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
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
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.’
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.
Rudy Von Strasser
|Newton: the gardens|
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
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|
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
Yields are much lower – typically 1.5 to 2 tons per acre
|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
. 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
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.’
, 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.
The hand of the winemaker
|Ovid: the stony soils of Pritchard Hill|
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Kapcsandy Family Winery
Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Cuvée,
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
Cain Vineyards and Winery
, Cain Concept, Benchland, Napa
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
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.
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.
Cabernet Sauvignon District Series,
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.
Cabernet Sauvignon District Series, St
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.
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.
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’.
Director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery until 2004. Now
on his 9th
vintage of the Pritchard Hill Bordeaux blend Continuum.
highly cerebral winemaker at Cain vineyards on Spring Mountain.
Boisset Family Estates, Burgundian owners of Raymond Vineyards, de Loach in
Russian River Valley, the ancient Buena Vista in Carneros, among others
Former Decanter.com editor, freelance journalist
all panel pics by Ashley Teplin, Teplin + Nuss Public Relations