One of the great joys of wine tasting is discovering a little-known variety that provides a distinctive and memorable tasting experience. While I was poking around the area near Hollister last fall (San Benito County inland from Monterey), I came across this grape that I had never heard of and certainly had never tasted. As far as I can tell there is less than 10 acres planted in California, mostly at DeRose and other nearby vineyards. It is so succulent, I can’t understand why it hasn’t caught on. But I suppose it has to do with the eternal marketing paradox—without publicity no one knows about it, and if no one knows about no one will buy it, and if no one will buy it, no one will plant it, so there is no reason to publicize it.
So here is my contribution to breaking the spell of that paradox—call every winemaker you know and demand cases of Cabernet Pfeffer.
What is so great about it? It’s a combination of vivacity and richness. It reminds me a bit of Syrah from Northern Rhone: pepper and floral notes over red berry fruit, on a sturdy, medium-bodied frame, lots of mid-palate structure, not too tannic and with a seam of minerality keeping things fresh and lively. But this version has some mild vanilla from the oak marking it as distinctly American and some hints of fresh loam to give it additional interest. It is outstanding with pasta served with a tomato and mushroom sauce.
The origins of this grape are murky. For many years it was thought to be the a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Trousseau carried out by a 19th Century winemaker by the name of Pfeffer. But plantings from the nearby Wirz Vineyard were analyzed and found to be Mourtaou—an obscure French variety no longer planted in France. The name Cabernet Pfeffer is apparently also used as a synonym for Gros Verdot, another French variety. In any case there is no relation to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Full of a kind of Gatsbyish vibrancy and charm, this calls for a celebration: A little Dancing in the Streets from Mick and David circa 1993