Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Wine Searcher articles

I am the European Editor for wine-searcher.com. Below is a list of recent articles

Bordeaux 2015 en primeur


Burgundy 2014 en primeur


General news


Features and interviews

Tim Mondavi


Edouard Moueix


Grandes Pagos de España


Bordeaux 10 years on: 2006


Louis-Michel Liger-Belair


Burgundy's Jane Eyre




Ex-Grange winemaker John Duval


Chateau Latour's Frederic Engerer


Thursday, 24 March 2016

How to make authentic Paella Valenciana

This is Paella Valenciana, as made at Bodega Mustiguillo in Utiel Requena. Inclusion of other ingredients such as mariscos (seafood) or caracoles (snails), chorizo etc is allowed but it then ceases to be authentic.

The paella doesn't have to be cooked over an open fire but the woodsmoke adds a wonderful flavour

Olive oil
Brown the chicken and set aside
Add artichoke, green beans (bajoqueta) and white beans (garrofon)
Replace chicken
Add water, bring to boil and reduce (40-45 mins)
Add saffron (warmed and crumbled), pimenton and chopped rosemary
Add rice and cook for 20 mins

1. The paella is the pan as well as the dish, from the Valencian/Catalan word which derives from the French paelle, which in turn comes from the Latin patella, akin in turn to the Old Spanish padilla.
2. A. Habbaba, agricultural section head of Icex, told me there is also a view that the word derives from the Arabic bakaia meaning 'leftovers'
3. The word paellera for the pan is approved by the Real Academia Española, though purists dislike it.
4. Valencians eat paella several times a week. When I visited Mustiguillo, owner Toni Sarrion told me he had not had one for four days, and he was feeling it

Friday, 18 March 2016

A vintage studded with gems: Bordeaux 2006 Ten Years On

this article first appeared on Wine Searcher

The 2006 vintage in Bordeaux was destined to be difficult. Apart from coming straight after the already-legendary 2005, the weather was far from ideal – a warm start, a broiling July (hotter, on average, than the heatwave of 2003), then a damp, cool August, a blast of heat in early September and then rain for two weeks until the end of the month.

The ripening process had been so protracted that bunches were unevenly ripe, and the rain just before harvest increased the danger of rot. It was a season when diligent – and costly – work in the vineyards, and rigorous sorting when the grapes arrived in the winery, was essential. "It was a very expensive harvest," Florence Cathiard at Smith Haut Lafitte said. "We had to select almost as if it was Sauternes."

Generalizations are hard to make. The accepted wisdom at en primeur in April 2007 was that it was a Merlot year on the right bank (the toughest decision had been whether to pick before or after the September rain) and a Cabernet year in the Medoc (the later-ripening variety was full and ripe by the beginning of October). The Graves was reckoned to have made some great wines.

Ten years later, those early opinions are borne out. At the London merchant Bordeaux Index (BI as it is now known), a small group of critics and journalists met, as they do every year, for the Bordeaux Ten Years On tasting, with 71 red wines shown. Every wine of any note was there: Petrus at £15,000 a case, Le Pin (£12,500), the big-hitting Saint-Emilions, all the First Growths and their second wines, the super seconds, fifths, fourths, thirds and a smattering of Cru Bourgeois.

The first thing to say is that – apart from the ultra-wealthy superstars that can be expected to make an excellent wine come what may – there are some very good wines indeed, others that are charming and interesting, and some that are thin and astringent. While there was a danger of picking unripe fruit, the vintage is characterized by good structured tannins and high acidity, which when handled right means wines with great ageing potential. "Its bedevilment lies in its variability," BI's Michael Schuster writes. It is a vintage that requires careful choosing.

The best wines are bright, classic in profile, with dense, gripping tannins and fine acidity. There are outstanding wines in every commune. In the Medoc,Saint-Julien shows consistently well: Talbot was a particular pleasure, Gruaud-Larose, Langoa-Barton and Leoville Barton have lovely perfume; Leoville-las-Cases is juicy and exotic (but twice the price of its neighbors). In Pauillac the energy of the best wines – Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pontet-Canet were particular favorites – is notable.

