Cabernet Sauvignon: Master Class

Welcome, winemaking students, to the Master Class on Cabernet Sauvignon. To begin this class we will go over the syllabus and start with a brief history, an introduction of the guest lecturers, the curriculum overview, and hammer home the most important facts about making Cab Sauv that I want each of you to take away and put to use in your home wineries. The focus in this article will tiptoe, dance, and stomp around the three concepts of source, ripeness, and tannin management — as they are of the highest importance to the Cab Masters who will contribute to this class.

A short, savage history of the world’s favorite grape:

Many wine drinkers are ignorant of the fact that Cabernet Franc is a far older wine varietal than Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Sauvignon seems to be the rock star of the Bordeaux wine firmament — especially after Merlot was caught lip-synching in the movie Sideways. But truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. In the 1600s in the area between the Languedoc and Bordeaux (southwest to south-central France), an accidental cross was created hybridizing Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Yes! That’s right, Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between a red and a white grape, and of course has been genetically modified by farmers/winemakers for almost 500 years by field (massal) and clonal selection.

Cabernet Sauvignon gained popularity in Bordeaux, France after Mouton’s properties had great success with the grape and were able to share cuttings and help the area build their acreage of planted Cabernet Sauvignon. From a few acres at Mouton, Cabernet Sauvignon has now eclipsed every other winegrape in the world for global dominance, with more than 850,000 acres dedicated and producing in 2018.

Cabernet Sauvignon is not considered a “noble grape.” Noble grapes are those that are rarely, or never, blended and are considered to make a perfect and “whole” wine with no added blending components. (Examples commonly posited are Pinot Noir and Riesling.) It took until 1976 for varietally-labeled Cabernet Sauvignon to launch into the rarified air of global fine wine when a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon received the highest score in a blind, French wine competition hosted by Steven Spurrier: The Judgement of Paris. Being chosen by French wine experts over first growth Bordeaux changed the wine world dramatically and gave Cabernet Sauvignon a spotlight (and blue chip brand name) that has yet to dim.

As the muscle in red wine blends (Bordeaux, Super Tuscans, and Meritage being the most famous examples), there is nothing in the wine world as popular as Cab Sauv. Its popularity among growers increased exponentially in the varietal’s youth (and maturity) because of a durable skin, resistance to foul weather like hail and rain, its deep color and tannin structure, its love for a French/Gallic tradition of storing/aging wine in oak barrels, its propensity for long-term aging, and how fantastically it was received with cuisine. Cab Sauv is now blended with almost every red grape on the planet to add tannin, depth, structure, color, and density.

Meet the Professional Winemakers of the Cabernet Sauvignon Master Class

Clay  Brock:

After growing up in the Napa Valley where his dad managed vineyards, Clay Brock seemed destined for a life in wine. He wasted no time in building his credentials, starting with earning a degree in Agricultural Business Management from California Polytechnic State University located in the heart of the Central Coast. Clay fell in love with the region, which was just beginning to gain a reputation for the quality of its wines. So, after graduation, he put down Central Coast roots when he accepted the post of Assistant Winemaker at Byron Winery. He later became Winemaker at Edna Valley and then spent seven years at Zaca Mesa as Vice President of Winemaking.

In 2008, destiny called again when he took over as Winemaker at Wild Horse Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles where he was given freedom to craft his own approach to winemaking. His accomplishments were recognized in 2010 when he was named Winemaker of the Year by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and the Central Coast Vineyard Team.

“Making wine is a balancing act,” Clay says. “Yes, there are things we can do once the fruit is picked to bring out the best in the grapes. But it’s also critical to not interfere with the magic that takes place in the vineyards.”

In 2013, Clay became the General Manager and Winemaker for Estancia in Monterey County. Having vast vineyards while working for Estancia gave Clay more leeway to make wines that expressed the Central Coast.

In March 2016, Clay assumed the role of Director of Winemaking for Turn Key Wine Brands. In his new role Clay can work with fruit from prestigious sources and a wide array of varieties from sought-after appellations.

After 30 years in the wine industry, Clay continues to say “I still believe I have the coolest job on the planet.”

