A Natural History of Cabernet Sauvignon

We’re right in the thick of Celebrate Walla Walla, a weekend event dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the world’s most recognized varietals. Tomorrow, Walla Faces is hosting a wine-pairing dinner at our vineyard, overlooking acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that are just beginning to flower. With all the focus on this beloved grape, we decided to take a look at the fascinating history of the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal.

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How did this grape variety come to be?

All wine grapes are Vitis vinifera, a species of grape that has been harvested since the Neolithic period between 10,000 and 4,500 BC. The exact origin of Cabernet Sauvignon, however, has been the subject of many wine-related rumors. “Sauvignon”, people speculated, sounds remarkably similar to the French word ‘sauvage’, meaning “wild”. This led some people to hypothesize that Cab Sauv may be derived from the wild Vitis vinifera vines that used to grow throughout France. Others hypothesized that the grape was a subset of the ancient Biturica grape, a grape variety that was cultivated in France by the Romans in the first century AD. Cabernet Sauvignon’s name in the 18th century, Petit Bidure, was used to support this claim.

The mystery was finally solved in 1996, when a geneticist from UC Davis named Dr. Carole Meredith provided micro-satellite DNA data determining Cabernet Sauvignon’s true origins: Cabernet Sauvignon was a cross between two other well-known grape varieties: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc! Her research demonstrated that the crossing likely occurred in the 17th century by mere chance; two adjacent vineyards containing the two parent varieties led to an accidental cross-contamination… creating one of the most popular red wine grapes ever.

From its birthplace in the Bordeaux wine region, the grape spread across Europe and to the New World due to both its hardy nature, with thick skins that can easily withstand mold or frost, and its rich, full-bodied taste.

Currently, Cabernet Sauvignon is cultivated on 262,000 hectares (650,000 acres) every single year. You can find it growing in almost every wine-producing region of the world. Cab Sauv came to Walla Walla in the early 1970s. It now takes up 41% of the planted area.

Walla Walla Wine History

Walla Walla has a rich history of winemaking that traces back to 1859, when A. B. Roberts established one of the first grape nurseries. This nursery contained eighty European grape varietals that had been imported from Champoeg, Oregon.

The wine industry quickly took off in the 1860s and 1870s, when a gold rush in Idaho brought miners through the Walla Walla Valley. Because of their lush vineyards, supply posts were able to sell not only traditional supplies, but grapes and wine to satiate travelers. Even these early vineyards were able to harvest 50 tons of grapes per year.

This locally-produced wine was also sold at local storefronts. For example, Frank Orselli, an Italian immigrant, established a winery at the height of the gold rush. He annually made 42 oak barrels of wine from Muscat, Black Prince, and Concord grapes. His wines were sold at a small bakery right downtown, on the intersection of Second Avenue and Main Street.

Additionally, by 1882, locally produced wine was available in all of Walla Walla’s 26 saloons.

Unfortunately, deep freezes in 1883 and 1884 viciously wiped out the majority of the local grapes. Walla Walla typically experiences a very cold freeze about every six years. Although these freezes do harm the Walla Walla wine industry today, we now plant vines at higher elevations and bury shoots to help mitigate the damage.

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The Walla Faces Vineyard in the Snow

Even more devastatingly, by the turn of the century, the Idaho gold rush had ended, putting a huge damper on the influence of the wine industry. When Prohibition came to Washington state in 1917, thanks to the Anti-Saloon League, the influence of the formal wine industry completely disappeared.

Walla Walla citizens turned to homemade wine. They were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year without a permit. Grapes came not only from Walla Walla, but from Marysville, Sunnyside, and Stretch Island. Grappa, a fragrant, grape-based brandy, was also frequently made in homes, although Federal agents were able to shut down some of these illegal distilleries.

At the end of Prohibition, Zinfandel grapes were shipped via train from California. The wine was made by Italian immigrants. In the the 1950s, a variety of winemakers attempted to start commercial wineries. The first attempt was by Bert Pesciallo. Unfortunately, another deep freeze in 1955 shut down many of the attempts to revive the wine industry.

