June 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

Producing Cabernet Wines at Different Price Points

Winemakers dissect the varietal from high-volume production to small-lot wines

by Andrew Adams

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red varietal wine with consumers and critics and the grape is expected to soon surpass Chardonnay as California's leading wine grape variety by tonnage and acreage.

In light of the varietal's dominance, four different Cabernet wines at four different price points were dissected in a tasting and panel discussion at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year. The session included presentations by the vineyard manager and winemaker responsible for four wines.

Moderating the session was Chris Munsell, director of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery's premium wine program. Munsell said when he "was a wee lad in the winemaking world" a marketing executive told him for any wine to be successful it needed to be of good quality, known by consumers and profitable for everyone involved.

He said no other varietal or red blend has received as many 100-point scores as Cabernet Sauvignon and its popularity and profitability are obvious by the grape's place in the wine industry. When Munsell was introducing the panel he said he would not be surprised if Cab had outpaced Chardonnay in terms of total production in the 2017 vintage, but when the California crush report came out about a month later, Chardonnay had held on to its top spot, barely. Growers harvested 614,565 tons of Chardonnay and 601,473 tons of Cabernet. Both varieties had a 14% share of the state's total wine grape harvest.

"Cabernet Sauvignon is also in a unique position where you see wines from from 7 to 8 bucks a bottle all the way up to 700 or 800 bucks a bottle and everything in between. Very few other varietals have that scope," Munsell said.

At $13 consistency is key
Evan Schiff oversees winemaking of Francis Ford Coppola Winery's Diamond line of wines that includes 13 different varietals, two of them being Cabernets. He presented the 2014 Ivory Cabernet with a retail price of $12.99 that is sourced from a Lodi AVA vineyard managed by Vino Farms.

Craig Ledbetter, vice president and partner at Vino Farms, said a portion of the grapes for the Ivory label Cab are from a vineyard on the easternmost edge of the Lodi AVA in the sub-appellation of Borden Ranch. The vineyard was planted in 1990 and cultivated with bi-lateral spur until 2009 when it was transitioned for mechanical minimal pruning.

Ledbetter said that change was not intended to save money or increase production but simply to get it pruned in a timely way. He said the company manages about 1,000 acres of mechanically pruned vines and if they had to be pruned by hand it wouldn't be completed until the end of March.

He said that mechanically pruned vines result in more speckled light exposure and much smaller bunches and berries, providing for a good juice to skin ratio. The vines also produce two to four times as many bunches.

Schiff said all of the grapes used for the Diamond line are contracted and come from approximately 250 growers in all of California's appellations. On average the Cabernet is picked at 26° Brix for mature fruit flavors and no greenness. He eschews cold soaks and instead inoculates and adds enzymes to help ensure all potential color can be extracted in a fairly quick fermentation. "For the average machine harvested fruit coming from 2 to 3 hours away we want to get it in the fermentor. We want to get it going," he said.

He said that enzymes help to ensure fermentations last only about six days on average, so he can manage his tank space better. Schiff uses Coppola's in-house phenolic assay that dictates winemaking only in conjunction with sensory analysis. "We don't make our wine by the numbers only and we don't taste without the numbers," he said.

At 2° Brix he generally presses but may press earlier if there is sufficient tannin. After a gentle fining with Isinglass, the wine then goes to tank where it ages on barrel alternatives and micro-oxygenation at a rate of about 3 mg/liter per month. Schiff stressed the importance of checking the wine's basic chemistry and tasting every week while using micro-ox. He also uses multiple oak suppliers to help create some complexity and will spread the oak among several tanks rather than concentrate it in just a few.

Final blends are built with sensory and tannin analysis with a goal of consistency and to fill enough tanks to support as many as five bottling runs per year. "It's really all about consistency at this price point," he said.

Night harvest for $35 wines
As Rodney Strong Wine Estates' wine grower, Ryan Decker manages the company-owned vineyards and works closely with supplying growers. He and winemaker Justin Seidenfeld discussed the winery's 2014 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a retail price of around $35 and total production of around 11,000 cases.

Decker said most of the vines for this wine are cane pruned leaving two canes although high-vigor areas are set to four. He said everything is managed by hand and with minimal leaf pulling as the soil helps keep the vines in check and excessive pulling could lead to sunburn in the warm afternoons of Knights Valley. "You can overexpose the fruit really easily out there," he said.

Most of the grapes are machine harvested at night. Decker said that ensures they are picked when it's as cool as possible and arrive at the winery as cold as possible. A few blocks are picked by hand to retain the whole clusters. Farming cost in Knights Valley is about $8,000 per acre.

Seidenfeld said Rodney Strong completed a new production winery in 2014 and outfitted it with square, stainless steel fermentation tanks by La Garde because they offered a good juice to skin ratio that resulted inwines with structure and soft tannins. It also allowed him to work small-lot fermentations. "We were able to keep all the blocks separate and found something quite special," he said.

After a cold soak of about five days, Seidenfeld said he initiates a spontaneous fermentation by warming the tanks. The caps are managed with an automated pumpover system that alters the number and duration of pumpovers by Brix. Seidenfeld said he'll run a pumpover every 8 hours until the must hits 15° Brix and then dial that back until around 2° Brix when the wine will get just one 20-minute pumpover.

