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Minor Bordeaux Varietals
updated: Dec 08, 2012, 11:00 AM

By Marc Liberts

December 02, 2012

On Sunday December 02, 2012 I attended the BYOB Wine & Dine event at Max's Restaurant and Cucina in Santa Barbara. The theme of the event was minor Bordeaux varietals, and the featured speaker and winemaker was Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood Farm Winery in Santa Ynez.

Generally speaking, the wines of Bordeaux France are typically made from the following grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Caberrnet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Some of the most famous Bordeaux wines will be of a single varietal, or a blend of varietals, depending on where the vineyard and winery are. Suffice it to say that the ‘major' Bordeaux varietals we are all familiar and that are featured all over the world are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The ‘minor' Bordeaux varietals can be found featured in places like Mendoza Argentina for Malbec and Chinon France for Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot is famous for being a blending grape and is grown in a wide number of places, but not really featured anywhere.

This BYOB Wine & Dine event was a particular success for a number of reasons. First, the food was particularly outstanding. The event started as usual with assorted paired cheeses from C'est Cheese in Santa Barbara. I particularly liked the Taleggio - an Italian cow's milk cheese that had a pleasant funk that complimented the wines of the night. The first course was Spicy Roasted Tomato Soup with Crispy Shallots which was outstanding. I'm not a huge tomato soup guy, but this was really great. The main course was Braised Beef Short Ribs with Root Vegetable Mash & Pan-Caramelized Brussels Sprouts. The short ribs were perfect, and I'm not a Brussel Sprout guy but these were excellent. Dessert was Dark Chocolate-Almond Crisp with Housemade Chocolate Espresso Gelato which was unbelievable. Bravo to our chef for a job extremely well done this evening!

Second, the event attendees did a great job of bringing an interesting and wide assortment of minor Bordeaux wines for everyone to try. This was not an easy assignment, as these types of wines can be difficult to find locally. I was very pleased to be able to try and compare local and international Malbecs, Cabernet Francs, and Petit Verdot wines.

Third, the featured speaker Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood Farm Winery added an honest, straight-to- the-point, no-nonsense approach and evaluation of the wines and winemaking in general. Although Karen and I didn't always agree, I did very much respect her honesty and candor about her thoughts and beliefs. I had a chance to interview Karen prior to the event and here is the result of the interview:

QUESTION 1: In the last few years, Malbec has become very popular as a single varietal grape and wine. However, there is very little of it produced in Santa Barbara County. Why have we not seen an increase in the amount of Malbec plantings and bottlings? What challenges does Malbec present in your vineyard?

ANSWER 1: You have to give it to Argentina, who took Malbec as their own and made it famous. Even in its native France, there are few places (other than Cahors) where it will be the regional star. I think most of the growth of vineyard plantings in the past decade in SBC were more focused on cooler varietals - Pinot particularly. The vineyards planted in the warmer regions are just now started to gain the attention they deserve. We've always had Bdx planted here in the heart of the valley, included some of the oldest vines (Sauv Blanc, Merlot, Cab), but of course Malbec wasn't on anyone's radar. But it is a natural for Santa Barbara County! (apologies to vegetarians), it's a meat-lovers wine and we're cowboy country! It is the EASIEST red that we grow.

After Sideways, we had way too much Merlot in the vineyard (and in the cellar), so in 2008 we grafted a section of the Merlot to Malbec. We didn't know exactly how it would respond, whether we would use it for blending or bottle on its own, etc. We found that Malbec ripens early, nice lanky clusters are resistant to mildew, beautiful flavors with lower sugars. A dream varietal, from my perspective.

QUESTION 2: Unlike Malbec, Cabernet Franc still seems to sit on the wine sidelines waiting for its day in the spotlight. A few Santa Barbara County vineyards and wineries grow and make Cabernet Franc, but not many. What do you think holds this varietal back from being a viable single-varietal wine in Santa Barbara County. What challenges do you face in your vineyard when you grow Cabernet Franc?

ANSWER 2: It's a bit of a wine-geek wine and will never be for everyone, which is one of the things I love about it. I'd rather have a wine that elicits strong opinions one way or the other than one that is middle-of-the-road "it's ok". Sommeliers love Franc as do restaurants with well-thought out wine lists. People that know it seek it out. There is a bit of a Franc "underground" here in SBC, and you might be surprised how many of us produce it (check out the Vintners' Association smart phone app and filter on varietal). Indeed, each year we host "FrancFest" wherein we invite all of our Francophile colleagues to come pour their wines, and last time we did this we had over two dozen wineries and more than 250 tasters.

Our Franc was planted on its own roots in 1983, and is still happy, healthy and prolific. Some of the newer vineyards had some issues with Cab Franc and virus, and the thinking is that it might be a rootstock/Franc issue. They are now replanting Franc out in those vineyards, and I hear there is some going in on its own roots. (interesting - everything old is new again!). It is a somewhat fussy and finicky grape, and needs meticulous farming. The canopy must be perfect - too little and the grapes get sunburn. Too much and they don't get enough sun to rid the berries of pyrozines (the bell peppery compound). They are somewhat thin-skinned, so susceptible to weather. Franc buds early and ripens late, so patience is required. And that's all before it even gets in the cellar, where it can also be quarrelsome. Personally, I love making it (and drinking it!)