The Graves lineup was also a pleasure. The two wines in which Michel Rolland has the most obvious hand, Malartic Lagravière and Smith Haut Lafitte, are beautifully made, calculatedly international wines with fresh ripe fruit and suave tannins; their neighbor Domaine de Chevalier is utterly different, precise and poised with sour cherry and damson fruit and brisk tannins releasing juice. Pape Clement too is excellent.

On the right bank, the earlier-ripening Merlot in Pomerol made some superb wines. At the top end, Petrus is a model of energy and harmony, its shy nose giving way to soft damson, blackberry, fine tannins and a delicate finish. Le Pin shows its colors instantly with a powerful savory nose, black cherry, the palate elegant and juicy, pretty but with a sense of power behind the structure. But note that there is far more affordable Pomerol, the best wines showing a creamy texture, developing into very precise, firm tannins. Look for Gazin, L'Eglise-Clinet and Conseillante.

Saint-Emilion, by contrast, is less consistent, with some wines showing a dryness and sour sharpness on the mid-palate and parsimonious juice at the end. The best wines managed to find ripeness to mitigate the acidity. Look out for Canon La Gaffèliere and Trotte Vieille. At the higher end, Figeac has sweet leathery damson fruit and a fine, juicy finish; at the very top, the concentration and energy, and soft creamy dark fruit of Cheval Blanc is a delight. Once again, Chateau Pavie is instantly recognizable for over-use of oak and clumsy extraction. Avoid.

2006 is not a cheap vintage: analysis from the trading platform Liv-ex shows that prices are on a par with 2001 and 2004, years which are similar in reputation. "There were some errors in pricing on release," Liv-ex's Justin Gibbs told Wine-Searcher, pointing to wines such as La Mission Haut-Brion, which had an opening price of £2,950 and is now half that at £1,480; but generally the wines are holding their value. Most of the First Growths have not dropped in price since release.

At every level and in every commune 2006 is a vintage studded with gems, the very best wines with structure and acidity to ensure another ten or twenty years ageing; there are also affordable, charming and accessible wines that are drinking beautifully now.
10 Years After – Bordeaux 2006
© Deepix

Bordeaux 2006 – wines to look out for:
(all prices approximate, case of 12 bottles, in bond)

Affordable to pricey:

Sweet pleasant woody nose leading to sour plum on the palate. Classic profile, charming, gentle fine length with some dryness.
£300, Drink 2016-2020

Attractive creamy texture on the attack, sweet dark fruit, delicate grip to the tannins and a perfumed mid-palate. Juicy and long.
£465, Drink 2016-2025

Slightly herbaceous nose, palate of damson and plum with hint of sour sloes, fresh and open, firm on the mid palate, juice released at the end.
£265, Drink 2016-2020

Fine earthy nose, instantly attractive attack with lots of juicy dark ripe fruit and ripe tannins. Polished, smart, international but very good.
£260, Drink 2016-2025

Delicious as always. Expressive nose with sour black cherry, sweet acidity, firm tannins, hints of just-ground coffee, lots of mineral energy. Superb.
£365, Drink 2018-2030

Fresh, perfumed, with lovely structure and sweet blackcurrant on the palate. Full, assured, opulent from this old-fashioned and consistently excellent property.
£420, Drink 2016-2025

Cigar-box nose, instant grip to the tannins mitigated by fresh acidity and ripe black fruit. Great persistence to the slightly dry finish,
£350, Drink 2016-2020

Complex nose with sandalwood and spearmint. Tannic density, serious weight, blackberry and ripe blackcurrant. Feels massive, dryness at end could be disconcerting until tannins release sweet juice. Will be very fine.
£380, Drink 2020-2030

Expensive to very expensive:

Coffee and blackberry nose, generous fruit, smoky, tobacco-tinged blackberry and hedgerow complemented by soft-grip tannin. Open, weighty, polished, modern. Lovely wine.
£535, Drink 2016-2030

