Monday 9 December 2013

Napa mountain vs valley floor: a tasting held at St Helena in the Napa Valley to determine stylistic differences between Cabernet Sauvignon grown in mountain appellations and on the valley floor.

I chaired this tasting in early November 2013. Panellists: Chris Howell, Tim Mondavi, Cathy Corison and Jean-Charles Boisset. Organised with superb efficiency by Patsy McGaughy at Napa Valley Vintners.

The purpose of the tasting
The idea was to tease out the differences between mountain – or hillside – Cabernet Sauvignon, and valley floor or benchland fruit. In the morning we did a walkabout tasting with around 40 wines, blind but separated and labelled mountain or valley floor, with one table of ten wines completely blind. The afternoon panel tasting featured 12 wines, non-blind, which we tasted in flights of four: two valley floor and two mountain. List of wines below.

Diamond  Creek, Diamond Mountain District
The first thing to note is that it is extremely difficult to single out characteristics unique to valley floor or mountain in Napa. This is partly due to the singular topography of the region, of which more later, and partly – I think – due to the relative youth of winemaking in the region. As Chris Howell said – and Tim Mondavi echoed – ‘Napa is still in its adolescence’. What was remarkable about the panel line-up was that the 12 wines should show such a wide range of characteristics, from the opulent perfume of the Raymond to the pared-down elegance of the Corison. Howell’s mantra that ‘site will prevail’ must be tempered by Mondavi’s comment that ‘the hand of the winemaker is evident’, and Howell’s own contention that ‘when we talk about place we are essentially talking about winemaking.’

Diamond Creek: Red Rock Terrace (foreground),
Gravelly Meadow (left)
Red Rock Terrace (beyond lagoon)
Newton, Spring Mountain District
Master Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson agrees: ‘The hand of the winemaker can have a huge impact and it seems to take one of two paths: uber-ripeness/excess (sacrificing much in the way of other detail/layers/interest in fragrance, flavor and complexity), or emphasis on new oak introducing wood tannins and raw fragrances that dominate the fruit.’

Various definitions of mountain and valley floor fruit
In two weeks of Cabernet Sauvignon tastings in the horseshoe of Napa mountain AVAs, from Mount Veeder in the south (from whose southern vineyards you can see see downtown San Francisco) to Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain in the north, back down to Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak in the south, I heard as many definitions of mountain or hillside wine as I had conversations. There is the political, as succinctly put to me by Stuart Smith of Smith Madrone: there’s a conflict between lowlands and highlands. Producers on the valley floor resent us up in the hills, mainly because with the current draconian Hillside Ordinance they can’t get up there themselves (the Smith brothers, or Peter Newton, would never have been able to plant their high vineyards had they not done it before the ordinance came into effect). Further  development is hamstrung with bureaucracy. Many would disagree of course – if it wasn’t for the regulatory constrictions, the hills would be carpeted with vineyards.

Newton: the gardens
Rudy Von Strasser at his winery on Diamond Mountain has another view: mountain wine is more of a marketing hook than anything else. His point is that there are so many stylistic variables – some mountain vineyards have very expressive fruit, some valley floor wines have the elegant austere profile that you would expect from altitude – that searching for stylistic pointers is difficult if not impossible.

There are five AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in Napa that can be described as hillside or mountain. On the Mayacamas range on the western side of the valley are Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain, and on the eastern side – the Vaca range – are Howell Mountain to the north and Atlas Peak to the south. Just north of Atlas Peak is Pritchard Hill, not an AVA, but home to Colgin, Bryant, Tim Mondavi’s Continuum, Dalla Valle, Chappellet – the latter one of the great Napa pioneers. The mountain AVAs average 600-2000ft [182-609m]); the highest vineyards sit at around 2,600 feet [792m] on Atlas Peak.