QUESTION 3: What do you think about screw-cap enclosures for wine? Some Santa Barbara County wineries have embraced them, so have started, and some refuse to use them. What do you think?

QUESTION 4: Don't like them at all. From a practical standpoint, I couldn't bottle in a screwtop anyway, since we do our own bottling on site, and the bottling line doesn't have that feature. I agree that they are well suited for wines that should be enjoyed early, and I get that they're great for by-the-glass pours in wine bars and restaurants (easy to open, no taint). We have different solutions to taint - we use Diam corks, which do NOT taint a wine, guaranteed. (many of us up here are using these - they're great!) And for BTG placements, we have wine in keg.

Additionally, I love the way a cork sounds when it comes out of a bottle! It's part of the magic of enjoying wine. And environmentally, cork is a natural product that not only recycles but can be made into holiday ornaments, bulletin boards, you name it! Keeps the cork forests viable too.

QUESTION 4: Other than Jonata, do you know of any other Santa Barbara County or even Paso Robles winery that does a single varietal Petit Verdot bottling?

ANSWER 4: Baehner-Fournier, Lucas & Lewellen, McKeon-Phillips, Santa Barbara Winery, Saarloos. We didn't plant any here because we have darkly colored wines to begin with, and it's quite a late ripener.

QUESTION 5: What challenges do you face when you are marketing and selling your Malbec and Cabernet Franc wines? Is it hard or easy?

ANSWER 5: We don't make a lot of Malbec, so most of that goes through the Tasting Room and Wine Club. We're known for Cab Franc, so have an established wine-geek base. Sommeliers and specialty wine shops look for something a bit out of the normal, and we have quite a number of established accounts. Distributed sales channels know Malbec from Argentina, and many are looking to specialize in domestic or Santa Barbara County wines, so know the varietal and since our pricing is in-line, it's an easy partnership. Franc sales are climbing - people are experimenting, particularly up and coming wine drinkers, and not afraid to order or buy something new and unfamiliar to them. To be honest, Merlot is still the harder sell! (thank you, Sideways!)

QUESTION 6: What wines will you be bringing to the event? Please provide a brief commentary on each wine that you are bringing to the event.

ANSWER 6: Since we're Bordeaux focused, we'll start with our 2010 Signature Blend of Sauvignon Blanc. It includes a bit of Semillon in the blend to soften some of the raciness of the Sauvignon Blanc's nature. Classic Bordeaux, although we add a little Santa Ynez twist, with the Sauvignon Blanc all stainless steel fermented and non-malolactic and the Semillon barrel fermented, partial malo and about 20% new French oak. I'm looking for a nice yin-yang of flavor and texture with this wine. 89 pts IWC: Musky lemon peel, herbs and jasmine on the nose. Broad, creamy and silky in texture, with green apple, quince and peach flavor dominating. The chewy finish shows firm grip and gentle spiciness.

The Cabernet Franc (100%) is from 2009. Aged in barrel for 24 months, 25% new Belair barrels, puncheons and hogsheads. This wine tends to be a little different - not as viscous as previous vintages, earthier - definitely more masculine than it has been. Just received 91 pts from Stephen Tanzer's IWC: Inky ruby. Complex aromas of cherry-cola, violet, cigar box and cracked pepper, with slow-building smokiness. Offers an array of sappy dark fruit flavors enlivened by tangy acidity. Finishes sweet, broad and long, with velvety tannins and lingering smoke and spice notes. I like this cabernet franc's blend of richness and energy.

Then, 2010 Malbec (100%). A difficult vintage, small crop. Aged for a year in barrel prior to bottling. 89+ IWC: Opaque ruby. Smoky cherry and anise on the nose, with an attractive floral quality and a hint of smoked meat. Then darker-toned on the palate, with bitter cherry and cassis flavors gaining sweetness in the glass. Supple, seamless malbec with bright spice and red berry notes emerging on the persistent, sweet finish. Give this wine some air.

We'll finish with our dessert wine called POSH. It's not Bordeaux at all - made from Syrah that we let turn to raisins and then fortify with grape brandy. From 2009 vintage - fun wine to make!

LAST QUESTION 7: What first comes to mind for you when you think about Santa Barbara County wine- making and Santa Barbara vineyards today in general?

ANSWER 7: This is one of THE MOST unique and wonderful winegrowing regions in the world. The transverse valleys allow us to grow a cornucopia of varietals, and each with excellence. True, in the early days….things were not planted in the right spots sometimes, but I think we've got this pretty figured out now. Where else can you grow world-class Pinot Noir AND Cabernet? Nowhere.

We also grow an amazing variety of food, year round - so thins is a foodies paradise. And it's friendly. We're not snooty, our wines are fairly priced and the community of winegrowers, vineyard owners, winemakers and winesellers is close-knit. It's an amazingly wonderful place.


