Characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon

What is the Source of Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cabernet Sauvignon originated in the Bordeaux region of France. It is generally considered to be a natural cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon is a core component of most of the greatest wines from Bordeaux but is blended with other varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Franc (and Malbec and Petit Verdot). Cabernet Sauvignon arrived in California in the late 1800’s but did not gain its preeminence in the Napa Valley until the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon?

From a vineyard point of view Cabernet Sauvignon is a later ripening grape variety, normally completing ripening between mid-September and the end of October. It has a wide range of yields depending on the site and the vineyard capability. Top vineyard sources generally produce much lower than average yields but 3-5 tons per acre are not unusual. Vineyards that consistently produce more than 4 tons per acre are generally considered less special but yield is not the only marker for quality. There are a number of variants of Cabernet Sauvignon  – clones and selections – that each give a slightly different twist to structure and flavor in the resulting wine. Some versions produce lower yields on their own and would be only used in prime locations. The clusters are medium to large in size and the berries can be small to medium. They appear in the vineyard when ripe to be blue or black in color. Cabernet Sauvignon has relatively thick skin and work well in a variety of soils and microclimates the exception being the coldest sites. To achieve the highest quality several hand work passes are required to both moderate the growth and to insure a balanced crop. A final “green harvest” removing clusters that are not ripening along with the main part of the crop or removing clusters from shoots with too many clusters is considered critical to producing the highest quality grapes.

Napa Valley Wineries view Cabernet Sauvignon as a grape variety with the potential for greatness. There are a number of variables that each winemaker chooses from when preparing to harvest and produce Cabernet Sauvignon. Hand harvested fruit is greatly preferred. Different types of sorting of the grapes and removing non-grape material prior to fermentation is an important quality step. There is everything from a very light sorting in the vineyard to hand sorting at the winery to robotic optical sorters to get only the very best grapes into the fermenter. Once the grapes have made it to the fermenter there are choices about using yeast nutrients, differing yeast strains as well as pumping the fermenting juice over the grape skins or punching them down (or both). Fermentation for Cabernet Sauvignon will vary from around 5 days to 10 or more days. During the fermentation the key is to extract both color and tannin from the skins. A wide variety of aroma compounds are also primarily in the grape skins.

Once fermentation is complete the new wine is drained from the tank and the skins are placed into a press to remove additional wine. Exactly where to determine to end the press cycle and how much wine from the pressing to include in the final blend are important quality steps in making great Cabernet Sauvignon. The newly fermented wine will often go into barrels and tanks of different sizes depending upon the intent and vision of the winemaker. The highest quality Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon would most typically go into barrels with a 55-60 gallon capacity – a portion of which would probably be new.

All this said, what are the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon wine? One of the signatures of Cabernet Sauvignon is an underlying perfumed herbal note in the aromas and flavors. The French refer to a “cassis” character which is fruity to be sure but carries a balanced fresh herb note as well. There is a wide variety of fruit driven aromas as well from black-cherry and blackberry to blueberry and plum. Some sites and some clones of Cabernet Sauvignon have more or less of this herbal note present but it is an important part of the aroma cluster to this variety. The color derived from fully mature Cabernet Sauvignon is often impressive and dark. The structure of Cabernet Sauvignon is the acidity of the wine coupled with the tannins and young Cabernet Sauvignon should be grippy with tannin and have a nice level of freshening acidity. Most wines are meant to be consumed within months or a few years of their release for sale. Cabernet Sauvignon when made in its most intense style can last and improve for decades.

Why does Secret Door Winery only use Cabernet Sauvignon rather than blends that include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc.? The Napa Valley grape growing region is fundamentally different from Bordeaux, France. Napa Valley soils are different and the climate is both drier and warmer in an average year than Bordeaux. With very few exceptions every year can produce Cabernet Sauvignon with full flavor development as well as mature tannins in the Napa Valley that allows us to make a complete, complex and harmonious wine without including other varieties. It is ultimately an artistic choice. Our choice at Secret Door Winery is to use the single best grape from the Napa Valley to craft our singular wines.