Finally, in 1977, Leonetti Cellars opened, triggering a wave of commercial wineries. A mere seven years later, the area became federally recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). At that time, it covered only 60 acres of vineyards and included just four wineries. As Walla Walla wines began to get national recognition, the wine industry began to flourish again. Now, over 175 wineries operate out of the Walla Walla Valley, including, of course, Walla Faces.

What is Barrel Tasting Weekend?

One of our most beloved holiday traditions has just arrived: Holiday Barrel Tasting Weekend! This festive event offers an exclusive opportunity to taste future vintages before they make their way into the bottle. We have carefully selected a few of our favorite barrels to help provide a unique and exciting sample of Walla Faces wines. This is the perfect opportunity for those of you who can’t wait for this wine to make it into the barrel!

This is also your first chance to check out our new winery at the airport. This tiny location forms the backbone of Walla Faces’ wine production operation. We are actively working on new projects right now. Drop by, get a sample, and meet our assistant winemaker, Victor De La Luz, who is bustling about the winery, hard at work.

Downtown, at the Tasting Room, we have opened up a bottle of our Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the Matthew. It is named for our head winemaker, Matt Loso. This fruit-forward Cab was made from the free run of 100% Walla Faces Estate Cabernet grapes and is normally not available to the general public.

We hope to see you this holiday weekend! Cheers!

The Walla Faces Tasting Room at 216 East Main St. is open 1-6pm.
The Walla Faces Winery at 598 Piper Ave. is open 11-5pm.

A look at the Walla Faces 2012 harvest!

 

The decision about when to harvest is one of the most critical steps in the wine-making process. If you harvest too early, the undeveloped tannins will lead to a grassy flavor and a bitter wine. If you harvest too late, winter weather conditions may destroy the entire crop.

Walla Faces harvests our grapes later in the year than most other wineries, a luxury afforded to small vineyards, to ensure that the grapes have had sufficient time to mature. Our pesticide- and herbicide-free vineyard is 10 acres of juicy Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes, two varietals that take longer to reach the ideal sugar and acid level. For 2012, Walla Faces is also producing a Tempranillo and a Merlot blend that use grapes from other vineyards. Tempranillo, whose name comes for the Spanish word for “early”, matures quickly. Consequentially, our 2012 Tempranillo was well into its time in the barrel by the time we harvested our Cab and Syrah.

This year, we harvested on October 31st and November 1st. In the days preceding harvest, we kept a very close eye on both the ripeness of the grapes, testing them for sugars and acids to ensure a perfect product, and on the weather, waiting for clear skies. On Halloween, we had a perfect storm of beautifully ripened grapes and crisp, dry conditions.

Every year, we assemble a crew that handpicks our grapes off the vines. They move quickly, allowing us to completely harvest our grapes in a mere two days.

When harvest is over, the grapes are immediately taken to be crushed at a crush pad. Unlike table grapes, wine grapes do not last once they have been picked, so they need to be crushed immediately.

If you have a patient palette, be sure to keep an eye out for the 2012 vintages from Walla Faces. It was a perfect harvest, so our wines are sure to be wonderful as well. In the meantime, drop by the Walla Faces Tasting Room at 216 East Main St. and pick up a bottle of the 2008 vintages.

October at the Walla Faces Vineyard

Cab_SauvIt’s October and starting to get a little chillier in Walla Walla! Even though many of us are starting to abandon our summer apparel of shorts and tank tops for sweaters and hot beverages, the grapes at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard are still soaking up the sun.

Leaving the grapes on the vine longer allows for that perfect balance of sugar and acidity. Harvesting too early will mean that there is not enough sugar and too much acid. The resulting wine will lack aroma and will often have a “grassy” flavor. Because our vineyard is a very small 10 acres, we are able to be sensitive to changes in the weather, allowing us to harvest at the perfect time. Often, we hold off on harvesting until November. This year, we anticipate waiting another two to three weeks to harvest, depending on the weather. Harvest typically takes only two to three days of hard work.

rows_of_syrahThe luscious grapes aren’t the only thing vineyard visitors are likely to notice. Ever since the grapes underwent veraison, the process by which grapes turn from green to red, they have been a juicy treat for wandering birds. Consequentially, we use speakers playing a soundtrack of “birds in distress” to ward off hungry pests. Thankfully, even though this is the only pest-control measure we use, we have never had a problem with birds!

