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Dick Minnis
September 15, 2016 | Dick Minnis

Newsletter: Fall 2016

The Crush: We’ve combined the Vineyard and Winery sections for our Fall Newsletter, because at this time of year there is little difference between the two. All the functions of Bray Vineyards coalesce around what we call “The Crush”; our favorite time of year. This has been atypical, that is to say, another great summer for growing grapes in the Shenandoah Valley. Although we did have a number of warmer periods with temperature spikes around 100 degrees, the delta breeze kicked in, as usually happens, modifying any potential negative effect on the vines. Our white varietals were picked in mid-August, which is normal, and their must is now slowly undergoing fermentation in the glycol cooled stainless steel tanks. A fermentation at lower temperatures preserves the lighter aromatics of the Verdelho and Viognier varietals, and the slower pace allows more lees contact which adds complexity to the wines. 

Our red varietals are rapidly approaching their peak ripeness and flavor, and harvest will occur in a staggered fashion from the middle of September on into early October. The lone exception is a section of our Sangiovese which we picked in early September. These grapes are destined to make a sparkling blush wine. Champagne style wines are typically made from grapes with lower sugar and higher acidity levels, hence the early harvest. We are really excited about this wine and it should be ready for release in the spring of 2017.

If you have not visited Bray Vineyards in a while, then you are in for a pleasant surprise! We have given our tasting room a modest makeover. The new décor presents a more contemporary appearance while preserving that down-home comfort that is the mark of our friendly approach to wine tasting. We think you’ll like the changes.

UPCOMMING EVENTS: There are two events that you might like to put on your calendar for this fall. The first is the annual “Big Crush” weekend scheduled for October 1st and 2nd. Bray Vineyards will be joining the other wineries of the Vintners Association in providing a wine tasting extravaganza for your enjoyment. Specific details are available at Amadorwine.com 

Our Fall Wine Club Release is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, November 12th from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Eric Burns will be demonstrating his expertise at the grill with his famous BBQ’d oysters, while Steve Waranietz will be on hand with songs and his unique talents on the keyboard for your entertainment. There is no charge for Wine Club Members, and the fee for guests is $10.00 per person. Please RSVP no later than October 31st.

Trivia: One of the smaller plantings of Vitis Vinefera at Bray Vineyards is Cabernet Sauvignon, and this month’s trivia section will delve into its origin and history. A relative newcomer on the Vitis Vinifera scene, Cabernet Sauvignon has been around for less than 250 years. Not a long time for a varietal that has become the most planted red wine grape in the word with slightly over 721,000 acres in cultivation. Thanks to a DNA analysis preformed in 1969 at UC Davis by Carole Meredith, we now know that this important varietal is a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. This seems to be obvious in retrospect, since the name Cabernet Sauvignon would appear to be a combination of the names of its two parent grapes. However, what is not generally appreciated is that the cross fertilization of the two parent vines was purely accidental and that the exact time and place is unknown. Historians now believe this spontaneous cross occurred sometime before the mid-18th century, and somewhere in the Gironde Department which includes the Bordeaux region in Southwest France. (A French Department is an administrative subdivision of the French Government,similar to a U.S. county). 

Like most varietals with uncertain origins, a paucity of facts didn’t prevented Cabernet Sauvignon’s past from being augmented with undocumented conjecture and romantic myths. One theory, which appealed to local pride, was the idea that the varietal was a wild grape native to France. The sole corroboration of this theory relied on the fact that the word “sauvignon” was thought to be derived from the French word “sauvage” meaning wild. Unfortunately for the local boosters, native Vitis Vinifera vines have never been recorded in the Gironde area, which would preclude Cabernet from being a native grape. Early on, there was some speculation that Cabernet could actually be the famous “Bituric” vine described by Pliny the Elder in his description of ancient Roman wine culture. Given the prolific nature of the wine trade between Rome and its settlements on the Iberian Peninsula, it does offer a plausible avenue for how Cabernet was introduced into the Bordeaux region. However, in reality, one could conceivably argue that any popular varietal bore at least some resemblance to a very general description in some ancient Roman text. Still, this ancient origins hypothesis was prevalent in the 18th century, and Cabernet was often referred to as Petite Bidure, with Bidure being a possible corruption of the word Biturica. The earliest written documentation of Cabernet was found in an account book kept by the Mayor of Libourn and written sometime between 1763 and 1777. The entry lists the varietal as “Petite Cabernet”. By the late 18th Century, Cabernet was becoming a popular Bordeaux varietal, and a 1784 grape catalogue listed it as “Gros Cavernet” with the description of it being a “black, top quality for making good wine, rather productive, and deeply colored” grape.