Cimarossa: rock breaks the surface
The differences between mountain and valley can be roughly defined in terms of topography, style, viticulture and winemaking as follows:

The hills are more exposed to prevailing winds, giving more stress to the vines. Slopes are steeper – sometimes even vertiginous - terracing is common.
There is greater variation in soils in the mountain AVAs – from volcanic tufa, white volcanic ash, to loam, limestone – what they have in common is that they are generally poor, very rocky, with good drainage – depths vary from no more than a foot

Chappellet winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus
and formerly buried rock (Pritchard Hill)
to several metres. In many areas, rocks break the surface of the ground. Use of dynamite and drilling equipment is common when planting. Ann Colgin told me it took a year to prep her land on Pritchard Hill, using '12 giant earthmoving machines and a bit of dynamite'.

It’s worth mentioning that  this makes mountain viticulture a very expensive business – planting is difficult when you have to remove several hundred tons of car-sized rocks (preparing and planting a mountain vineyard can cost anything up to US$200,000 an acre) and different  ripening times within blocks require many passes at harvest. Some vineyards will be separated into a dozen or more blocks for separate picking and vinification. Mountain wines tend to be produced in small quantities from land that is extremely expensive to farm: from Colgin to Bryant Family, many of the Napa ‘cult’ wines are from the high ranges.

Orientation is very varied. A vineyard like Dino Cimarossa’s on Howell Mountain  curves around  the hilltop facing four different ways at once.
Cimarossa aerial view with vineyards facing every point of the compass

One the most interesting characteristics of Napa mountain AVAs is that they are anomalous: unlike many other mountain regions around the world, they can’t be described as cool climate regions.

The inversion layer means that cooler air in the valley pushes hot air upwards: night-time lows can be higher than valley lows (up to 11C warmer), but the daytime highs are lower than on the valley floor – afternoons tend  to be cooler. Temperatures hardly ever get above 100F, considerably cooler than valley summer temperatures.

The fog line from Colgin
early morning, November, Pritchard Hill
Mountain regions tend to be drier - there are no summer days of intense wetting from the fog – and they are seldom affected by frost.

There’s variation in temperature between the AVAs. Diamond Mountain in the north is one of the warmest regions, while Mount Veeder, which abuts Carneros and is a few miles from the Bay, is cooler.

The Napa Valley Vintners website has a good clear summary of each AVA here

Robert Craig: rock, Howell Mountain

The Vines
Vines in the mountain AVAs are stressed, by wind exposure and by lack of water. They are smaller, less vigorous – six- or seven-year-old vines can look like two-year-olds.

Bunches are smaller, especially Cabernet: it’s common to see bunches no bigger than a fist.
Berries are smaller with  thicker skins – the skin to juice ratio is half what it is down in the valley.
Yields are much lower – typically 1.5 to 2 tons per acre

Winemaking and viticulture
Cain: the terraces
Harvests are later than below in the valley – generally by about two weeks – the grapes hang longer but typically are picked at lower sugar levels - 25 degrees brix, as opposed to 27 degrees and higher on the valley floor.

If red winemaking is all about tannin management then this is never more true than for mountain fruit – every winemaker I have spoken to has the same story: the biggest challenge is handling the tannins in Cabernet. Peter Rubissow describes his vineyard on Mount Veeder as 'like a racehorse - very powerful and difficult to handle'. Intervention is minimal; cold soak, gentle pumpover and punchdown and infrequent racking are common.

Wines have fresh natural  acidity and tannic grip and often a mineral character.
Red or blueberry fruit (there's much debate about this: Dawnine Dyer on Diamond Mountain for example reckons 'fruit is more black than red'; others see blueberry, red cherry, redcurrant. My notes tend toward the red side of things, even to raspberry in the older wines); green spectrum – herb, hay and sage rather than capsicum or fresh-mown grass.

