Because we are located in Napa Valley, we admit we can get a little Napa-centric sometimes. So, let’s take a step back for a minute for a lesson on the major appellations in California for Cabernet Sauvignon and their characteristics.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a steady performer across much of California’s extensive winegrowing regions and, in varying degrees, produces wines of extraordinary depth, richness and quality. Local climate and soil play a major part in how the finished wine tastes, and we will examine in some detail how this manifests itself in many of California’s important Cabernet-producing areas.
Any study of California’s Cabernet-producing regions must begin with the Napa Valley. Cabernet is King here, and the story of the wine and the pioneers who put Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon on the map is outlined elsewhere in this study. The varietal reaches its greatest heights in the thin soils and warm climate here, producing ripe, full-bodied wines of great intensity and depth of flavor. Subtle changes in taste and style may also be seen in certain microclimates within the valley. Wines from the Stag’s Leap District (home of the 1976 Paris Tasting winner and the Steltzner Vineyards wine offered in this study) tend to be more supple than the deep, complex, structured wines from Rutherford, with brighter fruit and more polished tannins. Chiles Valley, down the road in St. Helena, is known for ripe, layered fruit in its elegant, age-worthy Cabernets. And from the hillside vineyards in the Spring Mountain District come bold, intense and deeply flavored Cabernets brimming with cherry and berry fruit flavors.
Sonoma County is not strictly an appellation, but many wines blended from fruit grown in various parts of the county are covered by this designation, and these wines can be extraordinarily complex and rewarding. Many western coastal enclaves of the county are often too cool to fully ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, but in warmer pockets further inland such as the Alexander Valley, the climate is ideal for big, rich, ripe Cabernets with definitive ‘earthy’ characteristics.
Mendocino County takes in the northernmost appellations of the greater North Coast and is likewise used to designate wines that don’t fully fit a specific appellation. Unlike the Napa Valley, Cabernet is not a dominant grape here as parts of the county are better suited to cool climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But in the warmer inland valleys such as the Anderson Valley and the upper Russian River Valley, Cabernet grapes ripen slowly and completely, producing deep, flavorful, well-balanced wines with supple tannins and good structure.
Rugged and mountainous, the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco have long produced rich, distinctive wines. The cool climate here, again, can cause problems for the slow-ripening Cabernet, but certain well-chosen sites protected from the wind and exposed to long sunny days can produce extraordinarily deep and layered wines. Summertime heat can aid ripening, delivering bright fruit on a wellbalanced frame.
Southeast of Sacramento, in the Sierra foothills, is Calaveras County, a part of ‘Gold Rush’ country that once saw grapevines planted alongside the mining claims. While an inland appellation, the altitude in the foothills provides ideal growing conditions for wine grapes, and the county has seen a resurgence of vineyards here over the last decade. Cabernet Sauvignon does extremely well here as the combination of sunny days and cool nights can bring the fruit slowly and evenly to full ripeness before the threat of frost. Calaveras Cabernets are medium-bodied, ripe and elegant, and very approachable in their youth while maintaining a degree of ageability.
The generic California Appellation covers the entire California region and is used on wines that blend grapes from any two or more of the appellations noted above. Blended wines bring together the distinctive characteristics of different areas and often result in delightfully layered wines where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is especially true of Cabernet Sauvignon which seems to take on the distinctive personality of the region in which it is grown better than any other variety.
Saturday, July 23, The Weinery, Scituate, MA: I, Dave-less due to a long-standing art gig, was outside, but it was not as insanely hot it had been the previous few days. Plus I was under a tent, with plenty of water. I felt bad for the retailer, as the two Massachusetts wine wholesalers also booked for this event did not show…Besides wine, there was fruit, cheese, veggies, dip, and baked goods available, photography for sale, including a book of photos of Ted Williams I had never seen, jewelry and ladies accessories for the guests to peruse. I was surprised at the amount of people visiting metro Boston's South Shore from California - I met groups from Berkeley & Monterey. Both in-stock "Corked" wines sold briskly for the retailer.
Saturday, August 13, Elli's Wine Cellar, Weymouth, MA: This is probably the most beautiful wine shop we've ever visited, and that is even before you factor in the charm of the staff. If there were stuffed chairs in Elli's, no one would ever want to leave. Here we unveiled the new 08 Tough Dame Cab for Massachusetts. Elli's provided grapes, cheese, calzone and sausages with the wines, water and soda for the "Corked" schlepps. Attendance by my Weymouth neighbors did me proud. Rick Lowell and Laura O'Meara of Portland, Maine's ultra-cool Casablanca Comics, stopped by for a taste, as did old compadre Eleanor Seigneur. The "Corked" audience delivered plenty of new-to-the-shop traffic, in addition to Elli's regular customers, yielding plenty of wine sold. Local attendees told us the shop does a great job
getting the "Corked" message out. We left them a giant, mounted Tough Dame Cab label, signed by the both of us, and scored our body weights in pizza, sausages, beer (for our obligatory post-tasting libation!) and calzone to go.
Tuesday, August 23, Plymouth Garden Club, Plymouth, MA: This was a beautiful venue, on a deck overlooking the beach - the sunset alone was worth the price of admission. We met a good crowd, about 180 wine-tasting guests, but, unusual for this size group, only one person tried to help themselves, so they comprehended the concept of a tasting versus a drinking. Richard Hassan, whose wife Geraldine ran this fundraiser, helped pour, as did old friend and picture-of-elegance Kathleen Cumming. The surprise for us was that of the three Sur de Los Andes Argentine wines we also poured - Torrontes, Bonarda and Malbec- the Malbec was the one least talked about...We aimed the guests to our local "Corked" the comic retailer, Pilgrim Wine & Spirits, who was pleasantly prepared with business cards, sell sheets and abig ice bucket for the whites.
Our insanely busy Memorial Day weekend of Friday, September 2 & Saturday, September 3: Gypsy Kitchen, Quincy, MA - Mira Luna Crusher & Stemmer Red and 09 Tough Day Carneros Chardonnay got poured. The Weinery, North Scituate, MA poured the entire "Corked" line. Long-time-supporter Verona, in Rockland, MA once again poured 09 Mira Luna, Tough Day Chardonnay for their guests.
And last-but-not-least, Ralph's Derby Street Wine & Spirits, Hingham, MA: I poured the entire line, plus a few selections by proprietor Ralph Hersom, including his recently bottled, quite delicious Central Coast Pinot Noir. As a wine producer, I like doing tastings for Ralph - he is one of the best tasters in the nation. And events there with Ralph, chef Kim Savage and beer buyer Ryan O'Malley are almost party-like. Dave drew New England Comic's Doreen Greeley, one of our earliest supporters, as Honey West - a very cool choice - when she dropped by Ralph's to taste the new 08 Tough Dame.