Once dry, the wine then goes through an extended thermal maceration in which the must is kept at 86°F until it's ready to be drained and pressed. Following pressing, Seidenfeld lets the wine settle for 24 hours then splash racks it into barrels. He said the oak program is 100% French with about half new and most of those are the new Vicard Generation 7 barrels built with staves analyzed for tannin content. Seidenfeld said they do seem to offer a more consistent oak impact. "We really like what those barrels do so I took a gamble, and so far we're pretty happy," he said.

All of the wine is filtered because Seidenfeld said he's had too many bad experiences from not filtering and his main responsibility is to provide the best product possible.

Walla Walla Cab at $50
Adding a little perspective from the Northwest was Casey McClellan, winemaker and founder of Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Wash. McClellan produces around 21,000 cases per year and his 2014 single vineyard estate Cabernet retails for $50.

While Eastern Washington enjoys abundant sunshine and 16-hour days during the growing season, McClellan noted the winters can be severe and it's not uncommon for ravaging frosts to strike in November. "The balance we have to get at is to grow an adequate crop that is fully ripe by no later than mid-October to avoid the risk of a severe frost event that ends the growing season before you want it to," he said.

"In recent years we've experienced 76 degrees one day in early November and the next day it was 15," McClellan said. "No vine likes that, and your season is over when that happens. We do a lot of thinking about managing that risk and paying very close attention to heat accumulation during the season and we will aggressively thin to make sure we ripen a crop to maintain continuity of vintages and supply to the market."

Part of Cabernet's success in Washington can be attributed to it being one of the more winter-hardy Vitis vinifera varieties. Growers in the state also don't have to contend with phylloxera and McClellan said the vineyard is own-rooted like most others in the state. The vineyard is sustainably farmed and certified through the LIVE program. Yields run about 3.25 tons per acre and pricing is around $10,000 per acre. McClellan expects prices to keep rising. The farming costs are about $6,000 per acre. "I'm seeing more California faces up there and you'll probably bring your pricing with you," he said.

He said because the wine is a high-revenue lot he has to carefully manage his tanks to ensure he has the capacity to get it in before any frosts. McClellan picks at around 25° to 26° Brix looking for aromatics and flavors while remaining a meal-friendly wine with the potential to age for 10 years.

The grapes are destemmed then pass through open rollers before getting transferred to open-top tanks via a progressive cavity pump. A brief cold soak is followed by fire hose pumpovers in which McClellan likes to turn the tank volume three times. After 10 to 14 days the wine is typically close to dry. He presses and settles before racking in to mostly 36-month Seguin Moreau barrels with a portion designated for Taransaud barrels.

While he keeps experimenting with extended maceration, McClellan said he continues to prefer a standard extraction of two weeks at the most. "I keep trying them and keep saying we can do better with just normal skin contact of 10 to 14 days," he said.

He also filters prior to bottling to ensure a reliable product.

Less intervention in the cellar at $78
Likely no one in the audience was surprised that the highest-priced Cabernet in the session came from Napa Valley, but at $78 per bottle the 2014 Lede Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon is almost a bargain when compared to other Napa Cabs.

Discussing the wine were vice president and general manager Remi Cohen and viticulturist Allison Cellini, who said the wine came from two estate vineyards that comprise 56 small lots from nearly 60 acres. Cohen described the Stag's Leap district blend as "really the heart and soul of our production."

In the vineyard designed by David Abreu, the vines are trained to low head-height vertical shoot positioning at 3-feet vine spacing and 5 to 6-feet row spacing. Cellini said the vineyards demand precision and she's very lucky to work with an in-house crew that has been tending them for nearly five years. She said she conducts several canopy adjustments passes based on quality to achieve about 12 to 14 clusters per vine for 2 to 3 tons per acre. The grapes are harvested into the much-loved little yellow lug boxes, known as FYBs, and brought to the winery.

Cellini said she's able to make "micro decisions" in the vineyard and farm with such precision because her vineyard workers know the estate so well. "The majority of the people on this crew have been at our site for four or five years so having the same people year after year really allows us the ability to fine tune and get to know the vineyard," she said.

When asked about farming costs, Cohen said at the low it probably came to $12,000 to $14,000 per acre.

Cohen said had winemaker Christopher Tynan sat on the panel he likely would have said everything is done in the vineyard, and while she said there is a minimalist strategy in the cellar that belies an incredible amount of work. "On the other hand we know that he does take an incredible amount of meticulous care and attention in what he does in the winery," she said.

At the crush pad, the grapes are dumped onto a Bucher Vaslin conveyor for a hand sorting that is followed by an optical sorting from a Pellenc machine. She said the winery made the smart move to lease a Pellenc sorter in 2011, so it was easy to recently upgrade to the company's latest machine.

Sorted berries are dropped into tanks with a unique hoisting system that Cohen said can move about 1.5 tons of whole berries. A long cold soak of up to a week is followed by fermentation managed with a few pumpovers per day. The winery uses truncated, stainless steel tanks to help keep the cap submerged. One a lot is in the tank it will stay there for up to 40 days of maceration and is tasted daily to evaluate mouthfeel and tannin development.

All of the lots stay separate into barrel, where they also rest on the lees through the entire elevage that can last more than 20 months.

The extended time in the tank and barrel as well as the myriad lots help Cohen and the rest of the winemaking team make the best final blend possible. "What we like about doing this is that we feel the heavy lees of the wine protects the wine and flushes out the wine," she said. "Secondly it gives us the opportunity by keeping all the lots separate - which is a lot more work, topping each individual lot and maintaining each individual lot - but we get to watch the lot mature," she said. "We have that flexibility all the way up to bottling."

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