- South Africa: Stellenbosch, Malmesbury, Paarl
- Other Countries:
- China (Ningxia, Shandong), Israel (Galilee, Golan Heights), Lebanon (Bekaa Valley, Ghazir)
- The Americas
- Argentina: Mendoza, (Lujan de Cuyo, Uco Valley)
- Chile: Maipo, Maule, Rapel (Colchagua)
- Brazil: Serra Gaúcha, Campanha
- Uruguay: Canelones, Cerro Chapeu
- Mexico: Mexican Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe
- Canada: Okanagan
- USA (beyond California): Washington (Columbia Valley (Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla), Oregon (Umpqua and Rogue Valley), New York (Long Island), Virginia (Monticello, Shenandoah , Texas (Hill Country)
- Argentina: Mendoza, (Lujan de Cuyo, Uco Valley)