Evaluating Cabernet Wines at Different Price Points

Unified Symposium session explores high-volume production to small-lot, vineyard-designate wines

by Andrew Adams
wine vineyard unified cabernet
Chris Munsell, director of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, introduces panelists for the joint winemaking and grapegrowing session about Cabernet Sauvignon during the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento.
Sacramento, Calif.—Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine varietal 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 this year’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

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 judging by the grape’s place in the wine industry.

“We fully expect when we see the state’s grape crush report come out in a few weeks, Cabernet will have surpassed Chardonnay as the most acreage in the state for wine grapes, Munsell said. “Cabernet Sauvignon is also in a unique position where you see wines from premium domestic from $7 to $8 per bottle all the way up to $700 or $800 a bottle and everything in between; very few other varietals have that scope.”

The session included presentations by the vineyard manager and winemaker of four wines.

At $13, consistency is key
Evan Schiff oversees winemaking for Francis Ford Coppola Presents’ Diamond line of wines that counts 13 different varietals and includes two Cabernets. He presented the 2014 Ivory Cabernet with a retail price of $12.99 that is sourced from a vineyard in the Lodi AVA 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 a sub-appellation known as Borden Ranch. The vineyard was planted in 1990 and cultivated with bi-lateral spur until 2009, when it was transitioned for mechanization.

Ledbetter said that change stemmed not from an attempt to save money or increase production but to get it pruned in time. 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 mechanically pruned vines do result in more speckled light exposure and much smaller bunches and berries, but two to four times as many bunches provide for a good juice-to-skin ratio.

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.

At 2° Brix he generally presses but may press early 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/L per month. Schiff stressed checking the wine’s basic chemistry and tasting every week while using micro-ox. He also will use 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 for consistency and to fill as many tanks to support as many as five bottling runs per year. “It’s really all about consistency at this price point,” he said.

Night harvesting and square tanks

As Rodney Strong Wine Estate’s wine grower, Ryan Decker manages the company’s estate 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 in the vineyard are cane pruned with two canes, although high-vigor areas are set to four. He said everything is managed by hand 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.

Most of the grapes are machine harvested at night, which Decker said ensures fruit arrives at the winery as cold as possible.

Seidenfeld said in 2014, Rodney Strong completed a new production winery that was outfitted with square, stainless-steel fermentation tanks by LaGarde, because they offered a good juice-to-skin ratio that resulted in wines with a balance of 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. Once dry, the wine then goes through an extended thermal maceration, during which the must is kept at 86° F until it is ready to be drained and pressed.

Following pressing, Seidenfeld lets the wine settle for 24 hours, then racks it into barrels. He said the oak program is 100% French with about half new wood, and most of those are the new Vicard Generation 7 barrels built with staves analyzed for tannin content and which Seidenfeld said 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.

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 around $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. “We’re not talking about mild frosts,” he said, adding he’s seen 76° F on days in November only to be followed by 15° F the next. “Your season is over when it happens.”

Part of Cabernet’s success in Washington can be attributed to it being one of the more winter-hardy 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. Yields are in the range of 3.25 tons per acre, and pricing is around $10,000 on a per-acre basis, although he expects prices to keep rising. “I’m seeing more California faces up there, and you’ll probably bring your pricing with you,” he said.

McClellan 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.

Higher prices, less intervention in the cellar

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, and he will press and settle the wine before racking it into 36-month Seguin Moreau barrels. McClellan said he’s tried extended maceration but has always been happier with just the skin contact of fermentation.

Likely no one in the audience was surprised the highest priced Cabernet came from Napa Valley, but at $78 per bottle, the 2014 Lede Family Wines Cabernet 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 that total to nearly 60 acres.

Designed by David Abreu, the vines are trained to low head height vertical shoot positioning at 3-foot vine spacing with 5- to 6-foot row spacing. Cellini said the vineyards demand precision, and she’s very lucky to work with an in-house crew that has been tending to the vineyards for nearly five years. She said she’ll conduct several 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 lugs and brought to the winery.

Cohen described the winemaking as “minimalist” and said it begins with a hand sort on a Bucher Vaslin conveyor 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. Once 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 all the way to barrel, helping to provide the winery with lots of options when it’s time to assemble the final blends. The wine stays in barrel for 21 months before it’s bottled, unfined and unfiltered.

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