1. BUTTONWOOD, SAUVIGNON BLANC, 2010, SANTA YNEZ VALLED, SIGNATURE BLEND - Plush and ripe with pretty grassy and citrus notes - 88 points.

2. CATENA, 2010 MALBEC, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - Nice, plush and tight with an interesting beam of mocha and dark fruit - 89 points.

3. ROBLAR, 2010 CABERNET FRANC, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - Quiet and decent but understated - needs more guts to be great - 85 poitns.

4. ALEXANDER AND WAYNE 2008 SANTA BARBARA COUNTY MALBEC - Plump and spicy with pretty fruit and decent balance - 87 points.

5. LUCAS & LEWELLEN 2006 PETIT VERDOT, VALLEY VIEW VINEYARD, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - Too old, stinky, off, not great - 77 points.

6. HACIENDA SAN MARTIN MENDOZA, MALBEC 2011 - Tight and dry, tastes cheap and thrown together, lacks elegance or balance - 83 points.

7. ALTIPLANO, MALBEC 2011, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - Balanced but light, decent fruit and ok overall - 85 points.

8. IMAGERY, 2008 PETIT VERDOT, SONOMA VALLEY - Tight and peppery, reminded me of a cool weather Zinfandel I'd had last year - 88 points.

9. VIXEN, 2007 VIRTUOSO, CABERNET FRANC, SANTA YNEZ VALLEY - Grapey and tight with decent balance and structure - 88 points.

10. SCHROEDER ESTATE, MALBEC 2010, PATAGONIA, ARGENTINA - Out of balance, light and cheap tasting - not great - 82 points.

11. FINCA LALANDE, MALBEC 2011, TUPUNGATO VALLEY, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - Interesting fruit and spice with decent balance - nice - 90 points.

12. MASCOLO, MALBEC PRIVATE COLLECTION, 2004, JUNIN, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - Punky nose, old, light but interesting with good integration - 89 points.

13. EL MALBEC 2007 DE RICARDO SANTOS, LAS MADRAS VINEYARD, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - Smokey and charcoal on the palate with dark fruit - interesting - 87 points.

14. CARR VINEYARDS & WINERY, 2009 CABERNET FRANC, CAMP FOUR VINEYARD, SANTA YNEZ VALLEY - Fruity and pruny with nice mocha and interesting loamy notes - 87 points.

15. SUNSTONE, 1999 CABERNET FRANC, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - Unfortunately too old - heavy tomato can nose with thin wine that didn't last - 72 points.

16. MCKEON-PHILLIPS 2007 RESERVE CABERNET FRANC, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - Overt but strange, needs lots of air. Once it aired out, the wine was ok but it still was funky after 90 minutes - 86 points.

17. GAINEY CABERNET FRANC 2007, SANTA YNEZ VALLEY - Fruity and light - lacks spice components to be great - 86 points.

18. MONTGRAS RESERVA, 2010 CABERNET FRANC, COLCHAGUA VALLEY, CHILE - Decent wine with pretty fruit and serious spice but lacks grip - 87 points.

19. FOXEN 7200, LITTLE BIRD, RED WINE, HAPPY CANYON OF SANTA BARBARA 2010 - (60% MERLOT - 40% PETIT VERDOT) - Outside the parameters of the tasting. However, excellent wine with great balance and verve. This is my exact type of wine, although others didn't love it. No rating because outside parameters but extremely good!

20. CASTORO CELLARS, 2006 PETIT VERDOT, PASO ROBLES - Pretty velvety mouthfeel but flat and light - disappointing - 84 poitns.

21. DOMAINE GROSBOIS, CHINON GABARE 2008 - Really nice mocha, coffee, dark fruit, and dark chocolate with nice balance and integration - 90 poitns.

22. ACHÁVAL-FERRER, 2011 MALBEC MENDOZA - Oh boy - deep, dark, plush, challenging, interesting, a brute with great manners - delicious - 93 points.

23. TAPIZ, 2011 MALBEC, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA - just ok with decent fruit and some spicy notes - lacks panache - 86 points.

24. MCKEON-PHILLIPS, 2008 PETIT VERDOT, PASO ROBLES - Big and punchy with nice fruit and decent character - 90 points.

25. DANIEL CHAUVEAU CHINON 2005 - Dry and tannic with smokey burnt notes - interesting layers of flavor - 89 points.

26. FOXEN 7200, CABERNET FRANC 2006, TINAQUAIC ESTATE, SANTA MARIA VALLEY - Dry and tight with pretty dark fruit, hearty mocha and spice - 90 points.

27. LUCAS & LEWELLEN 2006 CABERNET FRANC, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - Light and tangy but too thin - 82 points.

28. JARVIS, 2006 PETIT VERDOT, NAPA VALLEY - Nice, plush and velvety on the palate but lacks grip to make it great - 89 points.

29. BUTTONWOOD 2010 MALBEC, SANTA YNEZ VALLEY - Fruity and tangy with nice balance and decent spice notes - 89 points.

30. BUTTONWOOD 2009 CABERNET FRANC, SANTA YNEZ VALLEY - light and tight with pretty dark fruit and decent balance - needs more oomph - 86 points.




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