In a ripe vintage Pape Clement can be vulgarly opulent but here the vanilla oak flavors are restrained, and there's delicacy to the sour plum fruit, precision to the tannins. Attractive in the modern style.
£700, Drink 2016-2028

Very fine earthy perfumed nose, fresh, open generous palate, creamy, with fresh-ground coffee, licorice and the merest hints of classic Palmer perfume. Firm insistent tannins and a lovely elegant finish.
£1275, Drink 2016-2030

Chateau Leoville-Las Cases, Saint-Julien 
Gorgeous perfumed nose, elegant and seductive, notes of exotic sandalwood on the palate, mint, blackberry, silky texture, endless length. Luscious, one of the best wines of the day.
£1075, Drink 2016-2030

Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron, Pauillac 
Sweet blackcurrant coulis on the nose, rather more open and accessible than its neighbour Pichon-Lalande across the road, smoky, tannic, dense mouthfeel and then welcome juice at the end. Serious, concentrated, hefty.
£725, Drink 2018-2030

Chateau Calon-Sègur, Saint-Estèphe 
The perfume leaps out of the glass, followed by fresh ripe dark fruit on the palate, firm tannins, racy acidity alongside freshening hints of green. Utterly seductive and delicate, as only to be expected from this lovely property.
£595, Drink 2016-2030

Chateau Cos d'Estournel, Saint-Estèphe 
Extravagantly perfumed nose carried through to opulently-fruited palate, firm tannins releasing juice, baskets of cassis, blackberry, sour plum and roasted coffee beans. Dense, luscious, exotic.
£780, Drink 2018-2036

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac 
Touted everywhere as the wine of the vintage. A shy nose revealing minerally graphite, but the palate astonishes, huge but with finesse, black fruit, cassis, mouthwatering acidity giving wonderful energy. Exceptional, even down to the oddly charming "zebra" label by the late Lucien Freud.

Underworld: the section headings

These are the section headings in Don DeLillo's Underworld. 
Summaries are my own


The Triumph of Death
The Game - Cotter - Sinatra, Gleason, Hoover - Russ Hodges

Part 1
Long Tall Sally
Spring - Summer 1992
Nick Shay - Klara Sax - Big Sims and Brian Glassic

Manx Martin 1
Stealing the baseball

Part 2
Elegy for Left Hand Alone
Mid-1980s - Early 1990s
The Texas Highway Killer - Marian and Brian - Brian and Marvin (baseball) - Bronzini aged - Sister Edgar

Part 3
The Cloud of Unknowing
Spring 1978
Marvin and Chuckie Wainwright

Manx Martin 2
Stealing shovels

Part 4
Cocksucker Blues
Klara on the rooftops with Miles - Matt Shay - Eisenstein's Unterwelt - Matt and Janet

Part 5
Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry
Selected Fragmaent Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s
Nick in correction - the Demings at home ("the sense of a tiny holiday taking place on the shelves") - Nick - Hoover and Clyde at the Waldorf - "Crisp little men aswagger with assets" - Lenny Bruce - Chuckie the bombardier

Manx Martin 3
Meeting Charles Wainwright and Chuckie at the game

Part 6
Arrangement in Grey and Black
Fall 1951 - Summer 1952
Bronzini coaches young Matt - young Nick and his friends - Rosemary Shay - Nick shoots George the Waiter

Das Kapital
Kazakhstan - Sister Edgar - "Peace"



1. The Manx Martin chapters appear before Elegy for Left Hand Alone, Cocksucker Blues and Arrangement in Grey and Black

2. Prologue, Epilogue and Cocksucker Blues are the only undated sections

3. Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry is the only section to be subtitled. I have no explanation for the misspelling of 'Fragmaent' (in my Picador paperback)

4. If you search 'Fragmaent Underworld', you get six results, two of which are relevant: this blog, and Google books

5. All spellings and punctuation sic

6. Here's Observer writer Robert McCrum's essay on this "visionary edifice"

7. And here's Adam Begley's interview with DeLillo in the Paris Review

Cover to the 1st Edition 1997

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

"Them motherfuckers racist": how Jay Z's Armand de Brignac is coming out of the darkness and into the light

