Fine SOB Cabernet

Fine SOB Cabernet

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.

Geek Speak: FARMING PHILOSOPHIES

When I talk about fine wine, the first two considerations are Person and Place. Person refers to the living Motive Force that drives the quality of a wine or wines. That person may be an owner or and estate manger or a winemaker but whoever it is has, within the context of the property in question, the power to effect quality in positive fashion. They are the decision maker behind the wine. Place refers to the specific vineyard or vineyards where the gapes are grown. The Person can have a great deal to do with the Place. The Person choses to farm in the Place, chooses how to farm, and chooses how to make the wines.

IN THE VINEYARD
Those Farming choices (a sort of philosophy of farming) range from chemical-driven commercial agriculture through sustainable farming to organic farming and on to biodynamic farming.

Commercial farming is farming with a lot of chemical inputs in the form of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers, often with a big dose of irrigation. Practitioners say commercial farming gives them the most control and I suppose they’re right. the problem is that there is little if any microbial or beneficial insect or other life left in the vineyard with all that control so the soil is dead and the vine needs the fertilizers in order to grow.

Sustainable Farming means farming in such a way that the land is nourished and not poisoned. Sustainable grape farming often means using organic methods, fertilizers, and solutions wherever feasible but allowing non-poisoning chemical treatments (that nevertheless disqualify the farm as “organic”) when they are necessary. The idea of sustainable farming is to keep nutrients in the soil and pollutants out of the soil and plants while still maintaining an economically viable crop.

Organic Farming excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and plant growth regulators. As far as possible organic farmers rely on crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures, and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and tilling, hoeing, and plowing to supply plant nutrients, push down roots, and control weeds. Insect and spider control is accomplished by using sexual confusers, facilitating predator insects, and building bat boxes to encourage bat populations. Birds and rodents can be controlled by encouraging predators (owls, hawks, and even barn cats) to take up residence near and hunt in the vineyards. Some wineries keep cats to hunt gophers and install raptor perches so hawks that hunt grape eating birds and rats will have a vantage point from which to hunt. International organic farming organization IFOAM states “The role of organic agriculture, whether in farming, processing, distribution, or consumption, is to sustain and enhance the health of ecosystems and organisms from the smallest in the soil to human beings.”

Biodynamic Farming is an ecological and sustainable farming system, that includes the principles of organic farming. It is based on eight lectures given by Rudolf Steiner shortly before his death in 1925. Steiner believed that the introduction of chemical farming was a major problem and was convinced that the quality of food in his time was degraded. He believed the source of the problem were artificial fertilizers and pesticides, however he did not believe this was only because of the chemical or biological properties relating to the substances involved, but also due to spiritual shortcomings in the chemical approach to farming. Steiner considered the world and everything in it as simultaneously spiritual and material in nature and that living matter was different from dead matter.

While all the elements of organic farming are present, biodynamy further specifies homeopathic treatments and a timetable dictated by celestial (mainly moon and planet) events. Biodynamic Farming is seen by many as organic farming taken to a the next level. Most scientists say that the preparations used in biodynamy are too dilute to have an effect. Nevertheless, biodynamic grape growing often produces fruit of fantastic quality and that fruit is often made into fantastic wines. My original thinking on biodynamic farming was that the bump in quality came because adherents of biodynamic practice often spend more time in the vineyard than other farmers. That would validate the old French saying that “The best thing for a vine is the sound of the vigneron’s (vine-grower’s) voice.” I now know that there is a whole lot more to it.

Organic and biodynamic farming encourage the presence of a robust microbial (yeasts, bacteria, fungi, etc.) population in the vineyard. These microbes are in the soil and on the vines and even on the surrounding flora in the vineyard. This is not new. What is new is that we now understand that this complex inter-related microbial population is the mechanism that brings terroir (specificity of place) into the wine. Each vineyard has its own specificity and that uniqueness is expressed in its microbial population. All the aspects of terroir are important but the microbes are the way they get into and are expressed by the wine.

IN THE CELLAR
When it comes to wine, “organic” come in various shades or degrees. While organic farming usually produces excellent grapes, organic winemaking often produces pretty lame wines. There is some specialized lingo here. Here’s the scoop on Organic Wine vs. Organically Grown.

Organic Wine is wine made using organic methods from organically grown grapes. Organic winemaking precludes the use of sulfur in the winemaking, cellaring, and bottling processes. Because sulfur is not used, organic wines may be sought after by those suffering from sulfite allergies. For most others, organic wines are to be avoided due to their inherent flavors of oxidation and spoilage.

Sulfur, SO2 – Sulfur in the form of SO2 (sulfur-dioxide) is widely used in winemaking both as an anti-oxidant and as an anti-microbial agent. It is virtually impossible to make “clean” wines without sulfur. Judicious use of SO2 helps keep wines fresh tasting and stops the microbiological spoilage that can give many so-called organic wines off putting (often dirt, sometimes fecal, occasionally chemical) aromas. Wine made using sulfur may not be labeled “organic”.

Sulfur may be used at different places in the process. While many commercial wineries dose the incoming grapes with sulfur dioxide to kill off anything microbial coming in from the vineyard, Fine Wine producers not only don’t do that, they encourage those microbial populations to transition in to the winery and encourage microbes indigenous to the winery as well. Those indigenous winery microbes are the mechanism by which the character of the winery get in to the wine. So there are actually two terroirs present in a properly made wine: the terroir of the vineyard and the terroir of the winery.

Organically Grown on a wine label means just that; the grapes were grown using organic farming methods but the winemaking was not organic – at least in that sulfur was used. Organically Grown incorporates the best of both worlds: great farming and clean wine making. Much of the best grape farming done today incorporates as much organic and even biodynamic principle as possible. Many wineries are leaning that direction and they seem to be divided into three camps: Sustainable Farming, Organic Farming, Biodynamic Farming. Some practice but never enter the certification process, some certify at on level but practice at the next rung up. Quintessa is certified as biodynamic while Opus One farms using biodynamic principles but apparently has no plan to get certified as biodynamic.

The more organic or biodynamic the farmer works, the better the fruit will be (all other things being equal) and the better the health of the soil. Better fruit and healthier microbes give the best raw materials to make fine fine.  Responsible winemaking with sulfur dioxide added until after malo-lactic fermentations are complete allows both terroirs to translate into the finished wine while stopping spoilage and oxidation.