“Looking for love in all the wrong places”
Editor: first of a series exploring the most important grapes of the Mid-Atlantic Piedmont
In Virginia, Cabernet Sauvignon has been long overshadowed by its cousin Cabernet Franc. Recently however, Cabernet Sauvignon is beginning to raise some eyebrows amongst winemakers, critics and consumers. It has been an uphill journey, but the future looks very bright for high quality Cabernet Sauvignon as long as certain viticultural parameters are respected.
Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown in Virginia for nearly four decades. Until recently, site and soil selection was the viticultural equivalent of rolling dice at a casino. We didn’t understand that, in order to make great wine, Cabernet Sauvignon has some very exacting soil requirements. Winegrowers were looking for love in all the wrong places.
‘Sauvignon’ derives from the French word ‘sauvage’, which translates as ‘wild’. This refers to the vine’s excessively vigorous growth habit. If Cabernet Sauvignon has access to abundant water and nutrients, it becomes a jungle of leaves and shoots. When the vine’s energy is channeled into vegetative growth, its grapes lose out. Cabernet Sauvignon has a very long vegetative cycle. If water and nutrients are in abundance, it will continue producing new shoots and leaves well into the fall. In this scenario, the vine’s energy focuses on producing leaves rather than flavorful grapes. The resulting wines produced tend to be lightly colored and thin. Vegetative aromas and flavors are followed by a green, tart finish. These are not the markers for great wine.
It rains during the growing season in Virginia’s Piedmont. If the soils are deep and water retentive (clay), the vines have almost unlimited water availability. Vine growth is luxuriant. This does not bode well for Cabernet Sauvignon. With this in mind, progressive growers are finding thin, rocky soils on steep slopes that are excessively well drained. The vines are staying small and ending their growth cycle at the right time. They are balanced, with just the right amount of leaves for the crop. If the vines are balanced, chances are that the wines will be balanced. These sites are producing some very classic Cabernet Sauvignon. This paradigm shift is changing attitudes and presenting exciting possibilities.
If we get it right in the vineyard, the winemaker’s job is to get all the goodies out of the grapes and into the wine. What I am referring to is tannin extraction. At its best Cabernet Sauvignon arguably has the finest and most seductive tannins of any grape variety. Once the grapes are crushed, the color, flavors, tannin and texture of the wines come primarily from the skins and seeds. When winemakers know they have really good material, they go for maximum extraction.
In making a red wine, the juice is fermented together with the skins and seeds. Warmer fermentation temperatures, more movement of the wine and longer time on the skins all contribute to more extraction. It’s not all that different than steeping tea. Very hot water, dunking the tea bag, and lots of time will produce a stronger beverage. More is not always better. It is possible to over-extract, which results in a wine where the fruit is overwhelmed by dried out tannins.
Full throttle extraction techniques will produce a powerfully structured wine that requires aging. This can be a problem for new wineries that need more immediate cash flow. Classically made Bordeaux wines give little pleasure until they are sufficiently aged (8 to 20 years). One would have to question the economic sanity of the goal. In winemaking, economic sanity and a fanatical quest for quality are mutually exclusive.
There is a very special affinity with Cabernet Sauvignon and oak barrels. With correct oak aging, wine aromas become more complex, the middle palate richer and the finish of the wine lengthens. Oak integrates well with Cabernet Sauvignon. In some other wines, oak can be very obvious and overwhelm the fruit. When Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are well grown on a good site, it is difficult to over-oak. When the wine is first bottled, the oak and fruit can be temporarily disjointed, but time in the bottle harmonizes.
Blending is more or less a requirement with Cabernet Sauvignon grown in non-Mediterranean climates. In our Piedmont as in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon can have great length, structure and finesse. On its own, it runs the risk of being one dimensional and a bit skinny. Supporting actors are often needed to bring volume and complexity to the blend. Traditionally Merlot brings mid-palate volume, Cabernet Franc contributes aromatic complexity, and a bit of Petit Verdot adds some spice and flavor depth.
There are two very different expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon. The first I’ll call hedonistic Napa (New World), which has power, sweet fruit and low acidity. The second is intellectual Medoc (Bordeaux), which is elegant, savory and structured. When grown in the right places in our Piedmont, it seems that our style falls somewhere in the middle. Vintage, blending and winemaking philosophies all play a role in ultimate style.
2007 and 2010 gave our Piedmont more of a Napa style: broad, voluminous, and fruit driven. Vintages 2006, 2008, and 2009 resulted in wines more in the Bordeaux style with medium body, fresh acidity and focused tannins.
Cabernet Sauvignon wines are best enjoyed by carnivores. Its firm tannins cry for red meat. My Bordeaux colleagues rarely serve vegetables at the dinner table. They feel that the greens interfere with this tannin/protein marriage. They joke that they let the cows eat the greens for them. Beef is my personal choice as it is more subtle than lamb. I find white meats too lean for Cabernet tannins.
Younger wines can handle more assertive preparations. Sauces, condiments and seasonings can pair well with the raw rusticity of a youthful Cabernet. Older vintages are best with simple and pure preparations, as the elegance and complexity of the wine should take the lead and the food should be more of an accompaniment.