If you want to drink the best wines, look for the SOB.
Huh? You know, wine made from Sustainable, Organic, or Biodynamic grapes. Why is that important? Commercial farming is based on control with lots of chemical inputs and fertilizers and use of chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides to control weeds, pests, and fungus. They do that but they also kill many of the beneficial microbes (yeasts, bacteria, molds, etc.) and beneficial insects and earthworms in the vineyard. SOB farming does not use chemical inputs and remedies so SOB vineyards have healthy microbial populations that support healthy insect and earthworm populations which aerate the soil (keeping the soils alive) and prey on detrimental insects. And, as it turns out, that healthy microbial population is also the means by which terroir or a sense of place is transmitted into the wine.
Fine Wine (which is a definable thing) comes from an identifiable Place and an identifiable Person. That place is where the grapes are grown and that person, whether the owner or estate manager or winemaker, is the motive force behind why the wines are grown and made and taste as they do. That motive force decides whether to grow (or buy) SOB grapes with which to make their wines. And they decide what techniques to use in the winery. A Person who goes to the trouble to grow SOB grapes is likely to refrain from dosing said grapes with sulfur-dioxide (an antimicrobial) when they come into the winery. And they are likely to keep a clean-but-not-sterile winery that has its own beneficial population of yeasts, bacteria, and fungi. Further, they are likely to let those two healthy microbial populations (vineyard and winery) interact to generate a beneficial Indigenous Yeast Fermentation.
So when a winery harvests grapes from an SOB vineyard, they bring a sampling of the natural microbial population of that vineyard into the winery with the grapes and those microbes, if allowed (by the Person who is the motive force) work with the natural microbial population of the winery to express both the Place of the vineyard and the Place of the winery into the wine. This indigenous yeast fermentation starts much more slowly with a greater variety of yeasts (and other microbes) doing the work and transmitting their flavor inputs than a cultured commercial yeast fermentation. The result is a more complex set of flavors making it into the fermenting wine.
If all of this happens and the Person behind the wine makes other good decisions throughout the process, the result can be wines that move beyond being “just” fine wines into Great Wines that show real excellence. For me, the hallmark of that excellence is wine that is Layered, Textured, and Dimensional (LTD). And the vast majority of all the wines I’ve tasted that I find to be LTD wines are made from SOB grapes with an indigenous yeast fermentations.
Here’s my selection of some of the best of the SOB Cabernets from California I have tasted (and drunk) lately. None of these wines are blockbusters and, although they sell well in steakhouses, none are what I think of as Steakhouse Cabernets. Rather, they are elegant balanced, nuanced wines that often exhibit layering and textures and dimension. These are what I think of as Great Wines.
ARAUJO EISELE ESTATE Cabernet, Napa Valley, 2013 ($485.89)
100% biodynamic Cabernet Sauvignon given an indigenous yeast fermentation in temperature-controlled tanks with pump-overs. Aged 20 months in all French oak barrels (all new). Purple-red color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with balanced acidity and medium chewy phenolics. Rich and ripe but completely in balance. Elegant and lovely with delicious dark and darkest red fruit. Layers in tobacco and gravel-earth with notes of spice and cedar. Stunningly good in its freshness and richness and over all pleasure it gives. Integrated, Complete. Layered-Textured-Dimensional BearScore: 100.
RIDGE Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2014 ($178.99)
An all estate, sustainably grown (at yields of less than 1.5 tons-per-acre) blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petite Verdot from genitically diverse vineyard blocks given an indigenous yeast fermentation and an indigenous,naturally-occurring malo-lactic fermentation. Aged 17 months in 100% new air-dried oak barrels (97% American, 2% French, and 1% Hungarian). Deep-dark-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Lovely, balanced, elegant, supple very Cabernet-tasting red offering tobacco and spice with graphite and dust and hints of ceda and black pepperr. Complete, integrated, delicious. Nuanced. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. Stunningly good wine that stacks up with the very best wines made anywhere in the world. BearScore: 100.
