How to Make Cabernet Sauvignon – Tips for the Micro-Winery

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.

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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.

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.

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.