Not all wines are created equal. There are many variables that can affect the quality and profile of a wine; from weather conditions, to the quality of the grapes harvested, to the winemaker’s skill. Some wineries create their wines for specific demographic markets and price points. Large scale productions may want to make affordable wines that appeal to a mass audience, by blending grapes from different locations to achieve consistency year after year. Boutique wineries may craft single-vineyard wines that highlight the unique characteristics of the region’s soil and climate- the terroir. These are just two examples of different winemaking philosophies and goals that can result in dramatically different styles from the same varietal.
While the information in this post applies to all varietals, I am partial to Cabernet Sauvignon, so that will be my reference and examples throughout. Also, though Cabernet Sauvignon is grown all over the world, my focus is on California, because that is where I live, and the wines I know best.
I was at my local Total Wine & More store a few weeks ago, partaking of their weekly wine tasting. They were pouring two Cabernets; one from Sonoma, and one from Lodi. A couple at the tasting bar next to me was enjoying the wine, but they were asking questions that made it clear they were relatively new to the wine experience. They did not understand why two wines made from the same grape, both from California, would taste so different. Always eager to educate people about wine, whether they want it or not, I talked to them about the differences in climate, terrain, and soil and that influence the resulting wines. (They appreciated the tutelage…or so they said.)
Both Sonoma County and the Lodi Region (in Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties in the Central Valley) are in Northern California. While both regions have a lot in common, they have their differences, too. Perhaps most notable is that Sonoma is a coastal county, whereas Lodi is inland. Several mountain ranges separate the two regions, isolating Lodi from the cooling marine influences found in Sonoma.
Although I can personally attest that both Sonoma and Lodi can be darn hot in the summer, Sonoma can get a bit cooler at night from the influence of evening ocean breezes. This cooling can make a difference in how grapes taste, with the Sonoma grapes ripening slightly slower and later. I find that Lodi Cabernet is often bursting with ripe fruit flavors, because of the hotter growing season, while Sonoma Cabernet tends to be more restrained and nuanced.
Terrain and Soil
Wine grapes grow best when the vines are stressed. This sends the vine into survival mode, and causes the roots to dig deep to find water. As the roots dig and locate water, they absorb minerals from the soil. Soil in different regions has varying mineral composition and density. The influence of these minerals in the grape causes variations in taste. This is the terroir that we wine geeks talk about. Terrain and location also play a factor. Grape vines like hillsides. An east-facing vine gets morning sun and evening shade, but west-facing vines get the afternoon heat. Thus, terrain and location affect the speed and timing of ripening.
Blending and Labeling
What many casual wine drinkers don’t realize is that winemakers blend to achieve their desired result. It surprises a lot of people to learn that, in the United States, a wine labeled Cabernet Sauvignon need have only 75% Cabernet in it. The other 25% can be any combination of other varietals, used to soften harsh tannins, or add structure, or simply to achieve a desired taste profile.
The other key factor with blending and labeling has to do with the region, appellation, or American Viticultural Area (AVA.) Once again, labels can seem misleading. Laws relating to location designations vary, depending on the designation. If a label identifies a wine as a California Cabernet Sauvignon, then 100% of the grapes used in production must have come from California. (For other states, that requirement is just 75%) However, this means the grapes could have been grown all over the state, from Napa, Sonoma, Lodi, Amador, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, or any other location. These grapes are processed and blended to produce the wine. This regional blending eliminates any sense of terroir, but results in smooth, easy-drinking wines.
If the label specifies the AVA (Lodi, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, etc.), including sub-appellations (Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Calistoga, etc.), 85% of the grapes must have been grown in that AVA. This allows for blending of up to 15% of grapes from other regions. Again, this blending is used to balance and improve the wine. However, with AVA designated wines, dominated by local grapes, will retain the characteristics that made those regions great.
I Just Want My Cabernet
For many wine consumers, none of this matters. They just want a Cabernet and don’t care where it comes from. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I live by the motto: Drink What You Like. Yet, if you want to learn more about wine, compare different bottles of the same varietal. Grab a California Cabernet, in which the grapes could have been grown anywhere in the state and blended. Compare that with a Lodi Cabernet, grown in the hotter Central Valley, or one from cooler Sonoma County. Finally, splurge on a sub-AVA specific Cabernet from the Napa Valley region, like Rutherford, for example. Or explore Oakville, or Calistoga. Take your pick. Now that you have three or four wines for comparison, prepare some hors d’oeuvres, invite some friends over, and have yourself a tasting party. I predict you will be surprised at the differences between the wines. Yes, same grape, but different location, different terroir, and different blends. Let me know in the comments what you think, and which you like best.