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A Clan of Cabernets
NM: Tasting the 2006 Starmont Cabernet and the 2005 Merryvale Cabernet, the one thing that immediately strikes me — differences in fruit quality notwithstanding — is the vast differences in their flavor profiles. The Starmont seems prettier, a bit more showy, floral, and berry-like, whereas the Merryvale seems a much more restrained a linear in it flavor profile, with less obviously berry qualities and more of black currant and spice.
SF: Our intent with the Starmont Cabernet ($27) was to be a bit more attention-grabbing and easier-drinking. This is a wine that we want people to pick up a bottle that's perfect for them to take to a party that same night and consume, while also having enough stuff where it can last a few years, too. And fruit sourcing drives a lot of that — we're working with valley floor fruit that's got good color but probably not as much tannin as hillside vineyard sourcing does. Now, when when get to the Merryvale Cabernet ($50), we're dealing with more well-drained soils and some hillside vineyards, which produce wines that are denser and darker, with more tannin and extract, and early on they can be a bit more brooding and less obvious. But these are wines that are meant to age, and are perhaps not as much for consuming right now; they'll reward with some cellaring. Not to say that they're undrinkable right now, but if you lay these down for 3-5 years, what you'll get, once the tannins soften in bottle and other components goes through secondary development, is a wine that's more supple and better balanced, and some of the complexities that might be hard to pick out now will come forward. And then once we get to the Profile line of Cabernet ($125), those are even higher in tannin, but those tannins are very soft and approachable.
"What's the difference between a Cabernet at a $50 price point and one that's over a $100 price point? A lot of boils down to site."
So that brings up a larger question: what's the difference between a Cabernet at a $50 price point and one that's over a $100 price point? A lot of it boils down to site: you're going from tannins that could use a bit of aging in order to soften, to tannins that are phenomenally supple early one. And so, summing up the three tiers of Cabernet: with the Starmont, we've got wines that are very fruity without a lot of tannin; with the Merryvale, we've got more concentration and therefore more tannins to balance that out; and finally, with the Profile, even though the overall concentration might be comparable to the Merryvale tier, we're getting a better quality and complexity of the tannins, which is really the main factor in how we choose what goes into the Profile line.
NM: That brings up the whole subject of tannin, or physiological, ripeness in general. There's a curve of physiological ripeness that's different from sugar ripeness, that has as much, if not in some ways more, of an impact on the resulting wine. And so this entire other variable comes into play with the decisions around site selection, microclimate consideration, picking times, etc. Obviously, these are factors you already take into consideration, especially with the different levels of wines that you make, in terms of which decisions may be appropriate for one wine versus another.
SF: Ideally, we would love all of the grapes to get to a harmonious sweet spot, right? But the reality is that it just doesn't happen in every given vintage, and different vineyard sites have different challenges. And you're right: there's ripening of the sugars and flavors in the fruit, and then there's maturation of the tannins, which is critical for Cabernet. I'd love to be in place where the fruit ripening and the tannin ripening intersect at one point. This gets back to knowing what you want from a winemaking perspective, but then also knowing and managing the vineyard, and being more of a farmer so you can maximize your desired results even before you pick the fruit.
NM: So, in a sense, the vineyard becomes a laboratory in itself: you're wanting to control, or at least understand and predict, as many of these variables as possible, by making choices — crop thinning, water and nutrition restriction, canopy management, etc. — that you feel will 'mold' the fruit and ultimately maximize the expression of what you're ultimately wanting in the bottle.