Clay’s Experience with Cabernet Sauvignon:

“I worked a single vintage (1991) at Robert Sinskey Vineyards as Cellar Master (Stag’s Leap Estate fruit and a little Carneros AVA from Truchard Vineyard) and was able to work with some amazing Cab fruit at this point in my career. The winery is on the famed Silverado Trail in Napa, California.”
“In 1997 I made the Edna Valley Reserve ‘Simpson Vineyard’ Westside Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, about 300 cases if I recall correctly. This would be in San Luis Obispo County, California.”

“From 2008–2012 I was able to make five vintages of Wild Horse Core Cabernet Sauvignon –About 40,000 cases annually of the broad market wine, and the “Unbridled” Reserve was around 1,000 cases annually. This was in Templeton, California, just south of Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County.”
“While winemaker at Estancia I made two vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon for the broad market, 2013 and 2014 vintage. The production was about 230,000 cases annually of Cab Sauv, and we also produced a Meritage (containing Cab,) at about 30,000 cases annually. Estancia’s production facility is near the Lodi-Woodbridge area in Northern California, between Sacramento and Stockton.

The Essence of Cabernet Sauvignon is . . .

“For me it is adequate weight or density, without being heavy. Black fruit, cassis, cedar, balanced alcohol. I believe extended time on the skins provides opportunity (not guaranteed) for longevity. Site trumps viticulture.”

Clay’s Cabernet Sauvignon Home Winemaking Protocol:

• Harvest around 25.5 °Brix

• Gently crush fruit

• 40 ppm SO2

• Inoculate 1 gram/gallon BDX yeast, prepared as instructions dictate

• Manage the cap by punching down 2–3 times per day

• Seal fermenter at about 0 °Brix and gas daily

• Allow 40+ days total skin contact

• Drain and combine basket pressed wine to barrel (all second fill Taran-saud French Oak)

• Age 18–24 months

• Bottle unfined, unfiltered

Thomas  Fertel:

Throughout his childhood in Louisiana, Fertel was surrounded by fine wines and exquisite cuisine. He earned his degree in Chemistry at Louisiana State University, as his paternal grandmother had done before him, but it was this lifelong appreciation for the world of food and wine that then led him to California.

There he worked as a harvest intern for renowned wineries such as Peachy Canyon Winery and Frank Family Vineyards, all while pursuing his masters in Crop Science and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

With multiple vintages under his belt, including harvest, cellar, and vineyard work in both California and Burgundy, France, Fertel took a position as an Enologist at Frank Family Vineyards of Napa Valley in Calistoga where he focused on the production of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

After four years there he moved on to work as Harvest Winemaker for Wild Horse Vineyards in Templeton.

In February 2017, Thomas joined Turn Key Wine Brands as the Blending Winemaker bringing experience in both the science and the application of winemaking to the team.

Thomas’ Experience with Cabernet Sauvignon:

“My first experience was with Paso Robles Cabernet at Peachy Canyon Winery.”

“I then worked in the Napa Valley at Frank Family Vineyards for five years. We made various tiers of Cabernet from Napa Valley to Rutherford Reserve and a single vineyard hillside Rutherford Cabernet from the estate grown Winston Hill Vineyard.”

“I was fortunate to purchase a home that had 10-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines and I was able to make some garage wine as well. My tip to garage winemakers would be to take a look at the WineEasy (Blichmann Engineering). I purchased one my second year of garage winemaking and wished I made the purchase a
year sooner.”

The Essence of Cabernet Sauvignon is . . .

“To be mindful of the fruit quality and to understand how much oak the wine can handle. I don’t want to over oak a Cabernet just because I can. Another important factor is to be mindful of crop levels, but maybe not in the traditional sense. My master thesis covered crop levels in Cabernet and found that depending on your location, soil content, and water availability, you might be able to hang more Cabernet on the vine at an equal, or even increased, wine quality.

“Cabernet is also very vineyard-driven. The site and farming play a big role in the final wine. On tannins, I think picking decisions go a long way in getting the
desired tannins.”

Thomas’ Cabernet Sauvignon Home Winemaking Protocol:

26.5 °Brix and water back to 24.5 or 25 depending on the site. Adjust acid to roughly 3.7 pH or 6 g/L
titratable acidity.

Destem but keep whole berry if possible, 40 ppm SO2

Inoculate 1 gram/gallon BDX yeast

Punch down 3–4 times a day

Drain  and  lightly  press  off  when dry. If able, press harder and keep the fraction separate as topping wine.