 

SECRET DOOR PROTOCOL (short version)

Specially selected vineyard sites that practice farming for quality over quantity.

Hand thinning of the clusters a minimum of once to remove grapes that are not ripening in line with the other clusters. (Green harvest)

Hand harvest and hand sort all the clusters.

Fermentation with pump over or punch down 3x per day

After fermentation is complete we use the free run wine only – no heavy press wine included

100% new French Oak 225L “barriques” to age the wine – malo lactic fermentation will happen in barrel.

22 months in barrel prior to final blending

No fining or filtration prior to bottling.

 

 

How To Store Cabernet Sauvignon

HOW TO STORE CABERNET SAUVIGNON

All wines made with the intent to gain complexity from aging should be carefully stored. If a wine starts out with all the components to age gracefully for many years it is a shame to see that cut short by poor storage conditions. Let’s start at the beginning…

WHY BOTHER? Wines taste good on release so why bother with aging them anyway? This is a reasonable question. It’s worth exploring if you like the taste of older wines to begin with. If not, then this gets really simple – buy it/drink it. There are many places you might get to experience a properly stored older wine. There are a very few restaurants that sell them and if you know of one you have a treasure! I’d suggest going in with a friend and buying a few highly regarded wines from an online website like Winebid.com to explore the diversity and possibilities of older wines. An older wine at its best it quite different from its younger version. It sheds some of the fruitiness of a young wine for a more complex set of aromas and flavors that include, spices, exotic wood, earth, roasted meat, pencil shavings just to name a few along with overtones of that original fruit. For those of us who savor these older wines the aged version is the ultimate reflection of the wine.  Let’s assume you’ve tasted enough to know you would like to lay some bottles down to age for the future.

DO I NEED TO DIG A CAVE? Probably not, if you plan to store hundreds of cases and have the resources to dig caves then, have at it! For those of us who have less extravagant means there are some really good options. The key things are – consistent cool temperatures – dark – minimum vibration. The ideal temperature for aging wine is open for debate. Some say 55° F is the best and others will say 60° F. If I had my way I would store the wine much cooler! I’d prefer it at 45° F. The temperature matters because cooler/colder slows down the aging process for wine and gives the wines longer life but also a bigger window for you to drink them at their apogee (whatever that is for you). There’s great example of how much better and how much longer wines can age at the Tampa, FL restaurant Bern’s Steakhouse. This is the Mecca for wine lovers of OLD wine. Their storage is below 45° F and they have a lot of storage. Every wine I have had at Bern’s has tasted much younger than you would expect but the added complexity and dimension that storage in a proper environment has given them is remarkable. I’d suggest no more than 55° F. Dark is usually easy and so is vibration but it does make you consider the storage unit to make sure it doesn’t hum/vibrate while cooling. We keep them dark because light can actually create chemical reactions in wine and produce less than favorable results. There’s a name for this “light struck”. It’s part of the reason that glass bottles today are often much darker than in the past. We are trying to prevent UV light from attacking the wine. There are bunch of different manufacturers of wine closets as well as cooling units to convert a small room if you like. Have it done professionally because in the end you are likely to have a lot of money riding on it working properly. I note that there are a number of professional wine storage facilities springing up around the country. If you have access to one then that’s a great way to maintain a proper environment to protect the wine and allow it to develop. Or dig a cave.

OK I HAVE STORAGE; HOW DO I KNOW WHEN TO DRINK THE WINES? This is one of the fun parts. If you buy single bottles of wine then you may have to rely on vintage charts or wine personalities to tell you when to drink your older wines – especially Cabernet Sauvignon. If you buy a case however, you can track the progress yourself and decide when you favor it. I used to joke that I bought 3 bottles of any wine I thought was interesting so I could drink one too young, one too old and then not know what to do with the last one! Really, this is personal taste – when you like it then it is ready. In a really good cellar you might be pleasantly surprised when you get to your last bottle and it’s still improving. Let’s give some basic suggestions for Cabernet Sauvignon. I would suggest you drink a bottle early on at or about the time you buy it. If it has plenty of future ahead of it – tannin, balanced acidity, intensity – then give the wine 2-4 years before drinking the next bottle. Then every couple of years after that unless you suspect that the wine can really stand the test of time then bury them deep and see what happens. For me Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon typically hits full stride at about 10 years of age and for the next 20 or so will gently change possibly getting better. The most age-able wines can run for decades with new nuances coming to the fore each time you drink it.

