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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.

  1. Steve:

    With average growing-season temps in the high 80s, fewer degree days than St. Helena, a wide variety of soil types, the Livermore Valley should definitely be making better Cabernet.

    Very young vineyards, for the most part, no widespead dedication to the variety, too little capital investment is slowing, but not halting progress.

    There are some throwing the Cabernet gauntlet down; and I believe even more so now than 15 years ago when i started, that the Livermore Valley, can produce Cabernet of the highest order.

  2. Steven, you know I agree. I would have mentioned you as an exception, but I didn’t want to get onto the slippery slope of naming individual brands.

  3. VERY interesting stuff here, Steve! Can we get an image with the line drawn through it?

  4. Dude, I don’t know how to do that. Wish I did. I can transfer downloaded images to some “painting” software I have and manipulate then, but then I don’t know how to upload them in a way to get them onto my blog without huge distortions.

  5. Peter Turrone says:


    Very cool use of a visual aid. I actually liked having to draw my own line with my pointer as I read through your post.

    I am curious how California’s Rhone potential would look. An oval? Or more like a connect-the-dots?

  6. Nice article. Thoughtful, thought-provoking. Forward-looking. I hope more wineries and winemakers join in on the commenting.

    I would, however, add this one note of caution. I don’t see that money is the issue in the emergence or lack of emergence of new, top-quality Caberent regions.

    The Rutherford Bench began producing top-notch Cabernet more than a century ago, with holdings that were poorly planted using diseased plant materials, and yet the wines were winning international competitions before Prohibition. The potential of the area simply overwhelmed all else.

    We have had Cabernet all over CA for almost four decades now, and in place like Sonoma and the Santa Cruz Mountains for over a century. Sure, Happy Canyon and the far reaches of the Livermore Valley are not fully tested, and both would seem to have potential. But we also know that there are combinations of soil, exposure, climate, length of growing season, etc, that are also big-time determinants of wine quality (defined the way you and I and the winebuying public define it by our collective opinions, not just by chemical analysis) that magically work.

    Why, for instance, has the Sonoma Valley not become Cab country?

    Why, for instance, has the Santa Cruz Mountains had such a spotty relationship with the variety.

    Your “line” may define where potential lies, but much of that potential has already been measured the way that the Napa Valley was measured decades ago. It would be wonderful if another region or other regions emerged in CA for great Cab. I worry a bit that it has not happened yet because the conditions are not right regardless of the possibilities that exist.

  7. Peter, I think California’s Rhone potential is almost completely unproved. Besides, Mourvedre, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache all are Rhone varieties, but each prefers a different type of climate, and some varieties (Syrah) do well in both warmer and cooler areas.

  8. Charlie:

    Good points. Certainly not each potential place along the “line” is equally good for Cabernet, but I think where the $ part plays a role in determining whether Spot X can be a good spot, is in a large enough investment to begin to farm properly and then to maintain that over time.


    Yes, we are both simpatico on Livermore’s potential (broadly speaking). I never want to waste an opportunity to tell a little more specific story about my Valley, especially when the topic is one I live with every day. Thanks.

  9. The goal with Cabernet Sauvignon is to achieve mature tannins, at adequate Brix levels, without depleting the grapes acids, and water reserves. For this purpose, the main task is to choose a site that combines climate and soil in a suitable manner.
    At California’s solar radiation levels, and on loamy soils (not too heavy, not too light), one should be looking for places with July-August high temperatures between 82 and 85ºF, cool nights in the low fifties, and 2,900-3,300 Winkler Heat Units (Regions II & III). Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Sonoma and Glen Ellen (Sonoma Mtn.) come to mind immediately.
    On heavy clay soils, that delay ripening and retain acids longer, CS can endure higher temperatures (3,400-3,600 WHUs); a good example are Calistoga’s volcanic clay soils. In light sandy soils, that speed up the ripening process and can reach higher Brix levels earlier, the best choices are cooler mountain vineyards; that allow tannins to mature properly. In this case, Napa mountain vineyards (Mt. Veeder, Angwin-Howell Mountain, Pritchard Hill, Chiles Valley…) and the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA (above the fog line) seem ideal.
    Lake County’s climate has a slight tendency towards continentality; with summer highs in the 90s, and a marginally short growing season (there’s a tangible risk of frost in October) for Cab’s tannin development.
    Livermore (Alameda) and Gilroy (Santa Clara) look OK, if you gauge the right soils to compensate for the high summer temps. For a cooler climate Cab, with a more food driven style, the Hollister-San Juan Bautista-Ridgemark (San Benito) areas seem a good bet.
    And the Santa Ynez Valley, with its broad temperature gradient and multitude of meso-climates, also seems particularly interesting to fit several different California CS styles.