Keep topped for months as it goes through malolactic fermentation. If you don’t have the means to test the malic acid levels, taste and listen to the wine over time, you will get a feel for it. Add SO2 when it tastes rounder and the wine quiets down. If it ever starts to head south, don’t be afraid to pull the SO2 trigger early.

• Bottle when ready, this is done by taste and means something different to everybody. But a 1-year-old lightly oaked Cabernet is unique in my eyes, especially if you only have a small amount to make.

Chuck Gower and Cheryl  Dipanfilo

Meet the (200+!) medal award-winning home winemakers chosen for the Cabernet Sauvignon Master Class. Chuck and Cheryl grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc near Boulder, Colorado. They are currently managing and cultivating their third vineyard of a long and successful home-growing career. Even though they don’t grow Cabernet Sauvignon, they have been very happy purchasing frozen Cab Sauv from Brehm Vineyards. “We are not bonded, and we never will be,” Chuck says. “That would screw everything up. We like paying our friends and helpers in wine and maintaining a large group of folks we call ‘friends of the vineyard.’”

Chuck & Cheryl’s Experience with Cabernet Sauvignon:

Have been making wine for 38 years and have been awarded over 200 medals, many of them gold and double-gold. Many of these wines include Cabernet Sauvignon.

Have won many gold medals at the  WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition for their varietal Cabernet, Cabernet/Merlot blends, and other wines over the years.

The Essence of Cabernet Sauvignon is . . .

“We feel that most commercial Cabs are so dry that the fruit never shows. This really turns off people, especially women. We think that great Cabs should be dry, 14% ABV, and have an identifiable fruit, cherry, blackberry flavor that should linger on the palate. Our wines are a little “come hither” and “flirtatious,” fruit-forward and ripe enough that we get lots of very positive feedback, especially from the ladies.”

Chuck & Cheryl’s Cabernet Sauvignon Home Winemaking Protocol:

Fruit ripeness: 26-28 °Brix (We don’t pick by numbers except for Brix)

After the grapes thaw, sulfite to 50 ppm, add RC212, Lallzyme EX, Opti-Red

Go for hot fermentation at around 85–90 °F (29–32 °C), add Fermaid K on days 1 and 3, rack at 1.005 specific gravity, usually around day 4 or 5

Hard stainless steel press to glass, add liquid malolactic culture

At 1 week, rack with hard splash

A hot and short fermentation with a very hard press, turns out dry and jammy at 14% ABV

3 weeks later, rack, hard splash, sul-fite to 50 ppm, no need to check malolactic conversion, it is always done

1 month later, fine with egg whites. The following week, rack using #3 plate filter into 2-year-old French oak barrel.

After 6 months in barrel check sul-fite, which is usually around 5–10 ppm. Adjust sulfite back to 50 ppm.

After in barrel for 1 year check sul-fite, which is usually around 5 ppm, and sulfite to 10 ppm, bottle with #1 corks. They’re expensive but worth it.

We have used this recipe to excellent results: Best of Show, Best Red of Show, and more gold medals
than you would find on Michael Phelps’ shelves.

Take-Home Lessons From Our Master Class:


With Cabernet Sauvignon being the most widely grown winegrape on the planet, it cannot be overstated how important the vineyard source is for producing balanced and delicious Cabernet Sauvignon wine. Both Thomas Fertel and Clay Brock included the importance of source in their descriptions of what they thought was the “essence” of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s important! Frozen juice from a great Cab region is far better than perfectly grown fruit from a climate inhospitable to growing world-class Cab Sauvignon.

If grown in too cool of a climate, Cabernet Sauvignon wine is thin and green. In too hot of a climate, Cabernet Sauvignon can be flabby
and alcoholic.

Likely no one reading this article knows Tuck Beckstoffer, so getting ToKalon or Beckstoffer Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (starts at $10,000 a ton, by the way) is not in your future. But it is pretty surprising and encouraging how easy procuring quality Cabernet Sauvignon grapes or frozen must can be in the modern world. Choose a region that is well-known for the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, and then find a well-respected vineyard that will sell you fruit for a price at or near your budget.

I strongly believe that spending more money for quality fruit is the single best way to improve the quality of wine — whether a carboy or a 5,000-gallon (19,000-L) tank!

For value growing regions I love Lodi and Paso Robles. For quality to price ratio, I would add Washington State and Sonoma County — especially Knights Valley and Alexander Valley AVAs. Napa is king, of course, but you’ll be paying extra for the
fancy crown.

