Sangiovese vs Cabernet Sauvignon: How They Differ & Compare

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are two well-known red wines which are popular throughout the world.  Sangiovese is known as the main attraction of the Italian wine community, while Cabernet Sauvignon has taken the place as the most widely consumed red wine in the world.

The two wines are very similar in many ways, to include similar levels of tannin and alcohol content.  However, they differ in history, flavor, and food pairing in various different ways, which helps differentiate the two wines as equally captivating but distinct beverages.  Wine aficionados can enjoy both of these great red wines for their unique contributions to the palate.

Historical Contextof These Wines

The Cabernet Sauvignon originates from the Bordeaux region of France.  Experts believe that it originated as a cross between the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.  This cross between the two cultivars probably did not occur until the past several hundred years.  Since then, Cabernet Sauvignon has grown into the most popular variety of wine in the world.  It is grown extensively in its native France but is also grown in the Americas, Oceania, and South Africa.

The Sangiovese grape has existed in Italy since Classical times.  To this day it is overwhelmingly known as an Italian wine, accounting for up to 10% of all wine grapes grown in Italy.  It is the most planted grape in the country.  However, Sangiovese is also being grown now in France, the United States, Australia, and Argentina, among other places.  Although an ancient wine, Sangiovese began growing in prominence in the 18th century.

Other than sharing a common Old World heritage, Cabernet and Sangiovese have very different histories.  Sangiovese is an ancient wine with Italian roots dating back millennia, while Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between two cultivars which only came into existence 300 to 400 years ago.  Cabernet has origins in France, while Sangiovese is a very Italian wine.  Although Sangiovese has grown steadily in popularity, especially within Italy, the younger Cabernet has quickly shot past it to become the most commonly produced wine in the world.

The Actual Grapes Themselves

The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is small, thick skinned, and blue in color. It is a versatile grape which is relatively easy to grow, which helps explains the Cabernet’s popularity and growth throughout the world.  It can grow in a variety of climates and different types of soil.  Cabernet Sauvignon tends to ripen late compared to other wines.

Experts believe that the Sangiovese grape has existed in Italy since ancient times, with many believe the Ancient Etruscan civilization first began cultivating the grape. The Sangiovese grape is thin skinned and dark purple in color.  it is the most common grape variety grown in Italy and is widely grown throughout central Italy.

This grape thrives in limestone-based soils, although shale based soils also work well in nurturing the grapes.  Sangiovese grapes are harvested very late – they are often not harvested until late September or October.  Sangiovese thrives in warmer climates, such as its native Tuscany.

The two grapes are both used to create red wines but do have some noticeable differences.  Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are thicker skinned, while Sangiovese is a thinner-skinned cultivar.  The two grapes have slightly different colors as well.  While Sangiovese grapes dominate the vineyard industry within the specific context of Italy, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes dominate on the world stage.  Sangiovese grapes prefer warmer climates, while Cabernet Grapes thrive in a wide variety of climates.

Flavor Differences

The Cabernet Sauvignon is high in tannin, full bodied, and very dry.  It is high in acidity and can be described as a savory wine.  Notes in Cabernets grown in warmer environments include blackberry, black cherry, and plum.  Cabernets grown in cooler places have notes such as leather and mint.  Other notes which can be found in Cabernet include vanilla, tobacco, and cedar.

Sangiovese is a medium to high in acidity, tannin, and body.  Sangiovese is dry and medium in alcohol level.  Sangiovese can be fruit forward or rustic/earthy, depending on the environment in which it is grown.  Fruit forward notes which can be experienced include strawberries, cherry, plum, and red currant.  Less fruit centric notes can include tobacco, vanilla, licorice, tomato, herbs, pepper, and black tea.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are both varieties of red wine, and share similarities such as medium-high tannin and medium-high in alcohol content.  That being said, there are slight variations; Sangiovese is drier than Cabernet Sauvignon, although Cabernets are also dry wines.  Cabernets are also lower in acidity.  In addition, like all wines, Cabernet and Sangiovese contain different notes and flavors.  However, since they are both often aged in oak barrels, the two wines can share this flavor in common.

Best Practices for Pairing Foods With These Wines

Cabernet pairs well with high fat foods.  This includes various high fat types of meat, such as steaks, burgers.  It also pairs well with game, lamb, and beef.  It also naturally pairs with other fatty dishes, such as creamy sauces and cheeses.  The high tannin in Cabernet is why it does so well with fatty foods.  The fatty foods and high tannin wine play off of each other and can help keep meals in balance.

As a popular Italian red wine, Sangiovese pairs very well with a variety of Italian foods, to include pizza, tomato sauce-based foods, pasta, and spaghetti.  It also pairs well with a variety of meats, including lamb chops, roasted chicken, red meat, venison, and duck.  Other food which pair well with Sangiovese include fish, grilled vegetables, cheeses, and mushrooms.

The two wines both pair well with most types of meat.  However, the uniquely full bodied and high tannin nature of Cabernet makes it a perfect match for fattier foods, while the cultural connection with Italy makes Sangiovese a perfect match with most types of Italian cuisine.

How They Blend

Sangiovese is well known for being used in various wine blends.  The most famous Sangiovese blend is Chianti, which refers to wines grown in the Tuscany region of Italy and which consists of at least 70% Sangiovese mixed with other wines such as Merlot or Syrah.  When mixed with French Bourdeaux region grapes, Sangiovese can be used to create blends known as Super Tuscans.

Sangiovese is also often blended with Montepulciano.   Cabernet Sauvignon can be used in wine blends, to include blends with Merlot or Cabernet Franc.   That being said, Cabernet Sauvignon is mostly widely sold as a stand-alone wine, as opposed to the often-mixed Sangiovese.

In Short

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are Old World European red wines which have grown in popularity over the years.  Although they share similarities, such as similar tannin and alcohol levels, the two wines are quite distinct in flavor, history, food pairing, and tradition of blending.  Sangiovese is an ancient wine dating back millennia, which has grown to become the most popular Italian wine.

On the other hand, Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively recent cultivar originating in France which has since become the most popular type of wine in the world.  The Cabernet is a hardy, resilient, thick-skinned grape which can tolerate various environments, while the Sangiovese is a thin-skinned grape which is much better suited in warmer climates.

The wines vary in dryness, acidity, and body. Cabernet is much fuller bodied than Sangiovese, while Sangiovese is more acidic than Cabernet.   Cabernet pairs best with various fatty and meaty dishes, while Sangiovese is perfect for Italian food.