My turnaround on cabernet sauvignon from the Sierra foothills began one day last fall as I stood at the tasting counter of Hart 2 Hart Vineyards at Pilot Hill in El Dorado County.
Dominic Mantei was pouring tastes of wines he makes on the premises, some bottled under the brand Hart 2 Hart, others released with the label Everhart Cellars.
I was impressed by how fine, fresh and frisky the lineup was, but when he got to the Everhart Cellars 2013 Pilot Ridge Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) I realized by the wine’s authority and balance that I needed to revisit cabernets from the foothills, which never have been closely identified with the varietal.
Granted, over the years, a cabernet sauvignon from the Mother Lode has been recognized with this or that high award on the competition circuit or drawn praise from a wine critic, but they have been rare compared with the respect given other red wines of the area, namely zinfandel, barbera and syrah.
Subsequent to my visit with Mantei, I rounded up about two dozen samples of current or pending releases of cabernet sauvignon made from fruit grown in the foothills and tasted them blind. Afterward, I talked with several of the vintners responsible for the more impressive releases to learn about growing cabernet sauvignon and making the wine.
By and large, the cabernets I preferred shared clarity, freshness and a structure that met the twin goals of providing immediate enjoyment while also heightening the likelihood of a long and rewarding evolution. In flavor, some tilted to the freshness and snap of red fruits, others to the deeper richness and layering of darker fruits. Cabernet’s inherent suggestion of eucalyptus and mint was quietly evident in several, but none was obnoxiously herbal. They were wines more of nuance and sociability than clout and severity.
How are vintners in the Gold Country accomplishing this? For one, they’ve been paying attention to how various clones of the cabernet-sauvignon grape perform in the hot and arid region. As a consequence, some have switched to strains that better retain the variety’s freshness, firmness and fruit despite the area’s challenging setting.
For another, they’ve often altered their growing practices, particularly trellising techniques to better shelter bunches of maturing grapes from the region’s notoriously searing afternoon sun. “I changed the architecture of our trellising system to favor the side (of the vines) that faces the afternoon sun,” says Chaim Gur-Arieh, winemaker at his and his wife’s C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery in El Dorado County. “This way the shoots on the side of the afternoon sun lean forward to provide shade to the fruit. It’s made a big difference. The temperature dropped 5 to 8 degrees. The fruit ripened without dehydration.”
And in the cellar, they’ve learned blending methods that elevate cabernet’s character without adding distraction. Several favor cabernet franc, such as Mark Burch of Chacewater Winery in Lake County, where he makes a cabernet sauvignon with grapes grown in Nevada County. “With cabernet sauvignon up there you don’t get a lot of herbal character. Cabernet franc has a bit of clean pyrazine flavor that adds an extra layer of complexity and brings out a bit more of cabernet sauvignon’s varietal character,” Burch says.
At Wise Villa Winery of Lincoln, winemaker Kevin Luther also exploits cabernet franc in his cabernet sauvignon. “Cabernet franc here has some interesting blueberry fruit, floral components and green character. It’s similar to cabernet sauvignon but is so aromatically expressive. It makes cabernet sauvignon even more varietally correct, though that sounds counterintuitive,” Luther says.
At C.G. Di Arie, Gur-Arieh not only adds a dash of cabernet franc to his cabernet sauvignon but also a bit of the Portuguese grape touriga nacional. “The touriga really gives it a kick,” Gur-Arieh says. “I like to preserve the identity of the variety. I want a cabernet sauvignon that smells and tastes like a cabernet, so I don’t add anything to compete with it or to change its identity. Touriga gives cabernet a nice kick without changing its identity.”
Here, then, are the most positively impressive foothill cabernet sauvignons from my tasting, in descending order of preference:
Di Arie 2012 El Dorado Cabernet Sauvignon ($39): I favored the 2012 over the also very likeable 2011 ($39) for its slightly more vibrant, savory and graceful representation of cabernet sauvignon. The 2012 packs more alcohol (14.9 percent) than the 2011 (13.7 percent), but both stand out for their flipboard nature, revealing another side of the varietal with each sip – cherries and olives on one page, tobacco and eucalyptus on the next.
Coppermine 2011 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon ($26): In working with fruit from Gold Hill Vineyard in El Dorado County, Rich Gilpin shaped one of the brighter and leaner cabernets to emerge from my tasting, yet it was exceptionally fragrant, vivacious and sharp.
Easton 2011 Shenandoah Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): With the structure and endurance of Bordeaux as his model, Bill Easton invests generously in the sort of thin-staved French oak barrels he believes soften the variety’s firm tannins and adds complexity in both aroma and flavor to the finished wine. His 2011 is both grounded and spunky, its lush red fruit punctuated here and there with suggestions of cocoa, cedar and spice.
Chacewater 2014 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon ($22): A lean build, sweet fruit and chirpy acidity add up to a cabernet sauvignon that’s alert and fun.
Madroña 2014 El Dorado Cabernet Sauvignon ($28): A model of cabernet’s reputation for persistence and graciousness. On one hand it is a veritable echo chamber, repeating over and over its suggestions of bay leaves, cherries, olives, menthol, cocoa and tea. On the other, it is both ready to drink now but by its structure and acidity assures the buyer that it will be no less pleasant a decade from now.
Wise Villa 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($39): At first impression, the Wise Villa seems light, but its subtlety is deceiving. It quickly opens to suggest all sorts of sunny fruit – berries, cherries, plums. Then its understated complexity registers – minerals, smoke, spice. Its acidity is sound in grip, its finish resolute.
Tiger Lily 2014 El Dorado Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): Tiger Lily is John MacCready’s second label for wines made at his and his wife’s Sierra Vista Winery outside Placerville. Tiger Lily was the name of a winery established in El Dorado in the 1850s. At any rate, the 2014 is a lithe and lively take on cabernet sauvignon, its juicy red fruit shot through with suggestions of smoke, cocoa and herbs. It stood out for its equilibrium and steadfast finish. Another MacCready cabernet, the Sierra Vista 2013 El Dorado Ancient Vines Reserve ($34), was equally inviting for its clarity, suppleness and classic bones.
Cedarville Vineyard 2014 El Dorado Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): Peppy red-fruit flavors bolt out of the gate at first sip and don’t let up until long after the glass is empty. The wine’s sweet fruit is counterbalanced by broad streams of smoke and vanilla from oak. Cedarville winemaker Jonathan Lachs says he doesn’t hold back on the use of new oak barrels for his cabernet sauvignon because a clear statement of wood is part of the varietal’s traditional identity. “We want this wine to be luxurious,” says Lachs of the 40 to 50 percent new oak barrels he uses for cabernet sauvignon. “Cabernet deserves it.”
Milliaire 2013 Calaveras County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18): Steve Millier likes his wines to state loudly and clearly what they are meant to be, and his cabernet sauvignon is no exception. It speaks with precise enunciation of the rich, ripe, blooming and lingering side of cabernet. It is dry, medium-bodied, balanced, complex and on the red-fruit side of the varietal’s sensory scale.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.