When it comes to Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, two of the most popular wines on the market today, New World wineries typically produce them in very similar styles.
The Pied à Terre Cabernet Sauvignons are only made in great vintages.
The Sauvignon Blancs are usually dominated either by aromas and flavors of passion fruit and grapefruit, or grassy, green pepper flavors. New World Cabernet Sauvignons these days tend to be soft textured and have juicy, dark fruit flavors.
Not everyone likes the typical New World expressions of these wines and as wine drinkers’ palates become more sophisticated, they often move beyond them. There are exceptions to the established styles, but because they are outside of the mainstream market demands, they tend to cost more than the wines that have a strong market demand.
When Richard Luftig established Pied à Terre wines, he wanted to create the kind of New World wines he had come to enjoy while working in New York’s wine industry for 20 years, but he wanted to be able to sell those wines at affordable prices. In bucking the trends of the California wine world, Pied à Terre has created wines that are both unique and offer excellent value.
Probably the most popular type of white wine in the Cayman Islands for at least the past decade is Sauvignon Blanc.
New World Sauvignon Blancs are usually refreshing and fruity, making them ideal for Cayman’s climate. But for some people, this style of wine can be overbearing because of their strong aromas and flavors.
“I don’t like what’s typically associated with Sauvignon Blanc,” said Luftig. “I wanted to make a Sauvignon Blanc that I would love to drink.”
Making wines that are different from typical New World Sauvignon Blancs starts with the location of the vineyard and the way the grapes are grown, he noted.
“I can’t really get the wine I’m looking for if I don’t get good fruit,” he continued, noting that part of that means limiting crop yield in the vineyard.
“You can’t over-crop it or you’ll get the green flavors.”
The grapes come from two vineyards in Bennett Valley in the south-central part of Sonoma Valley. Bennett Valley is nestled between three mountain peaks, which capture regular early morning fog and cool marine breezes, great for creating crisp and structured white wines.
The other key factor in determining a wine’s taste occurs in the winery, where Luftig gives his Pied à Terre wine a different treatment than most New World Sauvignon Blancs.
“The wine is fermented in small, used French oak barrels, and it does not undergo malolactic fermentation because I love acidity,” he said.
By fermenting in oak rather than stainless steel tanks, Luftig said, the wine is less “savage and aggressive,” allowing for a more balanced flavor profile.
It isn’t easy producing Luftig’s somewhat exacting style of Sauvignon Blanc, which is light and fresh, and much more restrained than typical New World Sauvignon Blancs.
“It’s actually more challenging for me to make than my (Cabernet Sauvignon),” he said, but added that the results are worth it. “I’m really proud of it. It’s a distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc that I really love.”
Offering good value for wines is another of Luftig’s goals for Pied à Terre. When it comes to Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley, good Cabernet Sauvignon wines tend to be expensive. As a longtime restaurant sommelier in New York City, Luftig always felt there should also be some good Cabs available that didn’t cost $100 a bottle or more.
“I never want to lose sight of the fact that I want to offer value,” he said.
The Pied à Terre Cabernet Sauvignons are only made in great vintages. The first one was produced from the 2010 vintage, but the 2011 vintage was skipped because it didn’t produce grapes that met Luftig’s standards. The grapes for the 2010 vintage were sourced from Napa Valley, but then Pied à Terre switched to using grapes from vineyards in Sonoma Valley starting with the 2012 vintage. Sixty percent of those grapes were farmed by Pied à Terre itself. The Sonoma grapes allowed winemaker Clay Mauritson to create a more classic California Cabernet Sauvignon, rather than the typical fruit-forward, jammy Cabs that are very typical of Napa Valley these days, especially at Pied à Terre’s price point.
Luftig’s philosophy, which Mauritson executed, is not to manipulate the grapes too much in the winemaking process.
“I truly want the fruit to speak in my wine, both in the Cab and the Sauv Blanc,” he said, adding that by doing that, it gives the wine a sense of place.
Beyond letting the fruit shine, Luftig wants his wines to have good texture.
“Texture to me is the sexiest component of a wine when I’m tasting it,” he said.
One of the ways he ensures the Pied à Terre Cabernet Sauvignon has good texture is by forgoing cold stabilization, something Luftig says he will never do, even though by not doing it his wines will usually create harmless, but noticeable, crystals of tartaric acid. The trade-off is red wines with good, natural acid, something that will allow them to improve with age for a decade.
The Pied à Terre Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in French oak barrels with medium toasting, but never more than 20 percent of that is aged in new barrels because Luftig doesn’t want the oak to overpower the wine.
“I can’t stand wood sugars from new barrels (in wines),” he said, adding that by keeping the amount of wine aged in new oak to no more than 20 percent, the wines get structure without becoming sweet.
Although Pied à Terre’s production has been increasing slowly, it still produced only about 3,500 cases total in 2014. Luftig said he sells out every year and that most of his wines are sold in a handful of U.S. states. However, because of some connections made through Jacques Scott, the Cayman Islands gets a good allotment now.
With prices in the upper $20s, both Pied à Terre wines offer excellent value for the quality, as well as offering a unique expression of two very popular wine grape varietals.