Every June, the Walla Walla Wine Alliance coordinates Celebrate Walla Walla, a weekend exploration of one of the Valley’s most popular grape varieties. For 2016, the focus was on the King of Grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon.
Because of its vigor, Cabernet Sauvignon is planted in just about every wine region around the world; but for its popularity, the grape is comparatively one of the younger varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon is a hybrid between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc that ampelographers (botanists who specialize in the classification and identification of grapevines) believe naturally occurred sometime during the 17th Century.
“It’s a relatively new grape in the world of wine,” says Chuck Reininger. “It’s ironic because its character is actually that of the stoic old man. Cabernet Sauvignon grows slow and steady; it has plenty of endurance, is bold and strong. Generally speaking, there is a lot to be extracted from it compared to other grapes. It used to be known as Vidure, a bastardization of two French words that essentially means ‘hard vine.’ Cabernet Sauvignon is known for having a harder wood, which goes along with its character of an old, stoic sage. It’s always reliable and in for the long haul. From my expedition climbing background there was a phrase—Slow endurance—that makes me think of Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Here in the Walla Walla Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading red varietal. The Walla Walla Valley sits at a 46 degree latitude, parallel to France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. Like France, the soils of the Walla Walla Valley are diverse and mineral rich. Many of the vineyards are planted atop wind-deposited loess leftover from the Missoula Floods, with some areas overlaying basalt bedrock, silt loam and cobbly loam. Whether its basalt cobblestone near the floodplains of the Walla Walla River and Mill Creek or the wind-swept soils on the Valley Floor, the Walla Walla Valley is perfect for growing Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Walla Walla Valley’s latitude, with cooler evening and hot dry days, allows the Cabernet Sauvignon to have a long hang time on the vine. For the region, the grape has a later bud break compared to other varieties, thus most of the time avoiding early spring frost damage, if there is such an episode. On the flip side, it’s prime ripening time is after the autumnal equinox, which extends the hang time on the vine, but makes the fruit more susceptible to early fall frost.
In more southern latitudes where the nights are warmer, the grapes lose their natural acidity; Here in Washington State with our northern latitude and much cooler nights, the grapes maintain this acidity, giving the wines a really great balance. Oftentimes, southern regions have to balance their wines through acidulation (adding the acid to the wine). “The beautiful northern latitude that we have here provides us with wonderful opportunities to have balance in a Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Chuck. “But also with its later ripening, it slows the ripening process down to allow for wonderful phenolic ripening.”
Its small berries, thick skins and small juice to skin ratio allow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to have a deep phenolic ripening that allows winemakers to extract more from the grape skins than most varieties. “When we talk about phenolic extraction, flavonoids come from there, color, and tannins.”
Tannins, which create that dry, puckering sensation when you consume red wines, can be found not only in the skins of grapes, but in the seeds and stems. They are a natural antioxidant, and help prevent the wine from oxidation which may lead to spoilage. Cabs, in particular, have an enormous seed to pulp ratio which increases the amount of tannins extracted into the wine and helps with the longevity of the wine. With balanced natural acidity and high tannin levels that are perfect for aging, it’s no wonder why the Walla Walla Wine Alliance chose to focus its weekend festivities on the King of Grapes this past June.
Celebrate Walla Walla: The World of Cabernet Sauvignon included 60 local winemakers, three internationally known winemakers, two Master Sommeliers and four celebrated chefs. The weekend started off with a vintage pour highlighting vintages from 1984-2009 from 32 wineries, and included two nights of winemakers dinners around the valley, a grand tasting, and a winemaker panel with our very own Chuck Reininger.
Chuck sat on a panel with Walla Walla Vintners’ Gordy Venneri; Waterbrook Winery’s John Freeman; Thomas Burke from Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux in Bordeaux, France; Thomas Brown from Rivers-Marie in Napa Valley, California; and Patrick Vallete from VIK in Millahue Valley, Chile. This celebrity panel provided ticketholders a rare opportunity to not only learn about Walla Walla’s unique terroir, but to taste six internationally acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon wines from these winemakers.
Stay tuned for The World of Cabernet Sauvignon with Chuck Reininger, Part 2, where we’ll explore the 2012 REININGER Cabernet Sauvignon that Chuck poured during the winemaker’s panel. We’ll break down the 2012 harvest, the elevage used for the vintage, and how our current 2013 vintage compares.