BE SPECIFIC, HOW LONG WILL THE SECRET DOOR WINES AGE? I am expecting the Secret Door 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Lot: Secret 1X and Lot: Secret 1Z to age in stride. I’d suggest that if perfectly stored these wines will go more than 20 years and possibly a lot more. I’d try them when they arrive but the next ones for me will be in about 5 years. I hope to drink them all in my lifetime but we shall see! We have two 2017 wines in progress right now. They are currently in barrel and I think I may have produced wines that will greatly outlive me. Both the 2017 Stags Leap District and the 2017 Napa Valley versions seem to me to have all the components to get better and more interesting for 30-40 years assuming proper storage. It’s interesting to think that the grapes I saw come in to our winery and get converted into wine can still be pleasing wine drinkers long after I am gone.

A note on temperature and wine – Please, do not drink great wine at 70-80° F. I highly recommend you serve all red wines at about 60° F and know that they will be cool to the taste but certainly over time in the glass could warm a bit. Cooler red wines – not room temperature – are more refreshing and harmonious than their warmer versions. Warm wine shows more alcohol heat and less of it’s pretty perfume in my opinion. If I am served a bottle of red wine in a restaurant at “room temperature” I promptly request the wine bottle be placed into ice for 5-10 minutes to cool down. No kidding. I know a cooler wine can warm but a warmer wine will never cool down in the glass.

HELP! I HAVE TOO MUCH CABERNET SAUVIGNON IN MY CELLAR!! I suppose that’s possible. If you feel you have troublesome Cabernet Sauvignon buildup then there are always auctions you can put them in or sell the cellar to a restaurant that likes older wines. Or call me.

Young or old – however you prefer them – make sure you share them with friends and family as they were always meant to be shared. (Note to self – I think I need more magnums in my cellar if I have to share.)

Exclusively Napa Valley Vineyards

WHY EXCLUSIVELY NAPA VALLEY?

Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in many places throughout California and the world, including its home in Bordeaux, France. We could have chosen to make Cabernet Sauvignon in several quality areas of California but we chose the Napa Valley.

We say “exclusively” Napa Valley because we are anchored in this valley. It’s important to know the core principles by which you intend to pursue your dreams and this is ours. Napa Valley only. Cabernet Sauvignon only. While we don’t own the vineyard sources for our wines we do have long term contracts and an excellent set of growers who are willing and eager to grow the quality Cabernet Sauvignon needed for SECRET DOOR.

The Napa Valley has proven itself a world-class locale for Cabernet Sauvignon and certain parts of the Napa Valley are clearly the best of the best! The complexity of the soils that underlie the vineyards, the hillsides and the flatter sites, the local knowledge of how to get the absolute best out of a particular piece of land, all lend to the impressive consistency of the Napa Valley.

We love the character of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s not to say every one we’ve ever had! The style we want to make and we want to share with you is classical Napa Valley or as one wine writer has declared it Neo-classical Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It means somewhat less alcoholic and more structural and definitely not sweet. This style we believe really unlocks the best of what the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has to offer. Wines made like this are not only beautiful and perfumed in their youth but gain stature and depth with proper aging.

All this and more is why SECRET DOOR WINERY is committed exclusively to Napa Valley – and to it’s greatest expression Cabernet Sauvignon.

MOUNTAINSIDE vs. VALLEY FLOOR CABERNET SAUVIGNON

As we start this discussion please keep in mind that there are exceptions to every rule about grapes and grape growing in California. We will discuss generalities and specifics as they pertain to the vineyard sites that we are currently working with at SECRET DOOR. That said, let’s dive in…

NAPA VALLEY FLOOR VINEYARDS 

Don’t kid yourself, the reputation of the Napa Valley was established and continues because of valley floor vineyards. Most of the vineyards in the Napa Valley are valley floor or gently rolling vineyard sites. Vineyards like the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard or Georges III are on valley floor and relatively flat. The vineyards that make up wines like Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de la Tour Private Reserve, older Louis Martini, Joseph Phelps, Spottswoode, Martha’s Vineyard from Heitz Cellars and  and even Opus One are from the Napa Valley floor just to name a few.