This article appears in the current issue of Meininger's Wine Business International

Eyebrows were raised when Champagne Armand de Brignac announced last year that it wanted to take its bottles “out of the night and into the daylight”. After all, this is multi-millionaire rapper and businessman Jay Z’s brand, it comes in a gold-embossed bottle with an Ace of Spades motif. It’s as closely associated with nightclubs as Frank Sinatra is with Las Vegas.

"That spade shit..." Jay Z and his fizz
The company – Armand de Brignac is now wholly-owned by Jay Z, who bought it outright in 2014 – is unambiguous about its new ambition. “We want to take it out of nightclubs and into the daytime,” marketing director Gerald Loparco said. “We’ve seen a strong evolution in the night industry. The new strategy is to establish the brand in the daylight. We’ve been in nightclubs too much.”

Mindful that bringing a brand blinking into the daylight also means there are fewer dark corners to hide in, the team behind the Champagne has been carefully updating its pedigree and ironing out the inconsistencies in the story of its creation.

The circumstances of Armand de Brignac’s birth are well-known, although the details remain foggy. In 2006 Jay Z – who had been wedded to Roederer’s top marque Cristal for at least 10 years, selling it in his numerous clubs and sports bars and other concessions – took offence at a remark made by Roederer’s new CEO Frederic Rouzaud. The latter, asked what he thought of the rap community being such fans of Cristal, replied, “What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." 

“Them motherfuckers racist” was how Jay Z pithily expressed his reaction in his song On To The Next One, adding, “so I switched gold bottles, on to that spade shit,” a reference to Armand de Brignac which – and this is where accounts diverge – he discovered in a New York bottle shop. In another video, Show Me What You Got, he waves away a bottle of Cristal in favour of Ace of Spades.

Armand de Brignac Brut Gold
Eight years later, in 2014, he bought the entire brand from New York drinks company Sovereign Brands.

Armand de Brignac is made by Champagne Cattier, a family-owned house with a couple of hundred years history in the premier cru village of Chigny-les-Roses. Its vineyards, notably the 2.2ha Clos du Moulin, are distinguished, but Cattier has no great international prestige. Indeed, when Armand de Brignac first came to Jay Z’s – and the world’s – notice, Cattier was not identified as its maker. The fact that Armand was a joint venture with Sovereign Brands also took some years to come to light.

From the start, journalists  in both the wine and the music business were intrigued. Armand de Brignac had appeared, fully-fledged and, at over $200 a bottle, in the front rank of Champagnes, almost literally overnight. Critics such as Jancis Robinson MW were effusive. She thought it so good, it made one of her favourite fizzes, Pol Roger 1999, seem “diffuse and ordinary”, she wrote in 2009.

But others were unsatisfied. Forbes.com’s Zack O’Malley Greenburg found the story “unravelling” as he delved into it. It was full of  inconsistencies, he said. The idea that Jay Z had found it in a New York store, for example: Armand de Brignac didn’t start shipping to the US until months after the gold bottle made its first famous appearance in Show Me What You Got. “When I confronted the folks at Cattier about this, they backtracked,” he wrote. He was told, “There’s a misunderstanding regarding how Jay saw the bottle. It was in New York, but not in a store.”

"You can't create a Champagne out of thin air..."

Over the ensuing ten years, Armand de Brignac has become used to fielding questions about its provenance. Its executives are notable for their accessibility and openness. “The Jay Z connection is very simple,” CEO Sebastien Besson tells Meininger’s. “He’s talented about spotting consumer trends.” Was he involved in creating Armand de Brignac? “Of course not. You can’t create a Champagne out of thin air.”

Besson is frank about their ambitions and reiterates what the other senior executives of the company say: their aim is to be spoken of in the same breath as Dom Pérignon, Ruinart and Krug. “We’re not shy about being a new brand. We’re not as visible as the prestige brands at the moment, but it’s amazing how much ground we’ve gained. If we’re in a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, we’re fighting against the prestige brands.”