  10. If I could own a Cab Sauv vineyard anywhere on this planet, I’d be on a sunny, south facing hillside in the heart of the Russian River Valley. Tara Bella winery (500 case facility) does exclusive RRV Estate Cab Sauv and it’s an absolute favorite in my cirlce of Cab drinking friends. Yep, the Russian River Valley for CAB. It takes nearly all of October to reach his necessary 23 brix, but Rich and Tara’s delicate layers of beautiful pyrizine makes my mouth water simply thinking about it. It sees a full 20 months in mostly older mature brls. A truely beautiful wine.

    Forget the plush fruit bomb berry crappola bottled after 11 months on 80% new oak and a ph of 4.12 and proudly showcasing a 15.1% alc. That’s for sure. I can’t even imaging going to the bank with a proposal to make such stuff.

    Peter, as usual, I enjoy reading your detail and technical side. Thanks for bringing context to the party as well.

  11. I think it is very interesting that you mention money–the resources in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley are certainly more limited vs. Napa Valley. And it is not always easy to attract winemaking talent to this area…expensive to live here (Silicon Valley), smaller and less modern wineries and it is not as well known.

    With that said, I feel that things are definitely evolving. Santa Cruz Mountains has made a number of great Cabs for years, Ridge, Mt. Eden…and yes, Charles, it is spotty due to the severe microclimates in the area. The Santa Clara Valley is starting to come into its own with some newer winemaking talent…Jason Stephens, Sycamore Creek and Martin Ranch have some nice wines. I am biased, but I also think that the Cabs we are producing here at Clos LaChance are starting to show some real potential. Our vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000….and the 2007’s are looking really good, having the character and depth we were hoping for from the area. 2007 was a great vintage overall….so we are waiting on the 08’s and 09’s to see if the trend continues. So far so good.

  12. Great topic. Thanks Steve.

    Here’s a fun factoid – did you know that there are more acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the Dry Creek Valley than any other variety? I’m sure you would have guessed Zin (as I did) but nope.

    I just bring that up because growers out number wineries here 2 to 1 and many of the great Cabs in Cali use at least some fruit from our region. Kinda cool, I think.

  13. Bill I like DCV Cabernet. There are some real good ones. Who knows, one of these days my palate might come around to that style.

  14. Morton Leslie says:

    I think Charlie used the “Bench” word knowing that sweet spot of Cabernet is not a bench from a geological standpoint, but an area of alluvial deposits from what is now Bear Creek that are in and around Coppola (once Inglenook) and BV1. Interestingly, both BV and Inglenook historically were the best financed, deepest pockets in the Napa Valley.

    I have my own thoughts about the sweet spots of the Napa Valley and suspect Steve! will be headed there in a future post.

    I don’t know where Steve M. has his vineyard, but I remember a block of Sauv. Blanc planted at Concannon on gravel that looked like a quarry for drain rock. No need for weed control, weeds couldn’t grow if you cultivated tem. I was partial to that white wine, and suspect the block would have been spectacular if planted in Cab. But I’m confused, the word on the street is that Steve M. is contemplating moving to the Napa Valley. ;>)

    To me Lake County has too short a growing season accompanied by too extreme a summer climate.

    Santa Clara Valley is a crime committed before the concept of ag. preserve. I am told by people who should know that it was a wonderful area for all sorts of agriculture. And Saratoga, we should never forget Martin Ray and hallowed ground on Mt. Eden.

    I also think limited parts of Carmel Valley should go high on the list.