Inherent structure: mountain wines tend to have defined, grainy tannins and lower acidity – the tannins are precise, often kick in late in the palate after a rush of bright fruit; I see it as the scaffolding that holds up round, warm fruit

There’s also often a certain rusticity, as put to me by Chris Millard at Newton. He  describes his wines as rustic, a term that can be pejorative in Europe, but Millard sees it as the difference between wild rather than cultivated fruit: a wild briar with small intense blackberries and those big, perfect, clean cultivated blackberries you buy in the supermarket.

Again, there are different views. Here’s Robinson on tannin and fruit differences: ‘I felt the hillside wines had better integration of their tannins so that, while brooding, their intensity was well-harmonized with the rest of the wine’s components. Generally I get darker fruits and greater salinity and savoriness on the hillside wines, more red fruit and candied qualities on the valley floor.

It quickly became apparent that there would be no simple conclusions. Cathy Corison suggested mountain and valley floor wine could be distinguished by the ‘broadness in the fruit’ of the former and the ‘snappy acidity’ of the latter. Chris Howell said the difference resided in the quality of the tannins mountain fruit produces: thick-skinned mountain-grown grapes give powerful tannins that need careful handling in the winery. ‘The fruit from the valley envelops the tannin structure, while the mountain tannins are truly different. Valley wines are more flattering, more approachable and friendly.’

There was some discussion as to whether winemakers in the valley were achieving this approachability by picking later and riper, but Corison disputed this. ‘There’s a difference regardless of how long you leave the grapes to hang.’

For Corison, this is due in large part to relative acidity and pH values. Unlike many mountain regions, Napa’s high vineyards, because they tend to be warmer at night, produce lower acidity than in the valley. So the two styles can be distinguished by their structural differences, Corison said. ‘We are in the fog, we have cooler nights, and we keep this snappy acidity.’ The higher pH of mountain wines was the one ‘consistent thread’ that ran through the tasting, she concluded.

Ovid: the stony soils of Pritchard Hill
The hand of the winemaker
The role of the winemaker in setting style was discussed in detail. ‘When we want to talk about place, we are essentially talking about winemaking choices,’ Howell said, though he felt that ‘site will prevail’ more in the mountains than in the valley. At Cain, winemaking ‘is not purely a quest for fruit. I am always thinking what is beyond the fruit: not just structure but texture as well.’ Mondavi agreed that often, ‘the hand of the winemaker is evident’, and his marketing chief, Burke Owens, agreed. He pointed out that Corison’s single-vineyard Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon ‘has many of the markers found in mountain-grown wines as a result of vine age and grape growing choices. It is more burly, has a richer and broader palate impression and …a dense structural core and length of finish that is highly reminiscent of mountain fruit.’

Tannin structure and acidity aside, the most significant finding of the tasting was how difficult it is to define differences between mountain and valley fruit. Winemaking practices, relative age of vines and other variables ‘add to the complexity of the topic,’ as Mondavi said. The twelve wines showed considerable variation in style. This, he said, was evidence of the ‘wonderful diversity of Napa. We are still young and finding our own niches.’ Howell compared Napa Valley to an adolescent: 'You're young, you're finding things out. It's going to take a few years before you really know yourself.'

Stephen Brook, Jancis Robinson and Margaret Rand did a similar exercise in London for World of Fine Wine in 2010 (Issue 28). Their conclusions were equally opaque: a trio with many decades of experience behind them, they were able to distinguish mountain from valley or benchland Cabernet only 50% of the time. 'In theory, it should not have been too difficult,' Brook said.


All 2009 Vintage

Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Fresh hay, some green notes, bright dark fruit, sweet plum, damson, fresh cherry and blackcurrant. Very light and fresh palate with racy acidity and suave tannins, some perfume – light violet and pot pourri but not nearly as pronounced as the Kronos

Corison Winery Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena
Deep opulent nose with damson and black cherry and some spice, defined, grippy tannins and robust acidity, earthy freshness to the palate, damp forest floor, even garrigue, hints of parma violet and cedarwood.