Price, rarity, history and quality - in that order

To exist in the rarefied atmosphere of the great Champagne marques, one has to satisfy four criteria – price, rarity, history and quality – often in that order. The first two are amply taken care of. Last year the new ultra-cuvée of Armand de Brignac was launched, a Blanc de Noirs that retails in Harrods for £695. There is another new wine, a demi-sec, which sits alongside the original Brut, a Rosé, and a Blanc de Blancs, all of which sell for between £250 and £350. Some 3,000 bottles of the Blanc de Noirs are made, and its price puts it in the same bracket as Krug Clos de Mesnil, Dom Pérignon Oenotheque, and other icons. One level down, the Brut and its siblings are on a par with Salon, Dom Pérignon, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque and the like.

Creating a history for Armand de Brignac is trickier. The company now takes care that Jean-Jacques Cattier and his son Alexandre are on hand to provide a bit of Gallic credibility. The Cattiers were there at last year’s launch at the Churchill Hotel in London, sticking gamely if lugubriously to the story. “This is a big adventure for us. We launched the prestige brand less than ten years ago and we’re now in more than 100 countries. We can’t quite believe it,” Jean-Jacques said.

Image result for frank sinatra and vegas
Armand de Brignac and nightclubs "like Sinatra and Vegas..."
The setting for the tasting was a windowless book-lined room, reminiscent of a St James’s Street club, all dark wood and plush armchairs. The leather-backed volumes on the shelves were real, although they had a slightly ersatz look; closer inspection revealed they were unreadable Victorian treatises on land management, or bound editions of engineering periodicals.

If the bogus-yet-plush setting was somehow appropriate, it has to be noted that there is nothing fake about the wine in the bottles. Armand de Brignac is a very good Champagne, from excellent terroir. It’s not only Robinson who rates it highly. Two other critics of international standing, Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan MW, called it “extraordinarily exceptional.” In 2010, the Brut Gold NV was voted the world’s best Champagne by Fine Champagne Magazine (the winner in 2014 was Roederer Cristal Rosé 2002).

But there are dissenting voices too, and discreet enquiries around the London trade are likely to be met with a gentle pursing of the lips, and an arched eyebrow. “It definitely has a following but I’m not convinced of its quality,” one major London merchant told Meininger’s, making the point that “part of its cleverness is its anonymity – no one knows it’s Cattier”. Back in the Churchill, critics drew ironic comparisons between the fakery of the décor and Armand de Brignac’s lurid packaging. You could easily imagine a mini bottle hanging on a gold chain round a rapper’s neck, someone said.

The juice is exceptional...

Chief marketing officer Bernadette Knight (who comes from luxury conglomerate LVMH, whose list includes Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Krug and Ruinart) is unfazed by the criticism. “There’s some work to do on messaging,” she said. “We’ve got a job to do to reintroduce the brand. But the juice is exceptional and there is passion on the winemaking side. It’s an authentic and honest brand.”

Knight and her global marketing team (“all wine and Champagne specialists”) have been on a charm offensive, running “traditional tastings which allowed both trade and consumers to better understand, taste and feel the attention to detail, pride and passion that the 11th generation family winemakers, the Cattiers, have put into each bottle of Armand de Brignac.” She has placed the wine in upmarket restaurants worldwide, from Zuma and Hakkasan in London to LA’s Beverly Hill’s Hotel and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, Johannesburg’s Signature and the St Regis, Singapore. “As we grow, what will remain most important to us is the continued focus on craftsmanship, quality and small batch production,” Knight adds.

The input of Jay Z himself is harder to nail down. He has an empire that is estimated to be worth some $550m, so a few thousand bottles of Champagne can’t occupy him that much. “He brings his sensibility to the brand. He was involved in  the design of the bottle, and he directs where the company goes, but he isn’t involved in the winemaking process,” Alexandre Cattier says.