  15. Some of the best DCV Cabs could not pass muster as classic claret. Their fruit is more forward and has more berryish character than what we think of chart-topping Cab.

    But, one of my complaints about “classic” is that its definitiion denies the possibility that Cab or any other variety can have different, unique personalities in different unique locations. When we look at wines from DCV or SCMtns or Paso or SBCo, we should not bring a demand for “classic” with us. What we need to bring instead is a desire for depth, balance and character that we find attractive. Sure that is subjective, but wine enjoyment is subjective.

    And while Randy can rail on about 4.12 pH, an exaggeration that belies the truth for most wines we like, it is also true that he has a style he likes and if enough people like that style, then wines in that style will become popular.

    That is why DCV Cab does not need to taste like Rutherford Cab–because it is not Rutherford Cab. And it will garner whatever level of popularity and price that the wine drinking public decides it deserves.

  16. Steve M: true what Morton says? Morton: Carmel Valley has yet to light my fire.

  17. Morton–

    There are all kinds of sweet spots in the Napa Valley and in the surrounding hills. It depends on what one likes, of course, but the more distinct black cherry, almost berry character of some Silverado Trail fruit is not less valuable than the dustier, curranty West Rutherford Bench fruit that Inglenook and Beaulieu lucked into more than a century ago.

    By the way, Morton, back in 1976, in the third year of CGCWs’ existence, Earl Singer and I wrote a long article identifying potential Napa Valley sub-appellations. It was Andre and Barney Rhodes who used the term West Rutherford Bench to describe the commonality of growing conditions and wine results from the area that runs roughly from Spottswoode to Dominus in the alluvial fans that have come down out of the hills. To this day, I find the best of those wines leading our tasting of Cab.

    Some folks live Pritchard Hill Cabs. I do when they are not over the top in ripeness. Some folks like Valley floor Cabs like Caymus and wines grown in Georges III. Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder Cabs can be delightful.

    The loss of vines in the Santa Clara hills west of Silicon Valley is truly sad. When the NYC based writer, Mark Golodetz repeated the claret portion of the Paris tasting some 25 years later, with a panel of 16 including several visiting chateau owners, 14 of 16 tasters chose a wine from 1970 Gemello as the outstanding wine and guessed it as Latour.

    The vineyard from which those grapes came is now a 4,000 square foot house.

  18. Steve, thanks for pointing out the Cabernet Sauvignon potential of Happy Canyon and the eastern portion of the Santa Ynez Valley. We have some great Cabs coming from Foxen, Stolpman, Beckmen, and more.

  19. Randy,
    You’re right. Forestville (RRV) station climate data (2,947 WHUs; 11.6% Risk) precisely matches the profile of the “perfect spot” for (an inherently balanced) California Cab.
    In fact, granted the vineyard site encompasses the appropriate physical features (soil, aspect, exposure…), RRV lower altitude, less maritime-influenced areas seem to fit the potential high-end CS profile.

  20. Morton/Steve:

    No. My dad, who’s been retired for years, is looking to move from the South Bay to Napa. There may be a Napa offering from his vineyard under Steven Kent at some time down the road, but I am firmly Livermore Valley.

    Steven Mirassou, Jr.

  21. Steve Waymire says:

    I wonder how your formula would work in France?

    I doubt that bordeaux would make the list. It is probably too cool to make the wines that most Americans like.


  22. On the subject of capital, deep pockets and Cabernet wine quality…

    In then 1960’s/early 70’s “sweetspots” in the Napa Valley were more easily defined. It really had to do with soil and the best vineyards were in deep, well drained, gravely loam where there was often a nice balance and moderate stress on the vine. Places like the alluvial plume off Spring Mountain (Spottswood), Dutch Henry Canyon (3 Palms) Bear Creek (Inglenook, BV) were obvious. Opposite to this and equally obvious were places that were always ignored for viticulture. These were fine, heavy soils with a shallow water table. Great for hay, awful for grapes. Or shallow hillside soils to parched for winegrowing.