What makes the Valley Floor sites interesting? There are many reasons, the soils have washed down from the mountains and form excellent soils for grape vines. The evenness of the terrain means more consistency from vine to vine and ultimately a more consistent ripeness level over for the fruit. The tradition of focusing on the valley floor means there is more familiarity with these sites – more history – more understanding of how they perform and confidence that they will produce superior wines.

Valley floor sites (including the Hirondelle Vineyard site we use for SECRET DOOR) are easier to farm and offer the opportunity to spend more time on the details of the vine. It is possible to get crews in quickly even with difficult weather years to harvest fruit or deal with the weather challenges.

The wines themselves tend to be a little more lush, creamy, sleeker tannins, juicier and overall rounder and easier to drink than true mountainside sites. It’s easy to love these wines and to see them develop over time.  Specifically, we are looking at Hirondelle Vineyard to produce aromatic, fresh and sleek Cabernet Sauvignon that will drink well on release but should age gracefully. We are using 100% Cabernet Sauvignon which gives more structure and firmness but in any case the valley floor sites are frequently more opulent and even decadent that hillside wines. Hirondelle Vineyard will no doubt have Napa Valley floor character but it is also made with the intent of allowing it to age for a long time.

The challenges of valley floor vineyards are farming as well as wine quality. In farming, lower and flatter sites can suffer more from frost damage as well as rains. Low lying sites trap cold air and allow it to pool over vineyards causing additional damage in frost effected vintages. Rain does not run off as efficiently in flat vineyards and can linger causing both humid conditions that promote the grapes to rot as well as berry swelling and dilution. These are not frequent challenges but when they do occur their impact on valley flood sites are greater.

Great wines can be made from valley floor fruit. The challenges can be dealt with and a careful vineyardist will mitigate the potential problems and deliver clean and healthy grapes.

 

Mountain Side Cabernet Sauvignon

The first impulse is the believe that hillside/mountainside fruit is always better than valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s a simplification that does not always ring true. Mountainside sites have thinner, less fertile soils; they can be water-challenges and can produce uneven crops. That said, at their best mountainside vineyards offer something that valley floor vineyards can not consistently do – more structure, grittier tannins, more intensity and power as well as great aromatic complexity. Wineries like Mayacamas, Mount Veeder, Continuum, and others specialize in mountain grown fruit from all over the hills of the Napa Valley.

The biggest challenge for hillside sites or sites on top of a mountain is moisture. Getting and maintaining regular sources of water on a mountainside site is a real challenge and it is very tough to grow vines on a hillside in the Napa Valley without access to water for micro-irrigation. Once the water issue is solved then the challenges of getting crews and equipment up and down a hill come into play. Hillside sites are often secluded and far away from the main roads so equipment must be staged in advance of work for efficiency and there is considerable time used in getting to and from these vineyards with crews to work on them.

The benefits of mountainside fruit – these can be the most intense and flamboyant wines made in the Napa Valley. The vineyards often produce very small and very concentrated crops that have dynamic flavor profiles as well as the structure to age for long periods of time in fact, they often require some initial patience to allow the wines to soften a bit and reveal their more charming side. The small crops and challenges of working these sometimes very steep vineyard sites mean the cost of the fruit can be very high. We think it is worth it.

Mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon compared to Valley Floor Cabernet Sauvignon

So much of the character of the resulting wines from mountainside or from valley floor sites is a result of winemaking choices that it gets tougher to make broad statements about these wines. It does seem apparent that in general, hillside and mountainside vineyards produce more tightly wound, and focused wines with intensity and power but also very distinctive aromas and flavors. On the other hand, valley floor vineyards produce wines that have nice structure but berrylike fruitiness with somewhat more open knit, giving and supple textures.

