Cabernet Sauvignon is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beloved red wines. As a single variety and in blends, Cabernet Sauvignon has gained fame in Bordeaux and California, and around the world. Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon are often dark, aromatic, tannic, and they can typically age well. It’s for these and several other reasons that I include Cabernet Sauvignon in my own wine program.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Cabernet Sauvignon can be made in a variety of ways. From the lightly fruity and herby, vegetal style grown in cooler climates to a fruit and tannin-driven style grown in hot climates, Cabernet Sauvignon’s range is wide. A lot of Cabernet Sauvignon’s potential is the result of its cross-breeding. Cabernet Sauvignon has been proven to be a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. This parentage is credited with the display of ‘varietal typicity’ found in wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Terroir

One of the most discussed concepts in winemaking is terroir. Terroir is academically tied to the environment surrounding the vineyard, but there are a dizzying number of specifics that broaden the basics of the theory. Cabernet Sauvignon both benefits and suffers greatly from the terroir in which it is grown and the way it is made.

The best Cabernet Sauvignon can be found in warm, sunny climates, in vineyards with good drainage. Warmth allows for an even and well-balanced growing season; sunlight helps break down pyrazines as the plant ripens the fruit clusters; good drainage forces the plant to follow the water source deeper and deeper into the subsoil which can result in smaller, more concentrated grape berries. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most terroir-focused varieties currently being made. I say this because Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a cool climate with limited amounts of sunlight and plentiful water sources can feature Sauvignon (Blanc) characteristics – acidic, grassy and wild.  Known for being one of the biggest, most noble red wine varieties, you could see where white wine characteristic like bell peppers and other vegetables would not be considered an asset.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons lean toward flavors of currant, blueberry, black cherry, cola and cocoa. They are not thin and acidic; they are firm, rich and tannic. They can be enjoyed when young, but often benefit from extended aging. It is largely due to the terroir where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown which effects the final quality of the wine. There are things a winemaker can do to navigate a less-than-ideal terroir, but ultimately it is the natural environment that dictates the quality of the fruit that arrives at the winery.

In The Vineyard

Just as we are the product of our environment, we are also a product of our parentage. Because Cabernet Sauvignon is a hybridization of a white wine vine and a red wine vine, it can feature one or the other or even both of its genetic lineages. This is a part of Cabernet Sauvignon’s charm. The grape can display an array of qualities. How those characters appear on stage / in your glass depends heavily on the way it is grown.

Deep, rich and intense red fruit characters are featured when the vine has a lower canopy-to-fruit ratio (less canopy = less vegetation). Because of its genetic makeup, Cabernet Sauvignon wants to throw a lot of canopy. It is therefore important to prune the vine to suit your wine program.  Speaking with the vineyard manager can help you decide what works for you both. In my opinion, 2-to-3 tons per acre is a sweet point for Cabernet Sauvignon.

In my experience, Cabernet Sauvignon grown by large farming companies that produce heavy loads of grapes per vine / per acre, have less of what I’m looking for when making a small quantity of quality Cabernet Sauvignon. If I had my druthers, I would seek out Cabernet Sauvignon that is head-trained, low yielding and completely reliant on manual-labor.  Mechanization can and does lower the cost of a ton of grapes, but what you don’t pay for you also don’t get in terms of quality. In the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, less really can be more. 

What does this mean exactly? The fewer clusters there are per plant, the smaller the size of each berry, the less canopy there is on the plant – especially toward the end of ripening – can result in a higher concentration and quality in the juice. This will heighten the quality of the resulting wine.  Harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon should be done with ripeness in mind. My ideal Cabernet Sauvignon arrives in the winery between about 25º–26º Brix. The pH should be about 3.5. The seeds should be brown, not green. If all of these characters are in line, it’s time to harvest the fruit and begin fermentation.

In The Winery

When Cabernet Sauvignon arrives at the winery, I like to sort through the fruit by hand. It is important to be sure all the grapes are ripe, undamaged, and that any MOG is kept out of the fermenter. MOG is an acronym for material other than grapes. It can include, leaves, stones, tools, gloves, animals, trellising wire and/or large woody pieces of vine. The grapes are sorted and de-stemmed and sent to the fermenter. The must should arrive in the fermenter as whole berries, some macerated berries, without ‘jacks’ (little pieces of grape stem), and some lightly pigmented juice.

Some winemakers add dry ice to the fermenter to ‘cold soak’ the must before it begins to ferment. This procedure extracts more phenolic compounds increases ageing potential. Some winemakers inoculate immediately with cultivated yeasts. Still others add a small amount of sulfur to the must and wait until fermentation begins naturally. This can take several days during which ‘native’ or ‘natural’ yeasts on the grapes and in the winery initiate fermentation.

I prefer to use several of the above methods, in combination, dividing equal quantities of grapes into various fermenters. I prefer to use cultivated yeasts to initiate fermentation because they help to start the fermentation more quickly. Fermentation also continues more evenly. If you are able to assess the yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN) to understand what the must and yeast require to complete fermentation, this can also be of great importance. If you don’t have access to YAN tests, then a standard application of nutrients one day after fermentation begins and once more at about 11º Brix can help bring your wine to complete dryness. Punchdowns and pumpovers should be done at least once per day – more frequently for extracted wines, up to four times per day. A controlled temperature of 90º F or below is ideal. The cooler the fermentation, the more Cabernet Sauvignon showcases its fruity qualities. The warmer the fermentation, and the more the cap is submerged, the more extracted the wine will be. 