Early on, Ampelographers noticed several morphological similarities between the leaves and wood of Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc, while winemakers noted that Cabernet also shared some of the aromas of both Cabernet Franc (blackcurrant, pencil box) and Sauvignon Blanc (herbaceous, grassiness). Perhaps these similarities were responsible for the evolution of the “Gros Cavernet” name into Cabernet Sauvignon.The first mention of the modern Cabernet spelling,however, didn’t occur until nearly a hundred years later in 1840. The wine world was surprised when Cabernet Sauvignon’s genetic parentage was established, because at the time no one thought you could get a black grape with one white berried parent. Interestingly, in 1977 a Cabernet vine at Cleggett Wines in Langhorne Creek, South Australia mutated and started producing pinky-bronzed berries and was registered under the name “Malian”. In 1991 a vine propagated from “Malian” started to produce white berries and was registered as “Shalistin”, bringing at least one clone of Cabernet full circle and back to being a white grape.

Records indicate that the first estates to begin actively planting Cabernet Sauvignon were Château Mouton and Château d’Armailhac. Both vineyards were in Pauillac, and on the west or “left” bank of the Gironde River. These two vineyards were also the most likely source of parent vines used to spread Cabernet throughout Bordeaux. Cabernet eventually became the dominant grape on the left bank of the river, while its half-sibling, Merlot, dominated the blends of the”right” bank. In 1855, Napoleon III requested a classification system for France’s best Bordeaux wines based on both the Château’s reputation and the wine's trading price. The five First Growths, or Premier Crus, were all on the left bank where Cabernet Sauvignon usually comprised at least 70% of the Bordeaux blend. In all likelihood, it was this dominance in the blends of the Premier Crus wines of France,and the impetus to imitate them that saw Cabernet Sauvignon planted in all the major wine growing regions of the world.

Imitation may have been the initial reason for the surge of world-wide Cabernet plantings, but it would not have been enough if the varietal did not also possess several other admirable characteristics. Ease of cultivation was certainly important. Cabernet’s vines are hardy and adaptable to a variety of climates, and they produce thick skinned berries resistant to both insects and rot. The vines are also late to bloom which helps in avoiding frost damage. However, Cabernet’s main selling point is the ability to consistently produce wines that have the character, structure and flavor typical of the varietal. This typicity means a Cabernet, whether grown in Bordeaux, Australia or the Sierra Foothills, is still instantly recognizable as a Cabernet. 

Initially, soil was thought to be a critical aspect of the terroir for growing quality Cabernet. The varietal did significantly better on the gravely soils of the Gironde’s left bank than it did in the clay and limestone-based soils of the right. Inasmuch as Cabernet has thrived world-wide in a variety of soils, it is now believed that the gravelly soil of the left bank better retained the heat that helped the grapes ripen fully. The degree to which the fruit ripens is the key difference between the different Cabernets of the world, and that is, of course, a function of the growing climate. A late-budding grape like Cabernet will also reach full phenolic maturity later in the season and can fall short if the growing conditions are not favorable.

The predominate Cabernet aromas in cooler growing regions are black currant, mint, cedar and varying levels of bell pepper. In warmer climates, the black currant is joined by black cherry and black olive with noticeably less herbaceous overtones. In hot climates, the black currant can veer towards over-ripe or jammy. The green bell pepper or herbaceous aroma is caused by the chemical pyrazine which is present in all Cabernets, but is gradually destroyed by sunlight as the grape ripens. Pyrazine is not considered a fault by itself, but it is also not to everyone’s liking, so fully-ripe grapes are considered more desirable. Mint flavors tend to be associated with regions warm enough to eliminate the pyrazine, but still be classified as generally cool. Some winemakers believe that warm climate herbaceous notes may be a characteristic of the soil type. In cooler climates, less-ripe Cabernet grapes are often blended with fruitier varietals like Merlot to mask the pyrazine. 

The classic profile for a Cabernet Sauvignon is that of a full-bodied and tannic wine with crisp acidity. These attributes gives the wine excellent aging potential. However,quality and ageability can be affected by several choices made either in the vineyard or winery. Originally, Cabernet was considered a low yielding variety, but vines planted on modern Phylloxera-resistant rootstock tend to produce higher yields with a resultant loss in flavor and concentration in the wines. This is often countered by thinning the crop shortly after veraison, or in some cases, replanting on less vigorous rootstock. Early French Bordeaux’s were so tannic as to be unapproachable in their youth. This had less to do with the grapes natural tannins than early French winemaking practices. Tradition dictated a three week maceration period on the skins prior to fermentation which allowed ample time for the staff to close down the winery and take a short hunting vacation. Today, modern winemakers can easily control the tannic content of the Cabernets by controlling punch-down techniques, pre and post-fermentation skin contact, and pressing strategies. 

