Wines made from cabernet sauvignon are everywhere but there are significant differences between what cabernet is supposed to be and something that is just called cabernet.
A properly made cabernet will show black fruit – blackcurrant in particular –, herbaceous notes like bell pepper or mint or cedar and have plenty of tannins (that grippyness in your cheeks). The degree to which some of these flavors stand out over others depends on where the cabernet grapes were grown.
Also, remember, price is not reflective of quality. A good cabernet doesn’t have to be expensive. The key is whether or not the wine is reflective of what it's supposed to be. Below is a list of some of the best regions for cabernet and what to look for in those wines.
Napa Valley (California)
Cabernet from Napa will typically be more dominant in fruit flavors and have medium to high tannins. However, a quality Napa cab will not be excessively fruity or excessively tannic. It’ll be fruit forward with distinctive notes of blackcurrant on the nose and palate. The best wines come from the smaller sub-regions of Napa and express the unique characters of those areas.
Chilean wines make excellent affordable alternatives to California wines. A quality Chilean cab will be very similar to a Napa cab. An added bonus is that most of the vineyards in Chile are pesticide free and naturally organic. You should look for expressions from the Maipo Valley or from Colchagua or Cachapoal in the Rapel Valley.
Wines from Bordeaux are almost always blends with cabernet being some percentage of the mix (typically cab is more dominant in blends from the Left Bank). A quality Bordeaux will be leaner in texture with a distinctive soil profile, which’ll vary depending on what part of Bordeaux the grapes come from. But an expression of soils is the key. Fruit flavors are important as well but these wines should be more earth driven, with cedar notes standing out in particular.
Cabernets from Australia can be very similar in style to those from Napa but with a slightly leaner texture. Also, Australian cabs tend to express the minty or eucalyptus side of cab more and makes these wines distinctive. Look for wines from two areas – Coonawara or Margaret River. Coonawara cabs will show the minty/eucalyptus character prominently whereas Margaret River cabs will be more like a wine from a premium Napa Valley sub-region with a hint of the minty/eucalyptus character.
Cabernet from South Africa can be excellent. In general, these cabs will be more fruit forward but less intense than a Napa or Chilean cab with notes of the distinctive blackcurrant character of cab. A quality expression will be sort of like a cross between a Bordeaux and a Napa cab. But the unique feature of South African cabs is that they will show more of the herbal side of cabernet, both on the nose and palate. Look for wines from Stellenbosch for premium expressions.