Once all the sugar in the juice has been converted to alcohol, primary fermentation is complete. A simple ‘Clinitest’ can tell you how dry the wine is. Ideally, a dry style Cabernet Sauvignon has less than 0.5 grams per liter of sugar. It is dry in the mouth and tannic – grippy. Once you have confirmed that the wine is dry, the free-run should be removed from the fermenter and the grapes should be pressed. Some winemakers separate the free-run from the press wine at this time. The wine can either be sent directly to barrel or to a settling tank.

Branded wineries use malo-lactic bacteria at this time, to initiate secondary fermentation (aka malo-lactic fermentation/conversion or ML). In my experience, red wines typically go through ML without much help. If you are able to have the wine in contact with oak (ie in a new oak barrel, or in the presence of oak chips) as it goes through ML, this will help to develop better integration of flavors, and can result in a better wine. The conversion of malic acid to lactic acid is a slow process. Paper chromatography helps to monitor the progress. Once ML has completed, and all the malic acid has been converted to lactic acid, it is time to sulfur the wine. Some winemakers do this in barrel. Others rack the wine in the presence of air into a storage container and then add sulfur. 

Sulfur should be added at a rate of 50 ppm. The wine should be allowed to settle, and should be stored without air. Inert gas helps, but if the wine is in barrel, it should be topped up regularly (at least twice per month). Depending on your wine program, Cabernet Sauvignon benefits from two-to-three rackings per vintage. Aging can vary from six months after secondary fermentation is complete to several years. The wine will confide in you how much aging it requires. What aging does is soften the harsh edges of the wine. This is done by a slow interaction with oxygen. If the wine is stored in a wine barrel, this happens naturally, over time. If the wine is stored in an inert container (a tank), the micro-oxygenation is much slower.

There are some wine tanks that promote their slow oxidative qualities. Stainless steel, however, does not ‘breathe’. A program of micro-oxygenation (MO or MOx) can help with the aging of the wine, but MOx equipment is expensive. Adding another racking (or two) to your wine program can aid this cause without adding excessive costs to your wine program.  Racking also helps to clarify the wine. The more rackings a wine gets, at least in theory, the more clear it will be – reducing the potential final cost of filtration.

Blending

Cabernet Sauvignon can be an incredible single-variety wine and a superior blending component.  In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is successfully blended with Petite Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. The rest of France finds success with Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. Based on this success, a new variety called Marselan was crossed between the two grapes and is now available through INRA.

In Australia, wineries have found success in blending Shriaz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Spain practices blending Tempranillo, Garnacha,  Carigñena, and Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italians have made great progress when blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Sangiovese, Merlot, Nero D’Avola, and Nebbiolo.

In most wine programs, Cabernet Sauvignon can add structure, color and aging potential to almost any red wine. Bench trials are recommended before any blending is done to the total quantity of wine. Bench trials involve combining varying percentages of two or more wines into multiple glasses to taste. Take tasting notes and redo the experiment in a blind format a few days later. Which percentage tastes best? Are your notes consistent? 

Fining, Filtering, Bottling

Cabernet Sauvignon is known for its ability to age, whether as a single-variety wine or as a part of the blend. Part of the reason for this is the wine’s concentration of tannin. Tannin can be an asset, but it can also make a young Cabernet Sauvignon seem undrinkable.

Fining is one way that winemakers soften the tannins prior to bottling. Fining is a process by which proteins, phenolics and other compounds are bound up and settle to the bottom of the storage vessel. The fined wine is then racked off of the fining lees and filtered. Popular fining agents for Cabernet Sauvignon include egg whites (as many as 20 per barrel) and other protein-based gelatins. These fining agents are simply stirred into the wine and allowed to settle. 

Filtering is a wholly subjective process. For the branded winery, it is a matter of product consistency. For the small winery, it is a matter of vintage, flavor, and micro-biology. The only times a wine should absolutely, positively be filtered are if it has a significant level of residual sugar, a low sulfur level, high pH (near 4.0) or organoleptic/perceptible spoilage issues like brettanomycees or volatile acidity. Barring any unforeseen problems with sanitation or residual sugar, most wines with a pH of about 3.8 or lower are ‘safe’ to bottle unfiltered.  

Bottling should be done with care. The wine should be sulfured to account for when the wine will be enjoyed. If you are like most Cabernet Sauvignon makers, you know that the wine has the potential to age. That being said, a higher level of sulfur in the wine will aid an extended bottle aging. When I make Cabernet Sauvignon, I try to have a 50 ppm sulfur level when the wine goes into the bottle. Your closure should allow the wine to evolve over time. In other words, I suggest you use natural cork or a synthetic cork that allows the wine to breath. Closures that do not allow Cabernet Sauvignon to breathe and evolve simply do not respect the variety’s natural evolution.

From the vineyard to the glass, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the best and most terroir-oriented wines I’ve ever made. While the winemaking is important, vineyard selection and yield, along with ripeness at harvest are integral to raising the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon that gets made. Using oak in the winery is also important. Cabernet Sauvignon’s affinity for oak barrel aging is one of the things that makes it one of the noblest, if not royal, wines to make and drink. Because of this, Cabernet Sauvignon, and wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon are highly sought after and collected.

* For more information about acidification, sulfuring, and grape processing, read the other articles about winemaking in this series.