Knight adds to this: her boss is looking far into the future. She tells Meininger’s, “He wants to create a legacy for his family. He has said, ‘This is the legacy I want to leave behind for my children’s children.’ Jay is a businessman. He wants to make a true luxury brand that stands with or without him.”

Every multimillionaire wants to own a winery. Jay Z has a brand, but is he looking around for something more concrete? “This is a family company,” Besson reiterates. “There may be a vineyard in France, one day.”

Monday, 4 January 2016

"Of course more Cabernet will be planted..." Changing times on Napa's Spring Mountain

This article was first published in Decanter magazine

Spring Mountain District is one of the five great mountain appellations of the Napa Valley. It covers a lot of ground – its lower reaches abut the quiet residential streets of St Helena town, before the road climbs in vertiginous switchbacks 2000 feet into the Mayacamas Range and the borders of Sonoma. Wine has been made here since the mid-19th century – the Beringers, already established in St Helena – planted a vineyard in 1880. In its heyday, before phylloxera and Prohibition, there were some 250 wineries working on Spring Mountain.

Spring Mountain Distict: "One of the five great mountain appellations of Napa"

Today there are thirty, and you’re unlikely to find a more diverse crew of winemakers and grape farmers in Napa, or indeed in any American, appellation. There are rangy individualists like the Smith brothers at Smith Madrone, whose ranch is a piece of Napa history, unchanged since they arrived in the 1970s, their interesting list including a  Riesling that is renowned, and delicious (though not as original or unusual as their Cabernets). On a quiet evening you can hear their shotguns booming from miles away – the estate is dotted with buckshot-peppered targets. There are polished, millionaire-owned start-ups like Vineyard 7&8, or Newton, now owned by LVMH but an early pioneer, of whose light and elegant 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon I wrote in my notes, “among the best Napa Cabs I’ve ever tasted.” There are hidden treasures like Stony Hill, started by the McCrea family in 1942, whose winemaker Mike Chelini pressed his first vintage in 1977.

While Bordeaux varietals dominate – over 800 of the appellation’s 1000 acres (405ha) are planted to the five red Bordeaux grapes, 550 (223ha) of them Cabernet – Spring Mountain is far from homogenous in the way that Stags Leap District, say, is now almost entirely Cabernet. Stony Hill’s 160 acres are a patchwork of varieties; the majority are the early Chardonnay plantings, with Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Syrah, Semillon, a bit of Pinot Noir and some Zinfandel. Growers like John Gantner and Nancy Walker at School House are working with Zin and Pinot Noir and Syrah, while Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc aren’t uncommon.

But times are changing, and the more fashionable mountain fruit becomes, the more vineyards will be turned over to the profitable varieties. Newton is undergoing  a major replant which will see its Cabernet plantings rising from two thirds to about 85% of its acreage. A couple of years ago, Jackson Family Wines snapped up 25 acres of Spring Mountain land for their Lokoya range of very expensive Napa mountain Cabernets. Stony Hill owner Peter McCrea isn’t about to change anything, “But,” he says, “If I came into the business now, I’d plant Cabernet and Chardonnay. No question.” Gantner laments this. “Of course more Cabernet will be planted. The only people who can afford to buy here are multimillionaires who hire hi-tech consultants. They know they’re not going to make any money but that doesn’t worry them. What they want are 100-point scores to show off to their friends.”

Stony Hill is a good example of a producer that is in the district but not of it (the current vintage is the first to carry the AVA on the label – previous bottles have been labelled simply Napa Valley). Indeed, McCrea articulates a view of Spring Mountain that is not uncommom: the AVA really has no coherence at all.

“An AVA should have commonality in terms of climate, soil variety, topography,” he says. “And Spring Mountain has none of that. It’s known as a Cabernet appellation but Cabernet wasn’t grown here for 60 years.” Gantner agrees. “The one common feature is that we’re all located on this mountain.” He talks about the temperature variations between altitudes, and especially the varied soils. “I dug 14 soil pits and they were all different. In one there was heavy black loam, and 200 yards away there would be another with round volcanic rocks and sandy loam.”

