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Cinq Cepages: A California Icon
By Gerald D. Boyd
Feb 27, 2007
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Among the growing collection of high-end California Cabernet-based blends, a few have reached iconic status.   Known variously as Bordeaux-style blends, Cabernet blends, and Meritage, this rarified elite includes Phelps Insignia, Cain Five, Louis Martini's Monte Rosso, Opus One, Coppola's Rubicon and Chateau St. Jean's Cinq Cepages. 

Cinq Cepages was the brainchild of Dick Arrowood and Don Van Staaveren, both former winemakers for Chateau St. Jean, itself one of Sonoma County's iconic wineries.  From 1980 to 1985, St. Jean was known as a white-wine winery, with a legacy of award-winning Chardonnay and Riesling, including a series of late harvest Rieslings that set a new standard for California dessert wines. 

But Arrowood and Van Staaveren wanted to break the mold, create a new wine, a red wine, but not just another varietal.  The idea that emerged from their brainstorming was a blend, based on the Bordeaux model that included all five Bordeaux red varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

They named it Cinq Cepages, which is French for 'five grapes.'  Clever name that, but, to me, it always seemed like an odd choice for a winery that once had difficulty with folks mispronouncing the name of the winery, changing the anglicized pronunciation of Jean to the French pronunciation.  Listen to a conversation where Cinq Cepages is included and most Americans will pronounce the wine name 'Sink' (as opposed to 'sank') Cepages.  

Not to mention the confusion that remains over the correct pronunciation of Meritage (rhymes with heritage), by many including some winemakers who produce Meritage-style wines.   Chateau St. Jean considers Cinq Cepages a Cabernet (not a Meritage) since it is always at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and thus labels it that way.  Further, the winery believes that keeping the wine at 75% Cabernet ensures continuity from vintage to vintage.

Since the first vintage in 1990, Cinq Cepages has had only four masters.  After Arrowood and Van Staaveran, Steve Reeder became winemaker, with Margot Van Staaveran as his assistant.  In 2003, Margot Van Staaveran, who has been with Chateau St. Jean more than 25 years, became winemaker and director of operations, guiding the winemaking at Chateau St. Jean, applying her own touch to the wines, including Cinq Cepages, but also tweaking the winemaking, blending and aging. 

Throughout its history, Cinq Cepages has been a Bordeaux-style blend, although, year after year, the wine relies heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with smaller percentages of the other three varieties.  The current release of Cinq Cepages, 2003, has the highest percentage (78%) of Cabernet Sauvignon, with the usual being 75% or 76%.  Merlot generally accounts for 10-11%, but was 13% in 1997 and a high of 16% in the problematic 1998 vintage.  In general, Cabernet Franc is mainly set at 7% or 8%, but dropped to 2% in 1998.  Malbec fluctuates between 3% and 5% of the total.  Except for 1996, when Petit Verdot accounted for 3% of the blend and 1% in 1998, its contribution has been a steady 2%. 

Van Staavaren has a near encyclopedic memory of the particulars of each vintage and the contributions of each variety to the blend from that vintage.  Looking back over the vintages of Cinq Cepages, Van Staarvaren had this to say about what each of the five varieties add to the final blend:  'Cabernet Sauvignon is the backbone of the wine, making the greatest contribution to its structure, while capturing the dark and juicy fruit of the varietal.  Cabernet Franc adds blueberry and lavender notes to the aromatics as well as elegant, long tannins.  Merlot brings raspberry and cherry fruit and supple texture, while Malbec adds floral and grapy notes along with a juicy mouthful.  Petit Verdot offers pomegranate and roasted coffee notes.'

Combining all of those various aromatics and flavors, Van Staavaren says that the signature of Cinq Cepages is boysenberry fruit and mocha.  'The combination of berries and floral characteristics from the different varieties always results in boysenberry to me.  The barrels we use combine to give a delicious mocha signature to the blend.'  She also attributes some of the fullness of flavor in Cinq Cepages to blending and texture to winemaking, 'but more to the rich body of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon blends.'

Cinq Cepages vintages 1996, 1997 and 1998 were aged for two years in small French and American oak barrels.  Vintages 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 were all aged two years in small French oak barrels.  Van Staavaren says they dropped American oak from the aging regimen because 'in a longer barrel aging program like Cinq Cepages, we felt that the subtle nature of French oak would integrate with more elegance.'  However, she doesn't rule out American oak in the future.  Following blending, the wines spend six months in bottle before release.  Finished alcohols for all wines were just over 14%. 

The 2003 Cinq Cepages is the current vintage; all other vintages back to 1996 are available in limited quantities in the winery tasting room.  Vintages 2002 through 1995 are priced at $150, whereas the 1996 is priced at $200.  The early vintages of Cinq Cepages, 1990 to 1995, are no longer available. 