Thinking of growing Cabernet Sauvignon in the Midwest or East Coast? 99% of the time, Norton will make a better wine.


For those just learning about winemaking, longer hangtime before harvest will generally increase sugar content and lessen acidity.

Cabernet Sauvignon is picked worldwide between around 20 °Brix (for “White” or “Rosé of Cabernet”) all the way to 30 °Brix (or 30% sugar by weight) to make a hyper-ripe fruit bomb of a wine that would require watering back to ferment to dryness. (30 °Brix Cabernet Sauvignon would produce a wine with 18% alcohol if the yeast weren’t destroyed by
ethanol toxicity.)

Brix is not just about sugar though! Ripeness is a seesaw that we have to wait to balance. Rarely do we get a perfect vintage where the fruit hangs to 25.8 °Brix at 3.6 pH and 6.5g/L of titratable acidity (my ideal for a perfect Cabernet harvest if the flavors were perfectly developed). We are forced to pull the trigger at some point when we balance where the sugar and acids are, where the flavor development
is, and importantly: The weather forecast. If a heat spell is coming, the Brix might spike. Deluge of rain? Lose Brix and intensity of flavor, and
increase rot.

Clay Brock suggests around 25.5 °Brix without mentioning pH/acid, but Thomas Fertel likes 3.7 pH and 6 g/L TA in his finished Cab, which would be around 3.55 pH and 6.5 g/L TA at harvest with around 27 °Brix watered back to 24.5. Remember to acidulate your water additions to about 7 g/L (30 g/gallon) tartaric acid to keep the wine in balance.

Being involved in the farming will make you a better winemaker, but is generally not an option for a home winemaker. If allowed, try to walk the rows where your fruit is being sourced once before pruning, once after shoot thinning, once at veraison, and a few times before harvest to see the fruit, taste and do your own sampling, if allowed. Crush a berry between your fingertip and palm and squish it for 10 seconds in small, macerating circles. Blood-red color should start to leak from the skins if the fruit is ready to make red wine.

If you can only get your homegrown Cabernet Sauvignon to 17–22 °Brix in most vintages then you chose the wrong grape. If you really want to keep the vineyard, make rosé wine from underripe fruit.

Take this with a grain of salt, but I would say, after 25 years of making wine, that my Golden Rule of Cabernet Sauvignon is to let it hang until the weather turns ugly and threatens the crop, or the fruit hits 27 °Brix. Acidulate the must to around 7 g/L TA at 3.6 pH, get a cold-soak for a few days while the must is still chilled, and then rehydrate your BDX yeast and get ready for punch downs!

Tannin Management

90% of tannin management in Cabernet Sauvignon is related to how the fruit comes into your winery.

Using the same fruit for multiple vintages will let you fine-tune how differing levels of ripeness impacts the tannins in your final Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Generally, the riper end of Cabernet Sauvignon will produce softer, more round tannins.

Underripe Cabernet Sauvignon will produce harsh, green tannins that no one wants.

A balanced ripeness, around 24–26 °Brix usually produces Cabernet Sauvignon that has both grippy tannin and enough softness to be consumed within a few years of production.

Cabernets made at lower Brix, 22–24, often show amazing age-worthiness, but can be a bit angular, tannic, and stubbornly austere when young.

Tannins  soften  with  time  on  the skins, time in the barrel, and time in the bottle.

Consider  using  an  extended  maceration. Many first growth Bordeaux wines are made in a hot-room (90 °F/32 °C), where the wine goes through both primary and malolactic fermentations before pressing — with skin contact sometimes lasting 30 days or more! This is an advanced technique that can ruin a wine with volatile acidity (VA) and ethyl acetate if done incorrectly, so be careful!

• If your finished Cabernet Sauvignon is still too hard and tannic before bottling, consider fining or filtering to add some smoothness to your vintage.

• If the wine is too soft/flabby, consider a measured addition of liquid tannin — although I strongly believe that additions beyond yeast and yeast food can be classified as a fruit-sourcing problem more than a winemaking problem. In other words, work as hard as possible to bring in perfect fruit that doesn’t need fixing.

Take notes on ripeness, acid, yeast, ferment times and specifics, vineyard source, etc. and correlate those notes to the final wines. Which vintage was your favorite or won the most awards? Try to replicate what you do in great vintages, and minimize what you do in years the wine comes up short.