If there is a common thread, it’s the distinct style of mountain fruit. For Andrew Schweiger at the lovely vineyards his parents planted in the 1980s, it’s “complexity and small berry size, and fine acid that develops during the day.” The fruit produces tannins that have to be carefully managed, he says. “You could give Spring Mountain fruit to a monkey and he would produce a big Cab.” For Hal Barnett of his eponymous winery, another pioneer, it’s “fruit that’s not as forward or lush as on the valley floor. It’s got more restraint.”

I drove up to Cain, a mountain fastness whose wind-blown grasslands and sloping vineyards embody the character of the appellation. The climate here is typical of high-level California vineland. The inversion layer (by which warmer air is pushed upwards from the valley floor) means there is less difference between night and day temperatures than down below, but the thin soils and exposure to wind ensure small berries with thick skins. “Bud break is a week later than in the valley,” vineyard manager Ashley Anderson says, “the growing season is shorter so we get intenser flavours. We don’t need to extract much.” Only one of Cain’s three wines - the Cain 5 -  is sourced entirely from Spring Mountain. A Bordeaux blend, it’s a marvel of precision and exoticism, with the hallmarks of mountain fruit  and with layers of violet perfume, minerality and fine earthy rot.

It’s a difficult wine to classify, but perhaps unclassifiability is Spring Mountain’s unifying factor. I have several emails from Cain’s winemaker Chris Howell, describing the region, and what he calls its “mountain iconoclasts”. “Is it about elevation, exposure and soil or is it about winemaking?” he asks in one. “Perhaps some of the character in the wine comes from the characters who live and work up here.”

At a Glance

Established 1993

Area under vine: 1000 acres (405ha)

Number of wineries: 30

Location: northern and eastern slopes of the Mayacamas range

Elevation:  400 feet (122 m) to 2,600 feet (792 m)

Grapes planted: over half is Cabernet Sauvignon (557 acres/225ha), the rest Merlot (182 acres/77ha), Cabernet Franc (44 acres/18ha), Petit Syrah (28/11); Chardonnay (51/21), Sauvignon Blanc (26/10);  Small parcels (less than 10ha) of Riesling, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Malbec, Viognier

Soils: Typically shallow volcanic and sedimentary rock: primarily volcanic in the north and sandstone and shale to the south. Well-drained, acidic, poor in nutrients, on steep slopes with very varied orientation.

Total production: between 60,000 and 120,000 cases depending on yield. Average winery production 85,000 cases 

Ones to Watch

Spring Mountain Vineyard
Napa aristocracy, runner-up in the 1976 Paris Tasting, producer of restrained and ageworthy red and white Bordeaux blends. SMV’s La Perla vineyard, planted in 1873, is the oldest Cabernet planting on Spring Mountain. Now under the auspices of formidable Tasmanian winemaker Susan Doyle, who is casting a gimlet eye over the whole operation. Of the 2013 Chardonnay (the 1973 came 4th in Paris) she says, “There’s not enough acidity. We can lend ourselves to a more European style.”

Stony Hill
The McCrea family planted in the 1940s and the winery has changed little since then: the barrels are dark with age, the 1000-gallon vats look like the sort of thing Al Capone might have stored bootleg in. Current winemaker Mike Chelini, who took over in 1977, is “the oldest tenured winemaker in Napa,” owner Peter McCrea (who is of the same vintage) says. There is nothing old-fashioned about the wines, which are structured, restrained and fresh: utterly modern, in fact. The Chardonnay 2014 from barrel was among the best I have tasted in 15 years visiting Napa.

Bearded mountain men Stuart and Charles Smith work a remote 200-acre ranch which was first planted in the 1880s, crafting sought-after Bordeaux blends, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Riesling on rocky slopes. Like the McCreas (above), the Smiths have changed little since they planted in the 1970s, their Cabernets expecially showing a fine classic structure. “Those tannins will calm,” Stuart says of the fine, robust Estate 2006.