Continuum Estate Red Wine Blend, Napa Valley
Perfume of parma violets, palate of plum and black cherry and this lovely ripe open breathy freshness. Late-developing dusty, structured tannins that pick up the fruit and carry it through to a solid food-friendly finish. A hint of alcohol imbalance but that slight burn dissipates with the acidity. Very fine

Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District
Fresh minty nose with dense dark fruit, minerality and sour-mash red fruit on palate. Acidity dominates the suave, elastic tannins while the length is saline and intense. Very fine, warm, mouthfilling, powerful but delicate.

Kapcsandy Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Cuvée, Yountville
The nose is very perfumed with cigar box aromas, which carry through  to a palate dense with sweet dark briar and stone fruit: blackberry, blackcurrant, damson and plum, agreeably balanced with notes of bitter coffee,. Tannins ripe and juicy with fine acidity.

Cain Vineyards and Winery, Cain Concept, Benchland, Napa Valley
A true multi-terroir wine. Bordeaux blend, with fruit purchased from Beckstoffer vineyards in Rutherford, Oakville; Carneros;  St Helena; Stagecoach on Atlas Peak. Gouts of blackberry and damson on the nose with savoury notes continued to the palate which becomes almost pungent, with animal skin, woody rot and elegant decay. Very powerful young tannins. Precise, young, needs at least three years

Cain Vineyards and Winery, Cain Five, Spring Mountain district
Bordeaux blend. Classically restrained nose (Howell: ‘We’re not purely on a quest for fruit – we’re thinking what’s beyond the fruit’). Sour plum and damson on the palate, some redcurrant, mineral tones, robust, firm, intense, dry young tannins which promise mouthwatering juice to come. (2016-20?)

The Hess Collection Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder
Tar and violets on the nose, restrained, elegant rustic but fine late-developing tannins (rustic in the sense of a fine artisan earthenware pot compared to a bone china teacup). Sweet dark fruit with hints of red – wild raspberry, cherry and nice acidity. Straightforward, precise, not complex.

Raymond Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon District Series, Rutherford
Sweet red fruit  - strawberry marinaded in balsamic vinegar – on the nose. Some resiny notes on the palate, all very aromatic and opulent: tar, wood and chocolate. A dense, rather sensual wine.

Raymond Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon District Series, St Helena
What is the difference between the terroirs? It would take a more sophisticated palate than mine. In this St Helena offering I see the same tarry, opulent, perfumed notes as in the Rutherford. The tannins have slightly more grip, I would say, but swap my glasses round and give them to me blind and I’d need many years of tasting the neighbouring AVAs to distinguish them. Lovely wine.
Alta Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Oso Malo’, Atlas Peak
Produced in tiny quantities, 24 months in oak. The one slight disappointment of the lineup. An aromatic tarry nose gives way to a bold, bright palate with perfumed, highly-spiced and even raisined fruit. An old-fashioned feel to the wine – dense, powerful tannins and pronounced alcohol burn at the end.

Duckhorn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
Very bright open nose with dense, opulent briar fruit. Very polished, black and red fruit on the palate – redcurrants, cherry, some attractive leafy notes. Classic mountain tannins come late in the palate and give the whole  a robust structure. Excellent.


Cathy Corison
Founded the Corison label in Rutherford in the mid-1980s. Described by San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonne as ‘a folk hero among those seeking a reprieve from Napa’s overwrought Cabernets’.

Tim Mondavi
Director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery until 2004. Now on his 9th vintage of the Pritchard Hill Bordeaux blend Continuum.

Chris Howell
Longstanding, highly cerebral winemaker at Cain vineyards on Spring Mountain.

Jean-Charles Boisset
President, Boisset Family Estates, Burgundian owners of Raymond Vineyards, de Loach in Russian River Valley, the ancient Buena Vista in Carneros, among others

Chair: Adam Lechmere
Former editor, freelance journalist

all panel pics by Ashley Teplin, Teplin + Nuss  Public Relations


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