The last piece of the puzzle is oak: how much and what type. The standard Bordeaux “barrique” is 225 liters (59gallons), and its success in France has helped make barrels of that size an almost universal world-wide standard. Cabernet Sauvignon, even more than other varietals, has an affinity for oak. The oak tannins soften and complement the harsher grape tannins and add complex notes of vanilla and spice to round out and complement the wine’s intrinsic aromas. American oak typically exerts a stronger influence on the wine than French oak does. Which one to use is often more a style consideration than anything else. It is what makes comparing different Cabernets from the same region fun.

Cabernet Sauvignon made as a 100% stand-alone varietal is all the rage in California, especially among cult wine aficionados. The rest of the wine world takes a slightly different view however. Stand-alone Cabernets can be found in all major wine regions, but blending this versatile grape to mask its deficiencies and highlight its strengths is a more common practice. The classic "Bordeaux blend" is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and occasionally, in small percentages, Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carménère. Different percentages of these grapes in different vintages have proven adept at rectifying any short comings the growing season may present with the individual grape varietals. 

However, even in warmer climates with more consistent growing seasons, Cabernet has been paired with other regional stars to produce complex, flavorful, and long-lived wines. Italy was introduced to Cabernet in 1820, but over the years the varietal was used sparingly in that it was a foreign grape that distracted from the elegance of the native varietals. All that changed in the 1970’s when outside the control of Italian wine laws (Denominazioni di origine controllata or DOC), Italian winemakers began to combine Cabernet with Sangiovese producing a blend they called “Super-Tuscans”. These blends caught on quickly and soon became some of the most sought-after and expensive wines in Tuscany. Eventually the DOC changed the rules, and today Cabernet can be legally blended with a number of different Italian varietals. 

The Spanish wine industry was famous mostly for its Sherries, also known as “sack”, which were produced in Jerez in southwestern Spain. The Phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800’s changed that, as consumers looked to Spain to replace the diminishing French production. French winemakers, grapes and techniques crossed the Pyrenees in the process. While political upheavals and wars later devastated the Spanish wine industry, Cabernet Sauvignon stuck around. The 20th century revival of Spanish winemaking has found a match for Cabernet and Tempranillo with the former providing structure and the latter adding notes of voluptuous fruit to the mid-palate. 

Unrestrained by tradition and with no indigenous grape varietals or appellation laws to contend with, the Australians were free to innovate. Initial attempts at winemaking in the coastal areas were hampered by too much rain and humidity, while vineyards in the western areas suffered from late frosts. The discovery of the Hunter Valley in 1797 provided an ideal environment for winemaking which was encouraged by the Government as a way of promoting sobriety. The concept being that wine had a lower alcoholic percentage than distilled spirits. In 1830 James Busby brought over 500 clippings back from Europe, including Syrah from Hermitage in the Rhone Valley as well as Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux. The Australians have never looked back. Their counter-intuitive blending of two big wine varietals or “Cab-Shiraz” can produce wines of character and flavor that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Due to variable micro-climates and different winemaking techniques, California Cabernets are all over the map, covering nearly every conceivable style. The current Bray Vineyards release is our 2011 vintage which was a cooler than normal growing season. Consequently, the wine’s mixture of black currant and blackberry has just the slightest suggestion of bell pepper and a touch of smoke on the finish. This is a medium-bodied and very approachable Cabernet with soft tannins and lively acidity. Visit us and try a taste!

Remember, if you have a question that is looking for an answer, then email it to : newsletter@brayvineyards.com

Website: Brayvineyards.com is the place to go for additional information on the winery, upcoming events, and past issues of this newsletter. It is also the online store for our current inventory of direct shipment wines, any available library wines, Bray logo clothing, and other winery paraphernalia. If you can’t visit us in beautiful Amador County, then perusing the website is the next best thing.

Tasting Room: Our tasting room is open every day except Tuesdays from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. In October our featured wines will be the 2012 Barbera and the 2012 Primitivo, both on sale during the week of the “Big Crush” for $99 per case. In addition to the lineup of wines offered for tasting, we have a red table wine available in a refillable one-liter bottle emblazoned with Bray’s tractor logo. With the grapes ripening and the harvest in full swing, now is a great time for a visit. We look forward to seeing you soon!


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