I have been growing wine grapes and making wine for over 20 years in Northern California, a major wine region in our country. Living in a wine region means your customers, friends, family and neighbors grow up with a great deal of experience around wine, particularly drinking wine! Reading other’s wine blogs and articles inspired me to challenge “local knowledge” and write a series of articles I will call “Digging Deeper”.
Before I begin, let me make some basic assumptions about the reader:
- They know the difference between a white wine and red wine.
- They drink many different varietals of wines.
- They are willing to age wine and have a wine cellar of some sort.
Let’s start with assumption number one. A white wine is produced most commonly by grape varieties whose skins do not turn red when ripened. Both the skins and the pulp inside are some shade of yellow or very light green. When the grapes are picked during harvest the berries are removed from the stems and the juice is pressed off the skins. Think of picking an orange off a tree (removing from the stem) then squeezing the juice from the peel (the skin). Only the juice from the white grape variety is fermented into wine. The process of fermentation is simply converting the sugar in the juice to alcohol instead of drinking grape juice, you drink wine! Magical!
The 3 most common varieties of white wine grapes in California are Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay.
A red wine, on the other hand, is produced most commonly by grape varieties whose skins turn varying shades of red or purple when ripened. Only the skins change color, a process called “veraison”, the pulp and juice inside is still mainly clear, only somewhat reddish. When the red wine grapes are picked at harvest the berries are removed from the stems (orange picked from the tree), but the juice is not pressed off the skins (peel stays on the orange). The “whole berry” is allowed to ferment so the color from the skins is imparted to the light-colored juice to gain the desired color and called a red wine. Once the berries have finished converting sugar to alcohol, the resulting “wine” is then pressed leaving the skins and seeds behind so only the liquid which is now red wine is left to age. Some of the most common varieties of red wine grapes in California are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah.
Now that you know the difference in a white wine and red wine, let’s dig deeper to assumption number two. You have tasted many different varietals of wines but did you know….
The “King of all Grapes”, Cabernet Sauvignon, is the number one red wine varietal sold in the United States. It is also the most planted grape variety in the world. AND Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between a very popular white grape, Sauvignon Blanc, and the red grape Cabernet Franc which is parent to both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sauvignon Blanc’s main fruit characteristics depending on “terroir” and ripeness are: lime, green apple, Asian pear, kiwi, white peach, and nectarine. The main herbaceous aromas are: bell pepper, gooseberry, basil, jalapeño, fresh cut grass, tarragon, celery, dill and lemongrass.
Cabernet Franc’s main fruit characteristics depending on “terroir” and ripeness are: cherry, raspberry, strawberry, boysenberry, pomegranate, black currant and red currant. The main herbaceous aromas are: roasted red pepper, smoked tomato, dried oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, and black pepper.
Combining these two, and of course depending upon the climate and “terroir” of the vineyard, the resulting Cabernet Sauvignon is noted for aromas of black pepper, green peppercorn, black currant and sometimes even bell pepper. The bell pepper you smell is due to an aromatic compound called Methoxypyrazine or just pyrazine. The main fruit characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon are ripe plum, blackberry, black cherry, fig, black currant, and ripe raspberry. Common herbaceous aromas include oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, mint, anise and green peppercorn.
This leads us to assumption number three; you are willing to age wines and have a wine cellar of some sort. What truly makes great Cabernet Sauvignon is generally agreed to be extended aging; both in barrels and once bottled, in the cellar, no filtering or fining, small production or single vineyard lots, higher elevation vineyards, and good acidity (low pH) balanced with moderate alcohol levels (12-14%).
So now you know a little more about Cabernet Sauvignon! In my winemaking program I barrel age our Cabernet Sauvignon for 22 months in New French Oak barrels by the cooper’s Taransaud and Nadalie known for seasoning the staves 36-48 months in the forest before making the barrels. This produces a beautiful tight grained, very high-end barrel, freeing the bitter tannins from the wine. I then bottle age our Cabernet’s for a minimum of 5 years before releasing even though I believe a great Cabernet should be cellared at least 10+ years before drinking! If you can’t wait that long, decanting a few hours before drinking will allow you to experience all that this great varietal can give!
Our first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon brought out the best of both parents and is equally balanced between a classic Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. As the grower and wine maker I call our first vintage “the white wine drinkers red wine” for this reason! You can read more about it on our website! And please, let me know about other wine topics you would like to know about. I get asked many questions about wine, especially how to know what you are tasting and how to select wines at the market or in a restaurant!
Karen J. Wood
Cedar Creek Ranch & Vineyards