HIRONDELLE VINEYARD – Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley

We love this vineyard site. It is relatively flat and lies right along Silverado Trail just north of the City of Napa next door to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. There could not be a more textbook Stags Leap District site. It is situated right beneath the rock outcropping of “Stags Leap”. The 2017 vintage has produced a wine of both purity of aromas as well as sleek, supple tannins. It’s a great example of both the Stags Leap District as well as valley floor vineyards.

SAGE RIDGE VINEYARD – Napa Mountainside

The breathtaking views from this mountainside vineyard to the east of the town of St. Helena are unique. The resulting wines from this remote and treacherous site are classic Napa hillside – great depth, powerful aromas of fruit and soil, plenty of tannin and focus for the long-run. The 2017 vintage is going to take a bit of time to reveal all its charms but it is loaded with personality and character. Now it is very structured and powerful in barrel with truly a long life ahead. It shows what carefully grown hillside/mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon can do Napa.

Updates From The Cellar

June 15, 2018

The wines from both the Hirondelle Vineyard and from Sage Ridge Vineyard continue to sleep peacefully through the summer in the cool wine cellar. The current work is continuing to top the barrels and watch the developing chemistry carefully. All is well. The 2017’s are right on track.

That’s not the only work we are doing. This is already prep-time for the 2018 harvest. We are viewing the vineyards and making sure that we, as best we can, have an idea of how much fruit will be coming in to make this vintage. Simultaneously, we are considering what number of barrels and other equipment will be necessary to compliment the grapes we expect to receive. Barrel orders are in – we expect to again use 100% new French Oak barrels for aging the 2018 vintage. We’ve got some favorite barrels from 2017 and we are requesting more of those barrels for 2018.

We need more grape bins for collecting the grapes in the vineyard and transporting them to the winery. These are 1000 lb capacity macro-bins made out of quality food-grade plastic. The list of “needs” for any harvest just goes on and on – but it is a fun puzzle to get all the pieces to fit together at the winery just right.

Next step – final prep for the harvest and then here come the grapes! Our currently target date for harvest is the last week of September but there are a lot of things that could change that.

DRP

 

April 11, 2018

We have been regularly topping the Cabernet Sauvignon from Hirondelle Vineyard and the Sage Ridge Vineyard. This is important to reduce oxidation and prevent spoilage organisms from flourishing in the new wine. We currently expect that both wines will be bottled in the summer of 2019. They currently rest in 100% new French oak barrels from several different barrel makers. We fully intend to make two different Cabernet Sauvignon wines in 2017 based on the two single vineyard sites.

Interestingly, the Hirondelle Vineyard currently is the more open of the two wines. It shows lots of floral and berry-like aromas along with that distinctive cassis note that announces Cabernet Sauvignon is here. The tannins are full and quite apparent right now but also harmonious. It’s tempting to think of it as drinkable now! On the other side of the curve, the Sage Ridge Vineyard is becoming more compact and angular at the present time. It’s initial exuberant fruitiness is closing down and it’s taken on a tougher tannic feel. This is really typical of hillside Cabernet Sauvignon. We expect in six to eight months more of barrel time the Sage Ridge Vineyard will begin to reemerge and show some development.

 

February 6, 2018

The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon wines get their first rack. Tasting really good! We were topping the Cabernet Sauvignon and taking it to the cold cellar to rest. Funny thing. Once the wine makes it to Barrel there’s not a lot to show! There they are. Two lots – “Stags Leap District” from Hirondelle Vineyard and “Napa Valley” from Sage Ridge Vineyard. We’ll be tasting them regularly but bottling will be in 2019!

 

 

Harvest 2017 In Napa Valley

To say that the 2017 will be memorable is a complete understatement. It was already our first real harvest for SECRET DOOR WINERY in 2017 and so would always be remembered as such. The weekend of Labor Day the temperatures in and around the San Francisco Bay area broke records with scorchingly hot weather – pretty memorable. Then the Northern California wildfire apocalypse with thousands of homes and structures destroyed and tragic deaths. It’s going to be awhile before we have a more memorable harvest in Napa Valley.

