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Stephen Barnard
July 6, 2014 | Winemaker's Blog | Stephen Barnard

Chasing the ellusive Cabernet Sauvignon wine

Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably the worlds most recognized grape variety, grown in nearly all of the major wine-producing countries in the world. Planted in a variety of climates, the grape first came to prominence in Bordeaux and forms the backbone of some of the most sought after left bank wines, typically blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. From France, the grape spread across to the New World to places like Napa Valley, Australia and South Africa. Napa Valley today is probably the single most recognized place where true expressions of Cabernet are currently produced, sometimes blended with Petite Verdot or Merlot, but most often as a single stand alone varietal wine. In 1996, researchers at UC Davis California determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, most likely a chance crossing that occurred in the 17th century. For many years the origins of Cabernet were not understood. The word Sauvignon was believed to be derived from the French word "sauvage" meaning wild, suggesting that it was a wild Vitis Vinifera native to France. Being the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc makes sense since Cabernet wines can display the typical characteristics of both of its parents. In certain cases, the wines can show the spicy and pencil lead character of the Franc and in cooler climates, the more greener grassier side of Sauvignon Blanc. Until the 1990's, when it was surpassed by Merlot, Cabernet was the most widely planted red grape variety in the world.

Varietal wine or as part of a blend?

The answer to this question, in my opinion, is determined in large part by the climate in which the grape grows. As a late budding variety and hence later ripening than Merlot or Cabernet Franc, a warmer climate with plenty of sunshine is needed to fully ripen the fruit. In cooler climates where Cabernet might come off the vine a touch early, blending components are added to the wine to create a balanced wine. In some cases you might blend Merlot for fruit character and softening of tannins, Petite Verdot might be used for color and Cabernet Franc might be added for structure and added depth. There is definitely an art to blending and the final blend will vary based on the style of the winery or the vintage quality. Yet for many New World winemakers, there is nothing more satisfying than creating a world-class Cabernet, a stand alone that can convey everything about the vineyard, the growing season and the subtle hand of the winemaker.

Cabernet in Virginia

Of course, I am not making wine in Napa Valley. I am making wine in Virginia, where the climate is not really known for being conducive to growing and making Cabernet. Virginia averages about 48 inches of rain per year, as opposed to the 15-20 inches in Napa Valley. Tropical storms and hurricanes normally affect Virginia in August and September and account for roughly 40% of all the rainfall during that period. It also just happens to coincide with the time period where our red grapes are starting to reach full maturity. More often than not, rain dictates a premature picking of our Cabernet- which explains why most wines made in Virginia that contain the grape are blends. Very few varietal wines are made, and if they are made it is often only in exceptional years such as 2010.

Keswick Vineyards Cabernet

At Keswick Vineyards, we had three specific blocks of Cabernet planted on the estate. We now have two since we pulled one block up due to the fact that vineyard and fruit really did not perform as hoped. Even though we have been making wine since 2002, it was only in 2007 that we first made Cabernet based wines. Our 2007 Cabernet, blended with Merlot and bottled after 10 months in oak, went on to win the Virginia Governors Cup in 2009 and our 2007 Heritage, which spent a further year in bottle, won a platinum medal at the San Diego International Wine Competition. In 2008 Cabernet played a supporting role, largely in part to the growing season. What followed 2008 were, in my mind, two of the most outstanding vintages of recent years. I am in the minority when I say that I believe the 2009 vintage to be stronger than 2010. Yes, 2010 made incredible wines, richly extracted and brooding, but I think that over time the 2009 wines will age better and longer in the bottle. In both years though, we produced and bottled a single varietal Cabernet. No blending, no over manipulation on my part, just good wines that reflect the place in which they were grown, blessed by a fantastic growing season. Both wines share similarities in that they were both fermented without the addition of commercial yeast, aged for 22 months in barrel and unfiltered and unfined going into the bottle. It does give credence to the role climate plays since both wines are remarkably different from a flavor point of view. The 2010 Cabernet, which just won a gold medal at the San Francisco International wine competition and is available for purchase in limited quantities, is definitely the brute of the two, a large wine with sappy dark fruit on the nose, inky in color and tremendous power on the palate. The 2009 Cabernet is the ballet dancer, a bit more graceful and elegant, just as powerful but with a silkier feel to it. I see these wines aging well past 10-15 years. Cabernet is not supposed to do well here. I heard way back that Virginia could not make reds; whites were okay but the reds were weak. So how is it that we can make something that has gone on to win double gold and gold medals at the San Francisco International Wine Competition in California, competing against wines that have the clear advantage in what is considered the largest and most prestigious competition in America? Let me offer my take (and none of it has to do with the winemaker).

Our soils are weak and that is good.

We have done some soil mapping and have found a unique soil that makes up 50% of the Estate. Our soil on which the Cabernet is planted is alluvial based, with rock and shale deposits and very little clay. The soil is extremely well draining and hence the root system of the vine is deeper since it has to go down further to source water. The shale and rock also absorbs and radiates heat to the vine which aides ripening.  Why do you think more Merlot is planted on the clay and limestone soils of the right bank and the Cabernet more planted on the gravelly soils of the left bank? The vine is also naturally a low producer of fruit since the soil does not support a lot of vegetative growth. What you get is a small crop of small berries with intense flavor that lead to richly extracted wines. The winemaker's role in that situation is to not screw it up!  The other factor which is largely overlooked is the age of the vine. Planted in 2000, these vines are now 14 years old and are starting to reach their full potential. Can we make Cabernet every year? The honest answer is no, since we are at the mercy of mother nature. We have, however, produced a Cabernet wine five times in the last seven years and our 2013 vintage might just be the best one yet. That in itself is a victory for the Virginia wine industry. Ask me today if Virginia can make reds, hell yes we can- and world-class reds to boot! Many producers tend to focus on blends and many a viable argument is made why blended reds are the future for Virginia. It is hard to disagree from a philosophical standpoint. But now that have proven we can make a Cabernet that can compete with some of the big boys out west, that will always be our goal and dream- to make a world-class Cabernet that represents not only Keswick, but also the quality of Virginia.


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