The grapes are not just a treat for birds- they are a treat for humans as well! When you bite into one of the Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah grapes growing at the Walla Faces vineyard, you will be surprised by the opulent sweetness. Although the grapes are very sweet now, much of that sugar will be converted to alcohol during fermentation. Wine grapes are also smaller, softer and juicier than table grapes. The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have a subtle hint of cherry with a deep fruitiness, whereas the Syrah taste almost like blueberries. This will contribute to the ultimate flavor of the wine, although these differences are significantly enhanced during the wine-making process.

Both the skin and the seed also hold important clues about the wine. The skins play an important role in the wine, giving it both its color and most of its flavor. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have very thick skins, allowing them to be robust, age-worthy wines. The Syrah has slightly thicker skin than the Cab, making the tannins more prominent in that wine.

The seeds help give clues about the ripeness of the grape. As the berries ripen, the prominent seeds inside the grapes change from green to brown. Looking at the seed color is a quick and easy way of assessing ripeness.
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Overall, our grapes are coming along very nicely. File this away for future knowledge: 2012 is sure to be an amazing vintage!

All photos in this post were taken Saturday, October 6, 2012 at the Walla Faces Estate Vineyard.

Why Walla Walla for Wine?

There are about 700 wineries in Washington state, making us second only to California in wine production. Over 100 of these Washington wineries are situated in the Walla Walla basin. So what helps our beautiful grapes grow so well in this area?

Walla Walla means “many waters” in the Native American language Sahaptin. These waters flow down to this small town at the foot of the Blue Mountains, irrigating the 1,800 acres of grapes that grown in the region. In addition to vineyards, Walla Walla is known for its orchards, wheat, and onions, all of which benefit from the amazing rivers that flow throughout the area. Because Walla Walla does not get much rainfall, growers can perfectly control the amount of water their grapes receive for the most delicious product.

Washington State
The complex history of the Walla Walla soil has also helped facilitate the wine industry. 15,000 years ago, glacial floods brought mineral-rich silt to the area. Heavy winds deposited a form of silt called loess into the soil, allowing for the perfect amount of drainage for the grapevines. Finally, volcanic eruptions covered the area in rich ash. Volcanic ash breaks down quickly and releases minerals when it is in contact with the sun, making it ideal for nurturing growing vines. (Indeed, most world-renowned wine regions, from Napa to France to Italy to Germany have benefited from volcanic ash in their soil.)

Cabernet GrapesBecause Walla Walla is on latitude 46°, just like the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France, it has long summer days and short, cool nights to create the perfect balance between sugar and acidity in the final wine product. Regardless of the stereotypes about Washington as a super rainy state, during the 200-day long growing season, Walla Walla has two hours more sunlight per day than California. Thanks to Walla Walla’s extended summer, grapes can be left on the vine longer than they can in most places. Walla Faces, for example, often doesn’t harvest until the middle of November.

It’s no wonder that Walla Walla has been producing some of the best wines in the country since in the mid-1980s.

The first grapes were planted in Walla Walla as early as the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the industry really began to take hold. Although Walla Walla originally gained notoriety for its Merlot, it is now producing some of the most delicious American Syrahs and Cabernets. 41% of the grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley are Cabernet Savignon, followed by Merlot and Syrah. These luscious reds should not be missed. Our delicious white-peppery Syrah, smooth Fusion Cabernet blend and fruit-forward Reserve Cabernet all benefit from the amazing region where they are grown.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Riesling, Ice WineWalla Walla has even more to offer than the wine. Walla Walla has a myriad of upscale restaurants, a rich art and music scene, beautiful historic buildings, lush parks including a locally-run aviary, and a the longest-running symphony on this side of the Mississippi River.

If you want to visit these exceptional wine-growing conditions yourself, make your reservation at our hotel at the vineyard here.