Vintners in Napa Valley, Sonoma County and elsewhere long have appreciated the expression, structure and power of cabernet sauvignon grown in Lake County.
They bought most of it and added it to cabernets and Bordeaux-inspired blends that bore the name of their own appellation, with no acknowledgment on labels front or back that a substantial chunk of the wine actually had originated in Lake County.
This was fine by Lake County grape growers. They had eager buyers for their fruit. They also were accommodating folk, often letting Napa Valley vintners call the shots in how Lake County vines should be managed.
In recent years, however, Lake County has been developing its own winery scene, and is hanging on to more of its cabernet sauvignon, though about half of it still is being exported to vintners in Napa Valley and elsewhere. (Of the 9,455 acres of wine grapes in Lake County, not quite half of it – 4,133 acres – is planted to cabernet sauvignon, double the acreage given over to the variety most closely identified with the county, sauvignon blanc, which accounts for 2,035 acres.)
In seeking to develop their own identity, Lake County grape growers and winemakers have come to recognize that farming practices that work for wine grapes in Napa Valley, Sonoma County and so forth just aren’t appropriate for their soils, altitudes and exposures.
Compared with Napa Valley, for one, Lake County vineyards are higher, warmer and exposed to more sunshine, rarely getting the kind of fog that hovers over vines to the south. Because of that, grape growers in Lake County are abandoning cultivation methods common in cooler areas for techniques that protect fruit from the intense sunlight of higher altitudes. In Lake County, vineyards typically range in elevation from 1,400 feet to 2,600 feet.
“Farming-wise, we started with a (vertical shoot position) canopy, where the vines are held straight up, exposing the fruit (to sunlight). We didn’t quite understand the effect of ultra-violet radiation on the fruit at these altitudes, which could bleach color during veraison and leave it exposed during heat spells, resulting in desiccated fruit,” says Alex Beloz, winemaker for Tricycle Wine Partners of Sonoma, whose Lake County brand is Obsidian Ridge. (Veraison is the time during the growing season when ripening grapes change color.)
As a consequence, Tricycle Partners changed its trellising and pruning techniques at its Obsidian Ridge Vineyard to provide more leafy protection of grapes from sunlight and heat. “We realized we had to protect the fruit more,” Beloz says in explaining why they let canes and leaves grow more wildly.
Another Lake County winemaker, Gregory Graham, whose eponymous winery also sits in the Red Hills district rising from the west edge of Clear Lake, had a similar learning experience. “At first, in 2004, we tried to farm cabernet (sauvignon) up here as it is farmed in Napa Valley, but you just can’t do that, you end up burning up the fruit. Down there (in Napa Valley) you need a lots of sun exposure; up here you have to be more careful,” Graham says.
Joy Merrilees, who began making cabernet sauvignon in Lake County in 2002 when she was with Steele Wines at Kelseyville, says farming changes adopted by growers and more savvy cellar practices introduced by winemakers are having a “tremendous” impact on the character and quality of the county’s cabernet sauvignons.
Lake County cabernet sauvignon today is better balanced and developing its own style, one characterized by softer tannins, gentler alcohol, rustic notes suggestive of leather and iron, and a thread of pyrazine, a category of compounds that gives cabernet sauvignon herbal attributes often likened to eucalyptus, menthol and mint, says Merrilees, now the winemaker for two Lake County wineries, Shannon Ridge and Vigilance.
I got a sense of that when our panel at the Lake County Wine Awards Competition this summer evaluated 14 cabernets spread through two classes, one group priced under $25, the other $25 or more. In their youth, we discovered, Lake County cabernets tend to be fairly rigid with tannins, but after just a year of aging the tannins retreat. Here are my favorites from the judging:
Obsidian Ridge 2013 Lake County Red Hills Obsidian Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): Frankly, not my favorite overall entry because of its stern tannins. Nonetheless, enough alert and pretty red fruit peeks out from behind the wine’s tannic curtain for it to be named our best-of-class and to tie for best red wine when considered by all judges in the sweepstakes round. Give it a year or two to mellow.
Cache Creek Vineyards 2012 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): In contrast to the Obsidian Ridge, this cabernet is ready to drink now, given its silky texture and voluminous expression of red berries and dark cherries.
Boatique Winery 2014 Red Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): We could agree only on a bronze medal, but I thought it gold-medal worthy for its animation, gracefulness and persistence, its fresh cherry flavor layered with a pleasing thread of menthol.
Shannon Ridge 2012 Lake County High Valley Home Ranch Single Vineyard Collection Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): By Lake County standards, an unusually rich and layered take on the varietal, not as slim and firm as most entries. It shows by the freshness and length of its fresh fruit how approachable cabernet from the county can be with just a little aging.
Fore Family Vineyards 2012 Lake County Red Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($32): Another husky interpretation, juicy and well built, with an uncommon but not unwelcome seam of bacon coursing its way through the bright fruit.
Gregory Graham 2012 Lake County Red Hills Crimson Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($30): The most elegant contender in the lineup, principally for its clean fruit, sleek lines and abiding if understated complexity.
Shannon Ridge 2013 Lake County High Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon ($23): Our best-of-class from the under $25 category and our only double-gold medal cabernet, largely for its youthful spirit, layering (cherries, berries, spice, olives and olive leaves) and a richness that came off more buoyant than heavy. (A double-gold medal is awarded when all members of a panel concur that a wine warrants gold.)
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.