Mysterious Cabernet Pfeffer - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Mysterious Cabernet Pfeffer

Donkey and Goat’s winemaker Tracey Brandt (Photo courtesy of the winery)

In 1886, in the Report of the Viticultural Work for California by Eugene W. Hilgard, we get an early glimpse of the thoroughly muddled heritage surrounding Cabernet Pfeffer: On one page, it’s referenced five different ways, with three of the entries punctuated with question marks. Historically, the variety was thought to be a cross made by William Pfeffer of cabernet sauvignon with a mystery grape variety (trousseau was suspected). Mr. Pfeffer ran a nursery in Saratoga in the 1880s, near where the remaining plantings are found today, in the inland regions of San Benito County, including the Cienega Valley and Santa Clara Valley. Less than 20 acres remain, much of it old.

An excerpt from Hilgard’s Report of the Viticultural Work questioning Cabernet Pfeffer’s origin.

Jose Vouillamoz, lead author of the vine compendium Wine Grapes, suggests that Pfeffer’s original cross was lost to phylloxera, but that Pfeffer rescued a relative derived from seed, and that this is what is now grown in the region. He mentions that winemaker Ken Volk tested the DNA of the Cabernet Pfeffer in his vineyards and believed it to be identical to Gros Verdot, a relative of petit verdot, which Cabernet Pfeffer resembles not at all. Finally, in what appears to be the last word, records in the Davis-based germplasm repository Foundation Plant Services indicate that the variety is genetically identical to Mourtaou:

“Mourtaou is an old cultivar from the Bordeaux region of France. There are small plantings of the variety in California under the name Cabernet Pfeffer. This variety is not related to Cabernet Sauvignon or Trousseau.”

Tracey Brandt admits to not being an expert on all things Pfeffer, but has used it to make this delightful, simple, chillable red for Donkey and Goat, from organic grapes grown at Siletto Vineyard in San Benito County. Pfeffer also happens to be the German word for pepper, and this one leads with dramatic pepper and pyrazine notes, overlying plum tea flavors. It’s lithe and lean, with penetrating acids coming up through brambly wild-berry fruit flavors, with a lingering scent of windborne pine and rosemary. Try this lighter bodied red with herb-roasted pork.


Donkey and Goat 2021 San Benito Siletto Vineyard Cabernet Pfeffer

Every week, our editors highlight a wine that intrigued them in our blind panel tastings, expanding on their tasting note in this space. These are entirely editorial choices; there are no paid placements. Subscribers can also access the original tasting note by searching here.

Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.

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