North Carolina Make Way for Crimson Cabernet
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
From Cabernet Franc to Chardonnay to Traminette there are several grape varietals that have found a home here in the Tarheel State. Their ability to survive our local conditions enables them to be crafted into wines that are award winning and gaining well deserved recognition. As I travel the state varietals like Carlos, Chambourcin and Chardonel are in abundance.
But have you ever heard of Crimson Cabernet? The odds are likely you have not and even less likely that you have ever tasted wine made from this grape. This varietal that is very popular in the Midwest is being grown in Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan. Now, it is making its way to North Carolina, and I predict that the popularity of this varietal is unlimited and it will be well embraced by our local growers. But before I tell you why, let me give you a little history about this relatively new grape.
Crimson Cabernet is essentially the brainchild of Lucian Dressell following years of research and genetic planning designed to unite the king of Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon) with one of the hardiest of vine stock from the muscadine family (Norton).
Norton, the state grape of Missouri, has long been renowned and studied for its impressive resistance to the diseases that most grapes are susceptible to. In addition to superior resistance to diseases, this unique varietal has an amazing cold hardiness. This aspect of the grape makes it ideal for locations with cooler winters and the varietal has been proven to withstand temperatures of up to minus 17 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and still survive to produce fruit the next season. With its thick canopy of leaves serving as “sugar factories” they essentially provide “antifreeze” that protects fledgling buds from extreme cold.
In addition to superior disease resistance and cold hardiness this grape, originally bred in 2005 and finally made available to vineyards in 2007. With impressive yields, or the amount of fruit per acre that can be harvested, Eric shared me he anticipates around 4 tons of fruit per acre at maturity.
This unique grape hybrid ripens late in the season, not early nor in hot weather and like its Cabernet lineage it boasts lots of tannins, but unlike the vinefera side will not get “stuck” in fermentation transforming all remaining sugars into alcohol.
The berries are smaller than Cabernet Sauvignon but larger than Norton and do not have Norton’s difficult to control vigor. This grape will literally never produce more fruit than it can sustain.
With a color like a Cabernet and a taste reminiscent of a Spanish red this grape is also very expressive of the “terroir” or soil and conditions in which it is planted. As a result, Crimson Cabernet planted in one location can taste quite differently than that which is planted at other locations. And that is yet another reason why I am excited and anxious to taste wine produced from this grape but grown here at home.
To my knowledge no one in North Carolina is closer to producing wine from this unique varietal than my good friends at FireClay Cellars located in Siler City, NC (www.fireclaycellars.com) . With vines just completing their second year of existence this NC winery can soon lay claim to the very first winery in the state to bottle this unique hybrid grape. The pictures that accompany this story are actual pictures of fruit on the vine at FireClay Cellars. I believe an additional one or two vineyards in the state have also planted this hybrid, but their vines are much younger than those of FireClay and as a result it will be a while before they are ready to be made into wine.
I spoke at length with Erik Mitran, the head winemaker at FireClay Cellars about this unique varietal. When asked why they choose to plant Crimson Cabernet Eric said “We wanted a later ripening, more disease resistant variety. We were interested in planting Norton as it does well here, so a hybrid of Norton seemed great.”
When asked about the current status of their grape Erik told me “They are in year two and haven't been harvested yet, but so far the grapes are in veraison and are ripening well. We are hoping for a very similar profile to Cabernet Sauvignon.” As a matter of fact, Erik indicated they will harvest in 3-4 weeks their very first crop.
I was also curious if FireClay Cellars will use this grape as a single varietal or blending grape. According to Erik, “It will be a single varietal, but it is too early to tell. It's possible we make a rose out of it our first year, but it should make a deep Cabernet Sauvignon flavored red wine.”
With fantastic disease resistance, cold hardy and a taste that could easily appeal to a wide range of wine consumers I predict the sky is the limit for this hybrid that should easily make it’s way into producing rose as well as port style wines.
When the world’s best wine grape is combined with the world’s best vine the resulting grape varietal is bound to be one that will be highly anticipated. With the recognition and respect that North Carolina wines continue to achieve as well as the number of awards North Carolina wines continue to earn, I predict this grape will be a welcome addition to the North Carolina wine landscape.