    One parcel that never had vineyard in the Napa Valley was a large hay field next to the Oakville Grocery. But some crazy people with pockets stuffed with money, came in, drained the field with expensive subterraneon structures, modified the soil, and planted Cabernet meter by meter on devigorating rootstock trained on vertical trellis. They brought in European tractors and equipment and expertise. The grapes were then made into wine in a pristine temple of a winery, using the finest equipment, best barrels, and top winemakers. The result was Opus One. A notable expansion of “sweetspots.”

    On steep, shallow soils that were too restrictive for vineyard, drought tolerant rootstocks, dense planting, horrendously expensive erosion control measures, water development, and drip irrigation under precise management has expanded that sweet spot further. You see this on Howell Mtn. and in the Mayacamas.

    These examples have been duplicated in too many place to count proving access to capital, deep pockets, and high bottle prices have been of prime importance in Napa Valley Cabernet culture. You cannot generalize any longer.

  23. Charlie,

    You are correct… The average ph for the fat cabs is more like 3.90, which still is not a pretty sight with five full years in btl. Although I will correct you on your statement regarding Dry Creek Cabs. With proper aging (16-20 months) in mostly older brls with a final alc in the 12% range can offer up the most beautiful non-berry profiles out there. I do believe you’d change your opinion on over berryish DCV Cab’s if you had one in your glass. Moreover, I bet you would place it (in a blind tasting) in a much more “respected” growing region than DCV. I agree, most stuff coming from the DCV falls in the fruit bomb, overly berry-driven catagory and is not super fun to drink (IMHO) due to the lack of juicy acid. If the fruit is harvestd with minimal (here comes that pesky word again) shrivel, DCV can grow some serious Cab.

  24. Great topic and I agree with your assessments completely regarding where cab has been and potentially can be grown successfully (and where it cannot). But, the more pressing question, given your cameo appearence in “Blood into Wine” is: “Where do you think Arizona stands in all of this?” I;ve actually had multiple AZ cabs from both the Northern and Southern Vineyards and I’ve generally felt that the vineyard space would have been better suited for, well how should I say it…anything but cab (actually I think the rhones do very well). And then I had a bottle of MJKs Judith Cab from the tiny hillside vineyard in Jerome. My initial impression of the concept was that he had more money than sense but the wine is good…damn good and certainly as good as, if not better than, many of the big names from Napa. Molesworth gave it an “89” but I personally think that is way underrated. Did you try it? What do you think?

  25. Andy, in the movie, they cut out my remarks about Arizona wine, for good reason: I hated the ones I tasted. I didn’t have the MJK you refer to.

  26. Thank you for mentioning Paso, Steve. where we have a number of locales that grow superb Cab. You reviewed a 2004 Byington Cab vineyard designated Cerro Prieto (Paso) in WE, in Sept, 2007, and said: ” I like this wine for the way it mimics Napa cult Cab, yet carves out a distinct identity. Like Napa, it’s dry, soft, and ripely opulent, with rich blackberry, cassis, cherry, cocoa and oak flavors, housed in sweet, finely ground tannins. Yet there’s an earthy, tobacco and sassafras quality that suggests real terroir. 91 pts”. How could I possibly argue with wisdom such as that? Also, it was impressive that you could have described our vineyard so well, never having seen it.
    Our own first bottling of 2006 Cerro Prieto’s Paso Bordo(85% Cab/ 15% Syrah) was rated 92 pts, again by you in Oct. last yr. One thing not known by many, is that we have Pidicularis, a flower in the lily family growing along our 1250 “mountainsides” , and botany texts mention that this lily is found only between 5000-7500 ft elevation. One of the reasons you like some of the better Cabs from our area is that we have mountain Cab climate, albeit at only 1250 feet. This mountain climate(courtesy of the Templeton Gap) greatly affects other Cab vineyards/wineries nearby, L’Aventure, Booker, Saxxum, to mention but a few, and when paired with our limestone soil and Paso daytime heat, we SHOULD be producing great Cabs. We fall nicely into your diagonal line, but it should also be noted that there are indeed some areas in this vast AVA that do not make great Cabs. As you have noted often before, Paso is hard to pigeonhole in that there are so many wildly diverse microclimates and soil types thruout our entire AVA.

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