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.