We met Kimberlee Nicholls, winemaker at Markham Vineyards, at a tasting put on by local public TV station KCET to celebrate the short TV series Vintage: Napa Valley 2012, which features Nicholls and fellow winemakers Marisa Taylor and Elizabeth Vianna (and, yes, Ms. Vianna, we will get to you). Nicholls was pouring the Markham cabernet sauvignon. We know, we make fun of all the snootiness surrounding Napa cabs. We didn’t know how much the Markham wines went for, so the price was definitely not influencing us. We were blown away – enough to cough up the $35-plus to buy another bottle. So who better to talk about the cabernet saubvignon grape than the woman who makes the one we love?
We did have to do this via email, however, which means that Nicholls pretty much wrote the post for us (thank you, Kimberlee)
1.) Cabernet sauvignon is everywhere! Why is that?
Cabernet Sauvignon is a very adaptable grape. Budbreak is later than other varietals in the spring making it a better suited for locations with cold winters, frost concerns or high elevations. With its thick skins and small berries set on loose clusters, Cabernet is more resistant to an occasional bit of unfavorable weather throughout the growing season. It is a huge benefit that Cabernet is grown everywhere allowing us to further our knowledge of wines made from this fantastic grape. There are more clonal selections (clones are individual variations of the grape, just like the different types of apples) of Cab than any other varietal, making for unlimited amounts of research available in practically every region of the world. Ultimately this has helped all of us make informed vineyard planting decisions by being able to match soil type with specific weather conditions to successfully achieve our winemaking goals.
2.) Why is there such a range in prices on cab sauv?
As with any grape varietal, land value is always going to dictate a large part of the bottle price. At Markham Vineyards, we produce our estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards purchased in the mid-70’s. As you can imagine, land in Napa Valley was a bit less expensive than what you might find if you were looking to purchase a vineyard today. Then you need to add in the planting, difficulty of farming, especially on hillsides, and the price continues to climb on that bottle of wine. With its small clusters, Cabernet is not known for producing high yields and vineyard diligence is necessary to grow the best fruit. In order to get Cab truly ripe, care must be taken in the vineyard to allow filtered light to each cluster which helps burn off the bell pepper character inherit to the varietal.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape/wine with a proven track record for age-ability. When grown in the best locations, the tannins extracted from its skins require more aging than most other varietals. It is why such great care is taken from the vineyard all the way along to the bottle. Hand picking in the field and additional sorting as the fruit arrives at the winery must make the grape feel like a rock star, not to mention that it is the last thing to be picked demanding full attention as the closing act during harvest. Cold soaking, specialized yeast treatment and extended maceration only further enhance the terroir or ‘sense of place’ that truly great Cabernet embodies. Barrel aging layers more nuance (and cost, of course) to enhance the your wine as you patiently wait upwards of two years before finally blending and bottling your masterpiece. But wait… there is still another several months up to an entire year as the wine rests in the bottle before it is ready to be released. Cabernet is truly an investment in time that people rarely understand. A winery may have as many as 3-4 entire Cabernet vintages in tank, barrel and bottle at any given time.
3.) If I see cab sauv on a label, what should I expect to find inside? (Flavors, colors – how do I know it’s a good one?)
Cabernet Sauvignon typically has a deep, garnet color. Color is your first indication on any wine and the color will let you gauge the concentration and/or age of the Cab in your glass. Cabernet an expressive wine, it allows you to taste the place where it was grown, exactly how it was made and even to guess at its age. An older wine may have a bit of crystal on both the cork and shoulder of the bottle. These tartrates occur naturally as wines ages, tannins and acid soften and fall out of the wine, allowing for delicate floral and caramel aromas to dance in your glass. Young Cab tends to be chewy, full of intensity and often makes your teeth black. Many prefer to age Cabernet, giving it time to settle down and drinking around 8 years from the vintage shown on the bottle.
When you open your bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, spend time to focus on the clues it is providing. Can you smell and taste mineral notes from the chalky soil in which it was grown? Was it from an especially warm vintage and overflowing with jammy, blackberry fruit? Or maybe it was grown in a colder climate, full of earth and brooding darkness throughout. Was there a eucalyptus tree in the vineyard where the Cabernet was grown because you taste mint? Is it dark and chewy or supple, like a velvet glove on your palate? What type of barrels did the winemaker use, does it have more vanilla, toasty oak or was it smoky with mocha and roasted coffee character? Can you smell hint of violets from the Petit Verdot or the Cabernet Franc that was blended in? By sharing the experience with a friend, you can not only enhance your experience but develop your vocabulary. Wine should make you relax, add friends and a bit of food to magically transform all your wines into lasting memories!
And there you have it. Yum!