Chateau St Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 2003 ($75): The majority of the grapes for this current release came from Alexander Valley, with support from four other Sonoma County vineyards.  The blend consists of Cabernet Sauvignon (78%), Merlot (10%), Cabernet Franc (7%), Malbec (3%) and Petit Verdot (2%).  This is a concentrated wine with very good structure and length.  The flavors are rich and ripe, with dark fruit and spice accents, firm tannins and a balanced finish.  It needs time to open.  Van Staavaren explained that the higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the 2003 was selected as number one in trials purely by taste.  89

Chateau St Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 2002 ($150):  This was an easy year to make Cabernet-based red wine, although the aggressive tannins had to be managed to avoid harshness.  An even higher percentage of Alexander Valley fruit distinguishes this tasty blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (75%), Merlot (11%), Cabernet Franc (8%), Malbec (4%) and Petit Verdot (2%).  Ripe berry notes explode in the aromas, with a subtle but distinctive Alexander Valley dried-herb back note.  The flavors are rich and textured, with ample dark fruits, firm tannins and good structure and length through the finish.  This rich and concentrated wine will reward the patient.  94

Chateau St Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 2001 ($150):  Margot van Staavaren described 2001 as 'an easy year, with a great balance between texture and fruit.'  The blend for the 2001 is essentially the same as that for the 2002, except the 2001 has 1% more Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% less Merlot.  The nose is a bit muted but showing vanilla and blueberry notes, with mocha accents.  Big tannins mark this wine, but the fruit is full and forward.  The wine finishes with good balance, texture, spicy oak and a hint of blueberry.  89

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 2000 ($150):  The blend for this juicy wine was tweaked slightly, adding a higher amount of Cabernet Franc at the expense of Malbec.  The result is a lovely wine with bright blackberry aromas, complemented by dark chocolate and roasted coffee notes.  Bright acidity, firm refined tannins and full dark fruit flavors contribute to the impressive overall structure of this wine.  It finishes with length and class.  This is a wine for the long haul.  93

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 1999 ($150):  Steve Reeder, St. Jean's winemaker for the 1999 Cinq Cepages, says this wine reminds him of the holidays, with 'chocolate covered cherries, mocha and black plums.'  It was the first year that only French oak was used for Cinq Cepages and the blend varies little from most of the other vintages.  Coming off a very late vintage, the weather finally cooperated.  However, the wine is already starting to show some aged characteristics: tobacco leaf, earthy aromas with hints of smoked bacon rind.  Subtle tobacco flavors combine with mocha and dark fruits for a medium palate, with the fruit dropping off in the finish.  Though younger, this Cinq Cepages seems to have aged faster than the 1996.  87

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 1998 ($150):  This was a late, wet vintage, which meant that Cabernet Franc proved to be even more fickle than usual.  Van Staavaren says that Cabernet Franc is a lot like Pinot Noir; 'It can turn on you.'  To compensate for the problematic vintage, the blend had to be radically altered, dropping the contribution of Cabernet Franc to 2%, while moving Merlot up to 16% (the highest it has been) and Malbec up a notch to 5%.  The wine has a deep color, forward, bright blackberry aromas, and cedar back notes.  It's a nicely structured Cabernet with toasted oak, mocha and dark plums and a long, elegant finish.  I found this Cinq Cepages to be more Bordeaux-like than other vintages, and consider it a good achievement from less-than-good conditions.  90

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 1997 ($150): This was a condensed, high yield vintage that produced an early maturing wine.  A deep inky color is showing browning edges, while muted, earthy-mushroom scents distinguish the nose.  Roasted coffee, dense blackberry, tobacco leaf and hints of spice flavors carry through to a medium finish.  If you like your Cabernet showing some wear, this one's for you.  The weakest of the lot.   86

Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Cinq Cepages' 1996 ($200):  This was a year of firsts for Cinq Cepages: 1996 was Steve Reeder's first year as winemaker; it was the first year for Chateau St. Jean under Foster's Wine Estates, and Merlot made its debut as the primary blender with Cabernet Sauvignon.  In subsequent years, Merlot consistently contributed the highest percentage to the blend, after Cabernet Sauvignon.  For a 10-year-old California Cabernet, the color of this wine is very dark black-ruby.  The nose is deep, with dark fruit and earthy-tobacco notes that follow through to the flavor, marrying with blackberry and mocha.  This is a classy wine, with the roasted coffee and cigar box notes that characterize an aged Bordeaux-style blend.  Stored properly, this Cinq Cepages will continue on the drinking plateau for years to come.  92