What make for great Cabernet Sauvignon?
It is so difficult to answer this question, despite the temptations of doing so, precisely because, as H. Warner Allen wrote, in his 1932 classic, The Romance of Wine: “Great wines are possessed of an individual personality, an originality of character, which varies, not merely from one district, vineyard or vintage year to another, but also from one bottle to another bottle of the same wine.” Another way of phrasing this is to say that there are no great vintages, only great bottles (and a free subscription to this blog to whomever comes up with the person who first said that).
For Cabernet in California, let’s first consider district. The grape needs moderate to full warmth to ripen. Plant it too close to the coast, and the thick-skinned grapes will never mature. The resulting wine will have a green character, of the sort that used to be called the Monterey veggies. On the other hand, if you plant Cabernet in too warm an area — the Central Valley, say — the grapes will lack sufficient acidity, and also the bunches will likely contain some raisined fruit, which will give the wine a pruny taste.
So you need something in the middle. Look at this map of California’s wine districts
and draw a diagonal line, running northwest to southeast, starting from Lake County and parallel to the coast. You’ll see how it goes through Napa Valley, then hits a little piece of Solano County and slices through Livermore Valley. Then it runs through a couple of counties that are not colored or named on the map; they are, respectively, Santa Clara and San Benito. After that, the line crosses the southeastern tip of Monterey County, crosses the eastern part of San Luis Obispo County, and trails off in the far eastern part of Santa Barbara County, where the coast turns inland in the Transverse Range.
That is California’s Cabernet line. All things being equal, that’s where the great Cabs grow.
Not all things are equal, though. The reason Napa Valley makes the best Cabernet Sauvignon is because things got started a lot earlier there, and a lot more money flowed in. What about Sonoma County? You’ll notice it lies west of the Cabernet line, making it, in general, too cool for Cabernet, although the Alexander Valley, and especially the western ridges of the Mayacamas Mountains, can be fine. The problem with Lake County is twofold: it got started a lot later (not really until the 1990s), and, being more landlocked and further from any coastal influence at all, Lake may prove ultimately to be too hot for Cabernet. We’ll have to see. As for that little piece of Solano County, it has its own AVA, Suisun Valley. There’s no reason Suisun shouldn’t be making good Cabernet, since its climate isn’t that different from Napa’s. Maybe some day, it will.
Livermore should be making better Cabernet. It has a long history; the reasons why it’s not probably have more to do with political, cultural and economic factors than terroir. Then we come to Santa Clara. You might not know it, but this county used to have the reputation for making the finest Cabernet Sauvignon in California — before it turned into Silicon Valley and subdivisions. (And by the way, most of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is not in Santa Cruz County!) San Benito probably could make good Cabernet somewhere, but nobody I know of is trying. In the southern part of Monterey County, the Hames Valley and San Lucas AVAs are trying to grow better Cabernet, but once again, the amount of money a Monterey Cabernet can bring is not high enough for growers and vintners to invest a lot into the wine; and one of the things that makes a great Cabernet (or a great anything) is investment.
Then we come to San Luis Obispo. I’ve heard that people in the eastern, warmer part of the county are trying to grow good Cabernet, but none of it has crossed my desk so far. Finally, the Cabernet line crosses that eastern part of Santa Barbara County, the region that just got its own AVA, Happy Canyon. I’ve blogged about it before. The people promoting it are making a huge deal about its Cabernet potential, and I will admit I’ve had a couple of really good Cabernets from down there. They’re not as rich as Napa, more like a Graves, with a certain blackcurrant, mineral and herb essence. As a critic, I’m perfectly happy to let Happy Canyon prove itself (and believe me, there’s lots of money there).
When you consider all the above, you realize that California still is a young winegrowing place. They’ve had a thousand years, or whatever, in Bordeaux to figure it out. In most of the areas where, theoretically, Cabernet could thrive in California, we’ve had a few decades, and even in Napa Valley, just 150 years, more or less, which is a drop in the historical bucket.
Well, I said we’d start with district in determining what makes great Cabernet Sauvignon. And that discussion has eaten up this whole post. I’ll have more to say about other Cabernet factors in the future.