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

L├╝scher-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

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