Cabernet Pfeffer—no, not Sauvignon—is one of California’s most historic and curious grapes
In the canon of California grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. It’s one of the world’s most popular (and pricey) varieties, bringing to life the best – according to some – bottles of both Bordeaux and Napa Valley.
While Cabernet Pfeffer (yes Pfeffer) is also a red-skinned grape grown primarily in California, that’s where the similarities with its kin end. Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied, bold, and brooding. Cabernet Pfeffer is soft, bright, and perfumed. Cabernet Sauvignon is known as the King of Grapes; Cabernet Pfeffer lives largely in obscurity.
Why? You could blame the volume: there are less than twenty acres of Cabernet Pfeffer planted in the world (to compare, Cabernet Sauvignon has over 800,000), and almost all are centered in California’s Cienega Valley, a viticultural region in Western San Benito County.
You could blame Cabernet Pfeffer’s reputation (or lack thereof): while the grape has existed in the United States for over a century, its existence has eluded drinkers — few recognize the name and even fewer know what the variety actually is.
Some winemakers sold it as Trousseau, a grape native to the Jura in northeastern France, also known as Bastardo in Portugal, where it is made into Port. Others declared it a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Trousseau, or an American version of Petit Manseng or Gros Verdot. It’s none of the above — UC Davis recently discovered it’s an old Bordeaux variety called Mourtaou or Mancin.
Consumers are equally confused; some grab it off the shelf expecting Cabernet Sauvignon, others just avoid the unknown grape. But one sip of Cabernet Pfeffer and it’s evident this grape is something all its own. It’s bright, perfumed, and peppery, often served slightly chilled to amplify the wine’s freshness.
“Theologically, the variety does look a lot like Trousseau, considering leaf and cluster shape, color and skin thickness,” says winemaker Ryan Stirm of Stirm Wine Company “But Cabernet Pfeffer is more resistant to disease and mildew and the wine’s color and body is more in line with Nebbiolo; incredibly tannic, pretty, and perfumed.”
Many of the Cabernet Pfeffer plantings date back to the mid-1800s, when French clones were coming to California packed in suitcases. “Prior to this time, there was not a ton of genetic diversity of vines planted here,” says Stirm. “Then, there was a big rush where imported cuttings were a really big deal.”
A fellow named William Pfeffer brought over a grape called Mourtaou from Bordeaux in the 1800s, planted it in his nursery, propagated the vines, and rooted them around San Benito County. As the years went on and the vines spread, Mourtaou’s original name got lost and the vines earned the family name of their adopted father. As California Cab (Pfeffer) gained ground, phylloxera and time wiped Mourtaou from Bordeaux. Now, Cabernet Pfeffer — the artist formerly known as Mourtaou — has morphed into a uniquely California grape; European by origin but now existing only in a small pocket of California. Now, California winemakers like Stirm are playing with the mysterious grape, making bright, tannic reds and quirky cans of highly quaffable Pfeffer.
So what brought Cabernet Pfeffer back into the spotlight? You could say it fits current fads — younger drinkers are increasingly chilling their reds or opting for deep rosés and lighter reds. They’re exploring new regions, sipping from cans and boxes, and searching for newer grape varieties.
Stirm produces two single-vineyard Cabernet Pfeffers, each expressive of two old (like, old old) vine plots of Cabernet Pfeffer. Broc Cellars plays with Cabernet Pfeffer in a carbonic macerated red, highly chillable and highly soif. Jolie-Laide combines Cabernet Pfeffer with other alt-kid varieties, like Valdiguié and Trousseau Noir.
Sarah Hoffman, founder of canned wine brand Maker, works alongside Ser Winery’s Nicole Walsh to harvest 100-year-old Cabernet Pfeffer vines at Wirz Vineyard. They transform it into cans of bright, lighter-bodied red with “interesting cranberry and white pepper notes,” says Hoffman.
Steve Ziganti of 3 Steves Winery in Livermore, California sells Three Cabs, a three-Cabernet blend of predominantly Pffefer mixed in with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. “We serve Pfeffer at the tasting room and we find people love it,” says Ziganti. “They want what they can’t find elsewhere. Everyone can get a Cabernet Sauvignon!”
“I’ve found that because Cabernet Pfeffer is an unusual grape and people haven’t heard of it, people are more interested,” says Hoffman. “They feel like they’re finding something neat.”
Unfortunately, Cabernet Pfeffer’s popularity is restricted by its sheer lack of acreage. Ziganti purchases his grapes from Derose Vineyard, though he’s beginning to bloom his own Cabernet Pfeffer vines — last year, Alphonse Derose gave him cuttings and he planted over an acre. Another will follow next year, bringing the overall acreage closer to 20. Walsh looks to Wirz Vineyards, while Stirm sources from Wirz Vineyards and Siletto Family Vineyard.
Sure, the grape struggles with its lack of name-brand identity — consumers who crack open a Cabernet Pfeffer thinking it’s Cabernet Sauvignon may feel slighted. But Stirm points out that they may also be pleasantly surprised. “Who’s going to buy Mourtaou? It’s easier to change someone’s mind than it is to introduce them to a new grape and get them on board,” says Stirm. “At least with Cabernet Pfeffer, you’re already having a conversation with the consumer.”
And, even if Cabernet Pfeffer doesn’t catch on, do winemakers even care? With so few acres under vine, bottles are already sparse and special; secret gems to seek out.