The question I am asked the most is – “Did the wildfires ruin the 2017 harvest?” No. The fires did not ruin the 2017 harvest in the Napa Valley. The fires did pose some interesting challenges and certainly there are wines that were affected by the fire and also by the prolonged smoke. The vast majority of the grapes were already harvested before the fires broke out.

The challenges for 2017 break down into these overall categories

  1. Fire damage to vineyards
  2. Smoke damage to grapes in the vineyard or wine in progress
  3. Logistical issues with wineries due to mandatory evacuations and/or power outages

While there was fire damage to vineyards in the Napa Valley these were isolated incidents for the most part. Yes, some wineries will have less wine in 2017 because of this but the overall impact of fire directly in the vineyard was very small. The reason that there was not more direct fire damage is first, many of these vineyards had already been harvested also the fires were mainly in the rugged parts of the mountains to the east and west of the valley proper. Hillside vineyard sites were at risk but no vineyards on the valley floor were fire damaged. Even hillside sites if the vineyards were fully plowed with the riparian areas pushed back from the edge of the vines fared well. It’s hard to burn a vineyard that does not have vegetation growing in the rows. Vineyard sites that used a “no till” regime and had the fires pass through their area did not do as well. The grasses and other plants growing down the rows were very dry and a perfect starter to scorch the vines and the grape clusters. A few vineyards were a total loss but these were few indeed.

Smoke damage to grapes or wines in progress will become more apparent as the wines produced from grapes picked during or after the fires have more time in barrel. There is no doubt that there will be some issues with smoke “taint” from the smoke but I have had wines made from grapes prior to the fires as well as those made from grapes following the fires and in both cases did not see any smoke issues. We have heard that there are some out there – we just haven’t seen it. Wines in progress could potentially have picked up a smoky character as well depending on the location and whether the fermentation/storage was fully insulated from the smoke in the Napa Valley. This is the least likely issue since fermenting wines were releasing CO2 gas that would have prevented smoke from getting to them. Wines that had finished fermenting would have been closed up or in barrel and so to would have had little contact or opportunity to pickup smoky characters. I’ve not heard of any problems like this.

Logistical issues with wineries – specifically not being able to get to wineries to tend the wines in process was potentially a big problem. There were plenty of wines still undergoing fermentation that needed regular punch-downs or pump-overs and for a few days a number of wineries were offline including the Carter Cellars/Envy Winery where we make SECRET DOOR wines. Intrepid winemaking teams typically found a way to get to the wineries (even if they weren’t supposed to) and tend the fermentations. There were some wines that suffered I am sure but the team at Carter/Envy made a heroic effort and everything came through in good shape. I am guessing that most other wineries found a way as well.

Specific to SECRET DOOR – we picked the block A1B at Hirondelle Vineyard on September 12, 2017. The grapes were in great shape arriving at the winery with about 24.5° Brix and perfect acid/pH balances. The grapes were destemmed and placed into a stainless steel fermenter. The primary fermentation went very smoothly with 2-3 pump-overs per day.

We picked the block 38 at Sage Ridge Vineyard on September 14, 2017. There were no issues with the grapes regarding rot following a very dry summer. The sugar level was 23.9° with fully mature and ripe flavors. A similar regime to the Hirondelle Vineyard with regular pump-overs brought this wine to fermentation completion at about the same time.

Both the Hirondelle and the Sage Ridge Vineyards fermentations were complete and they were pressed on September 30, 2017. We pressed each lot separately into a stainless steel holding tank and then took the new wine down to barrel that same day. For 2017 we choose to use 100% new French Oak barrels and used one, once used barrel that was later broken down for topping wine. Malo-Lactic proceeded on its own without adding ML culture and the new wines were now stable.

As I mentioned at the beginning – the 2017 vintage is going to be long remembered for a number of reasons. The wines we made in 2017 are already showing beautiful character and the potentially to be very long-lived wines. I have a feeling that these two Cabernet Sauvignon wines will outlive most of us working on them. They have all the components in place and if properly stored have 30+ years ahead of them although I will be drinking my bottles somewhat sooner than that.

Donald Patz