"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Cabernet Sauvignon At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Relatively easy to grow Vigorous; need to control leaf growth through rootstock, soil, and clone-matching as well as managing irrigation
High quality in wide variety of terroirs, performing best on well-drained gravels; best to avoid vigorous fertile soils Can withstand cold to an extent
Yield (potential)
Relatively high, depending on vigor and winemaker intent; must be managed
Growth Cycle
Late budding (less prone to spring frost) – later ripening
Prone to oidium and powdery mildew, but otherwise resistant to rots and pests/insects Vines susceptible to eutypa

Growing and Making Cabernet Sauvignon (In California)

The style of wine is often dictated by the geographical region and quality of its grapes. With Cabernet Sauvignon, wines range from inexpensive, tasty, unoaked examples for everyday drinking to top-tier, mesmerizing versions from vaunted terroirs and reverently aged in select French oak barrels that cost over US$1,000 each. To quote the great wine authority Karen MacNeil in her celebrated Wine Bible, “Few other red wines in the world have cabernet’s counterintuitive ability to combine …power and elegance. I think it’s this capacity to embody, in one split second, two contrapuntal ideas that makes the great cabernets so intellectually fascinating…”

Working The Land

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of “terroir” -- the natural environment in which vines grow -- along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that soil influencing what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and wine research facility, did a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all winegrapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste). They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is most certainly up for further debate. That said, here is a brief review of how Cabernet Sauvignon, according to the classic view, expresses itself in the glass, based on the type of soil in which it is grown.

Alluvium/Alluvial Fans: Each alluvial fan has its source from a single channel of run-off from the mountains and is usually made of various sizes of sediment. These soils are well-drained and vines grown on them typically have very deep root systems. Depending on the size of the sediment, an alluvial fan will have a different degree of slope. Larger debris is sloped more steeply, but rarely more than 10 degrees. Vines grown on benchland soils are usually healthy and produce high-quality grapes. 

  • California locations: Napa Valley (Rutherford Bench, Oakville, etc.), Sonoma County (Dry Creek Conglomerate, Alexander valley), Lodi (Mokelumne River), Paso Robles (San Miguel), Santa Barbara (Happy Canyon).

Loams: Loam is a nearly equal mix of silt, clay and sand, as well as an organic matter called humus, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms. Loam is very fertile and typically causes vineyards to be over-vigorous. Because of the vigor, most loam soils produce wines that have little flavor and color. Despite this fact, loam soils offer great potential if vineyards undergo rigorous pruning.

  • California locations: There are no specific regions to call out.

Mountain/colluvial soils: Mountain fruit is often compact and concentrated, its berries tiny from seasons of struggle and loaded with flavor due to lower yields. Very good for Cabernet, as the accompanying thermal amplitude elongates the growing season and ripening.

  • California locations: Sonoma’s Moon Mountain, Sonoma Mountain, Fountaingrove; Napa Valley’s Mt. Veeder, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Atlas Peak; the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Gravels: The texture of gravel can range from pebble-like to larger. It absorbs heat and reflects it onto grape varieties, particularly at night when temperatures cool. This allows a region to make wines that are fuller and richer than they typically would be otherwise in the same climate. Gravel encourages the vine to send its roots down deep in search of nutrients, while gravel beds above limestone subsoils produce wines with noticeably higher acidity than those above clay.

  • California locations: Gravelly soils can be found in many locations, especially near riverbanks.

As with many other varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon can be a delicious wine either as a stand-alone (e.g. mono-varietal) or by combining it with related grapes of the Bordeaux family, notably Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. While these wines may still say Cabernet Sauvignon on the label (if they are minimally 75% Cabernet for US standards and 85% for EU standards), many carry proprietary names, e.g. Opus One, Insignia, Montebello, Quintessa. As with all other varieties, diversity can also be magnified by choice of clones/selections of grapes.

Officially, there are some 67 clones officially authorized at UC Davis. For the longest time, the lion’s share of Cabernet planted were the celebrated Concannon “heirloom” clones that we know of today as Clones 7, 8 and 11. As previously mentioned, their lineage traces back to Bordeaux in 1883 and their endurance is a result in part to Concannon wines being preferred by the Archdiocese of San Francisco during Prohibition. The backbone of California’s Cabernet industry was built on these three clones, registered at UC Davis in 1965. Interestingly, but making a lot of sense, a number of Cabernet clones in California made their way here via South America, specifically Chile, where pre-phylloxera plant material was introduced from Bordeaux by wealthy Chilean families returning from France in the early to mid-1800s. Other heirloom clones come from celebrated spots - clone 31 (Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard), clone 24 (Laurel Glen) and Clone 40 (Mount Eden). 

For more information on clones created in California, visit UC Davis’s Foundation Plant Services on the Cabernet Sauvignon Grape Variety

As managing vigor is an important issue with Cabernet, to mitigate herbaceous character and balance fruit/vegetation, matching soil to rootstock selection is critical. On deeper soils with high-vigor potential, low-vigor rootstocks are chosen. Consequently, in shallow soils or on hillsides, drought-tolerant and higher vigor roots stocks are preferred. While planted across the state, most premium Cabernet Sauvignon is planted in the north coast and mid-central coast areas and as a rule is trellised in VSP (vertical shoot position), with spur (cordon) and cane pruning to balance sun, minimize rot and allow for canopy management (leaf plucking, etc.). Coupled with spacing and appropriate vine density planting (high versus low number of plants per acre), these choices can make the difference between high quality or not. 

For a deep dive on Cabernet rootstock developments, visit SevenFifty Daily’s Can Rootstock Trials Save Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?

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Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world, and– together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state– has made California wine a leader in addressing climate change.