OPUS ONE, Oakville Napa Valley, 2014 ($289.74)
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, and 2% Malbec grown organically on the estate’s vineyards. Indigenous yeast fermentation in temperature contolled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers. Aged 18 months in all French oak barrels (100% new) 2014 was the earliest budbreak in winery history. Red-purple colo with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium phenolics. Supple, dusty-juicy, alive. Delicious ripe complex but focused Cabernet with tobacco, dust, cedar, and subtle graphite. This is one of the very best Cabernets made in Napa Valley today. Balanced and complete. Already drinkable but a wine to keep. BearScore: 98+.
QUINTESSA, Rutherford, 2014 ($165.99)
A biodyamically grown, estate-bottled blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, and 3% Carmenere fermented with indigenous yeasts in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks using pump-overs (21 to 25 days average maceration) and aged 21 months in French oak barrels (85% new). Red-purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Riper and richer. Supple and delicious with juicy red and some black fruit accented with tobacco, black pepper, dust, cedar and more. Long and delicious. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. YUM. BearScore: 96+.
INGLENOOK Rubicon, Rutherford, 2013 ($161.47)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate’s certified organic vineyards fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 Months in 100% French oak barrels (75% new). Red-magenta color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Supple rich elegant classic (not modern) Cabernet . Red fruit and tobacco with spice and graphite. Balanced. Subtle. Integrated. Complete. Layered-Textured-Dimensional. BearScore: 96+.
INGLENOOK Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, 2013 ($66.49)
A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petite Verdot, and 2% Merlot from the estate’s certified organic vineyards fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 months in 90% French & 10% American oak barrels (50 new). Red color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium chewy phenolics. Elegant balanced Cabby Cabernet. No manipulation or over ripeness. Just lot of classic Napa Cabernet Fruit with tobacco and graphite and a welcome bit of dust. Takes a minute to open up but more than repays that bit of required patience. Quite Delicious. BearScore: 94.
TREFETHEN Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll – Napa Valley, 2014 ($45.99)
A blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 6% Petite Verdot, and 2% Merlot (all sustainably grown on the estate’s main ranch) fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers and aged 18 months in 59% French 31% American, and 10% Hungarian oak barrels (48% new). Purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly acidity, medium phenolics. Supple focused elegant Cabernet. Lovely pure focused balanced red fruit and tobacco. Delicious. BearScore: 93.
HEITZ Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, 2012 ($221.99)
100% Certified Organic Cabernet Sauvignon fermented with blocked malo-lactic (very unusual in red wine making) and aged 1 year in Oak tanks followed by 30 months in French (Limousin) oak barrels (100% new), no ML Deep-red color with well formed legs; dry, medium full-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Lovely supple, ripe, juicy. Darker red fruit with herbal notes of tobacco and euchalyptus to go with some dusty earth and integrated oak. BearScore: 95+.
HEITZ Cellar Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, 2010 ($84.99)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon (certified organic) fermented with pumpovers but blocked malo-lactic fermentation. Aged 1 year in oak tanks and then 30 months in all French (Limousin) oak barrels (all new) No MLdeep-dense-red-purple color, and with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity, medium phenolics. Dusty tobacco, cabby red with all red fruit. Elegant and balanced. BearScore: 93+.
HEITZ Cellar Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2012 ($48.99)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, all from the estate’s vineyards and almost all organic (Oak Knoll is farmed organically but not yet certified. Fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with pumpovers to start and finished in American oak tanks. 1 year in oak tanks, 2 years in French Limousin Barrels (some new). Unusually, Heitz’ Cabernets get no malo-lactic fermentation. One additional year of aging in bottle before release. Deep-dark-red color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly-balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Supple, fresh, lively, tobacco and red fruit Cabernet in a balanced, elegant, decidedly Claret style. BearScore: 91+.
GRGICH HILLS Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2012 ($56.97)
A blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon with 12% Merlot, 5% Petite Verdot, and 4% Cabernet Franc all from the estate’s certified organic vineyards. Aged 21 months in all French oak barrels (60% new) and then aged 2 years in bottle before release. Purple color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics. Classic old-school Napa Cabernet with chewy, lively fresh darker-red-and-some-black-fruit accented with notes of tobacco leaf, graphite, cedar, and dusty oak. Delicious. BearScore: 94.