In looking for prime Napa hillside land for their high-end Lokoya series, in late 2013 Jackson Family Wines bought the Yverdon vineyard, which sits at 2000-plus feet off the Spring Mountain Road. Lokoya is regarded as amongst the very finest hillside collections, its winemaker Chris Carpenter teasing out the subtle differences between the AVAs of Diamond Mountain, Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain. The blue fruit, fresh cedary brightness and stony minerality of the latter are the hallmarks of the appellation.

School House Vineyard
Founded 75 years ago, seventeen acres of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, vinified  peripatetically in a series of wineries including Stony Hill, Schweiger, Montelena and now Pride Mountain. School House is dry-farmed, its owners John M Gantner and Nancy Walker self-proclaimed dinosaurs. Gantner has an amused disdain for what he calls “the hi-tech people” – multimillionaires who buy up land and chase 100-point scores. “My instructions to winemakers are, ‘Let the wine make itself’. If in doubt, I go for simplicity,” he says.

Philip Togni
A founding father of modern Napa Cabernet, the British-born Togni was instrumental in the creation of Chappellet (his 1969 Cabernet is legendary) with long and influential stints at Cuvaison and Chalone among others, he bought 25 acres on Spring Mountain in 1975 and planted to Bordeaux varietals. His wines are celebrated the world over for their subtlety and finesse; the 1990 Cabernet was ranked above that vintage of Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton at a Brussels tasting.

Spring Mountain District Recommendations

Lüscher-Ballard Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, 2008
n/a UK
Made by John Kongsgaard, this has a lovely rotted ozone whiff on the nose, followed by ripe blueberry and blackcurrant, pencil shavings, cigar tube, fine dry tannins and fresh acidity
alc 14.1

Pride Mountain Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, 2005
£164 Fine and Rare, Hedonism, Turville Valley Wines
Dense nose of dark fruit, palate of sweet blackberry juice, a hint of tobacco and coffee, intense weighty tannins and a lovely juicy finish. Powerful but controlled
alc 14.5

Schweiger, Dedication, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, 2010
n/a UK
Bordeaux blend: fresh raspberry leaf and mocha nose, ripe damson and black cherry, sweet cedar, savoury notes finishing with fine sweet juice. Powerful, restrained
alc 14.8

Cain Vineyard and Winery, Cain 5, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley 2010
£75.00 Justerini & Brooks
Creamy, savoury opulent nose with coffee notes, young tenacious tannins, ripe, almost rotted plum, then notes of graphite, sour cherry and orange zest; racy acidity. Exotic and perfumed.
alc 13.9

Spring Mountain Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley 2009
£62.50 Whirly Wines
Intense savoury nose, medium weight, fresh blackcurrant with hints of mint, earthy tones, fine tannins, delicate dry length
alc 14.3

Stony Hill, Chardonnay, Napa Valley 2007
n/a UK
Sweet and fresh with very pure lime and citrus aromas. Honeysuckle and peach on the palate with flinty minerality, dancing acidity and top notes of exotic spice. Precise and utterly delicious    
alc 13

Barnett Vineyards, Merlot, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley 2012
n/a UK
Opulent plum and cherry, ripe without being jammy, fresh acidity lifting the fruit, dry, chalky tannins releasing juice. Sweet with serious weight at the core
alc 14.5

Smith-Madrone, Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley 2010
£44 Roberson
Vibrant blue fruit on the nose, fresh and savoury palate with ripe perfumed damson, fine structured tannins and refreshing acidity.
alc 14.1

Lokoya Cabernet SauvignonSpring Mountain DistrictNapa Valley2011
Almost raisined nose leading to fresh and bright open palate, graphite, stony minerality, open and juicy, fresh, with wonderful cedary brightness. Powerful and persistent length
alc 14.5

Smith-Madrone, Riesling, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley 2013
Orange-blossom nose with hints of gasoline, white flowers on palate developing peach and sweet pear, bone-dry minerality will soften. Curious, charming