Discovering the old Almaden Cienega winery was both a long sought-after goal and a surprise. (See “The oldest winery in California comes with a car museum too” in Mankato Magazine.) Couched between low rolling hills and a tiny valley, it was a large copse of buildings literally in the middle of nowhere. How did it come to be here?
This I explained in my previous wine article, but it was not the only mystery we encountered at DeRose. The other was two unique red wines that the current owner, Pat DeRose, was offering: Negrette and Cabernet Pfeffer.
Negrette was an easy one to solve: It is the original French and worldwide recognized name for a grape historically known in California as Pinot St. George. It was not widely planted but respected as a unique varietal when made by the legendary Inglenook Vineyards of Napa Valley before that brand name ended up on a line of jug wines. (Fortunately, the Inglenook name has now been purchased by Francis Ford Coppola and appended to the original Inglenook property, which he has owned since the 1970s.)
In 1997, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF), which regulates wine labels — go figure! — dictated a wholesale renaming of a number of grapes, declaring that wines made from pinot St. George had to be labeled Negrette.
Cabernet pfeffer is a wholly different sort. While negrette today is not widely planted, cabernet Pfeffer is almost nonexistent, by last count about 12 acres in California. Most of the plantings are confined to the Cienega area, west of Hollister in San Benito County, with some in Sonoma County.
The story we were told by Pat DeRose is that the grape is a cross between cabernet sauvignon and a French varietal called trousseau, which was created by a horticulturist named William Pfeffer.
But in reality, cabernet pfeffer is no relation of cabernet sauvignon. Upon further digging, I found two more credible stories of origin. One was that it is actually gros verdot (no relation to petit verdot), a variety that used to be grown in Bordeaux in the 19th century but now is not, according to British wine expert Jancis Robinson. But that theory has since been updated by DNA testing at the University of California Davis. Ampelographers (researchers who study grape origins) determined that it was actually an obscure French grape called mourtaou.
Adding further confusion to the story, some California growers and vintners call this grape gros verdot and others cabernet pfeffer. Still others confuse gros verdot with trousseau, also known as bastardo. And Caduceus Cellars in Arizona claims to be growing a grape they say is gros verdot, but who knows what it really is? UGH!
The official directory of grape varieties on the Foundation Plant Services website of UC Davis lists mourtaou and trousseau/bastardo as recognized grape names, but not gros verdot or cabernet pfeffer. However, it does list cabernet pfeffer as a synonym for mourtaou, but not any other grape.
All this confusion aside, what does cabernet pfeffer taste like? We bought a bottle from DeRose and hauled it up to Napa Valley to taste with our good friend Bill Cadman, owner of Tulocay Winery. Bill is a pretty traditional guy, making the standard selection of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, with occasional forays into Syrah and Petite Sirah.
Yet he loves to let his taste buds experiment, and the DeRose 2016 Cabernet Pfeffer surprised and pleased him, as it did all of us, with its unique spiciness and zip. When one thinks of “spicy” in a red wine, the names conjured up include Zinfandel (or Primitivo), Syrah and Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre and Grenache.
But I hereby declare that all these can step aside, as the new spice champ is Cabernet Pfeffer, which has so much black pepper you can almost grind it onto your pasta or salad. Indeed, the word “pfeffer” means “pepper” in German. Bottom line: Once you taste this medium-bodied, racy red, you won’t forget it.
You probably won’t find a single bottle in a store or restaurant in Minnesota. But fortunately, you can order it from a handful of small wineries in California that you’ve never heard of, including Kobza, Ser, Enz, Dubost, Stirm, Vocal, Kenneth Volk and, of course, DeRose.
Let the spice be with you!