Most of us are familiar with Napa’s Valley floor wineries, Mondavi, Beringer, V.Sattui, Opus One, Inglenook – but, lesser known are the small vintners and wine creators high above on Napa’s Atlas Peak volcanic region.
The curvy, windy road that leads up to Atlas Peak is now lined with burnt oak trees and blackened rocks given the recent Napa fires. In between the trees are modest looking estates and untouched vineyards saved from the fire’s devastation. Even though it’s just minutes from the hustle and bustle of tourist-rich Napa, it remains a completely different world.
These mountain vineyards survived the fire and provide an incomparable surrounding natural beauty, remaining home to generations of winemakers whose passion to craft the world’s truly exquisite wines remains their sole pursuit.
Only three percent of the wine grapes grown in California are grown at altitudes above 1,000 feet in elevation. The most costly and exceptional wines tend to come from these high-elevation mountain vineyards, where the terroir provides a mystical and divine setting.
Terroir, the complex relationship between a wine’s flavor and climate, soil and natural environment where the grapes grow, is vital to vintners, winemakers and wine aficionados. When one brings up the concept of terroir—a French wine term used to describe a wine’s “sense of place”—you realize the importance that keeping soils natural along with their unique climate have on producing truly exceptional wines.
Natural, organic farming is an ecological method that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on farming practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony, naturally. Instead of feeding vines with synthetic chemical fertilizers, which contain ammonium nitrate and can explode violently when ignited by open flames, the majority of Atlas Peak’s vintners farm organically, which better supports the grape vine’s health, and may have saved much of Napa’s vineyards from the fires devastation.
Dr. Miranda Hart, from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, studies soil biodiversity to better understand soil microbial communities. “Soil biodiversity may be an important part of terroir, which is everything to a grape grower,” she said.
“Vineyard soil microbes stimulate plant defense mechanisms,” Hart said, explaining that this is particularly important for wine grape vines because the “flavor elements that people are excited about — the flavonoids and antioxidants — are secondary metabolites,” produced when plants experience stress. “Plants have a very elaborate immune system, and they’re either deterring herbivores or creating antimicrobial agents, and the chemistry of that is very important to the grape’s sensory profile.”
Mountain vineyards offer a different climatic rhythm and, thus, produce greater intensity of flavors and aromas.
“Only with height do you get the combination of clean, thin, cool mountain air, which steadies the day’s temperatures, creating warmer days with full sun and cool nights,” said ABC7 weather anchor Spencer Christian, whose love for fine wines has propelled him as a recognized wine connoisseur. “As elevation increases, sunlight becomes more concentrated, causing grapes to develop deeper pigments. They get more early sun because they are above the fog line, thus forcing grapes to ripen slowly.”
In the afternoon, the heat from the valley floor begins to drift up the hillsides. The grapes absorb more sun, then, close down at night, halting photosynthesis, sugar formation and acidity, locking in their structure and backbone while allowing them to ripen perfectly. You get much more depth, notes, balance, structure and complexity from these climatic rhythms.
The mountains are more exposed to prevailing winds, adding more stress to the vines. Essentially, higher- elevation mountain vineyards benefit in several ways over valley floor vines. They receive more concentrated sunlight, greater temperature changes and far better drainage, which creates a natural stress to the vines as they struggle to develop greater pigment concentration. As a result, they produce fewer, but more intense aromas, flavors, colors and tannins. The grape’s elements evolve more slowly and age much more gracefully. This high elevation stress contributes to higher quality wine grapes.
Atlas Peak provides shallow tufa topsoil that features depth of flavors that are different from other regions. Farming these soils is immensely challenging, but well worth the effort as Atlas Peak has been producing exceptionally fine wines since 1870. Over the years, despite its rugged remoteness, the appellation has produced an abundance of wines acclaimed worldwide for their intense flavors and delicate, balanced tannins that have become the signature of Atlas Peak Mountain wines.
Mountain wines tend to be produced in small quantities, hence the reason that many of Napa’s expensive “cult” wines are from high elevations. This terroir offers a unique element ideal for farming cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and sangiovese: porous volcanic tufa. Tufa’s volcanic rock consistency allows it to absorb water and retain moisture for long periods of time, offering what exceptional grapes require: dry farming. These volcanic rocks contain high levels of macro-porosity, which allow them to store moisture up to 100 percent of their weight, releasing moisture to the vines’ roots as needed. Vines develop and produce best when stressed through dry farming. As the vine struggles to push roots deeper into the soil to scavenge more resources, ideal conditions develop for producing ultra-high-quality grapes.
Making things difficult for the vine, by withholding fertilizers, making nutrients scarce, pruning it hard and crowding it with competing vine neighbors, excel it to another level. It senses that this is not the ideal place to be a grapevine; rather, it devotes itself to reproducing, which for a vine means making exceptional, ultra-premium grape berries. And, this is precisely what the finest vineyards do to produce phenomenal wines.
The soils porous aspect also acts as an insulator, retaining its temperature consistent even if the air temperature fluctuates. Cabernet sauvignon grapes thrive here, and Atlas Peak’s relatively high slopes offer the ideal growing elevation for these vines. The soil acts like a solar panel, collecting and radiating solar heat throughout the day and into the night, well after the sun has set. The difference in temperature, known in the viticulture world as the diurnal temperature variation, is an important element for grapes as they develop both the right amount of acidity (from cool nights) and sweetness (from warm and sunny days). It is easy to see that there are certain places on our planet that are more perfect for growing cabernet sauvignon grapes. As they say, “great wine is made in the vineyard, not in the laboratory. Location, location, location.”
The fact is that clay and limestone exist all over the world, so concerning oneself about why wine grown in Bordeaux’s soil is different than the one in Napa’s can be complicated — not to mention boring. But, if any terroir is going to be interesting, it’s the volcanic soil these wines come from — particularly the cabernets, which are complex, complicated, balanced, elegant, and much less tannic.
Every year, there seems to be a flurry of headlines about the health benefits of high-elevation red wine as if ripe berry flavors along with perfect structure weren’t reasons enough to seek out mountain wines. There is growing evidence that red wines grown at higher elevations possess greater levels of healthy antioxidant properties, gaining a reputation as an elixir of life. Mounting evidence suggests that drinking red wine in moderation can reduce the oxidative damage responsible in the aging process and for many degenerative diseases.
A recent study by researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion School discovered that resveratrol, a compound in the skin of red grapes and red wine have many of the neuroprotective benefits of a low-calorie diet and exercise, helping preserve muscle fibers and protecting connections between neurons from the negative effects of aging. The researchers found that resveratrol was able to shield neuromuscular junctions from damage as we age, essentially tapping into natural mechanisms to slow age-induced degeneration of neuronal circuits. The researchers plan to further study these neuroprotective effects by identifying the specific mechanism that enables resveratrol to protect synapses.
“Red wine has been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect on preventing heart disease. The mechanism of this benefit isn’t known yet, but we have been drinking wine for many centuries and, in addition to the joy it provides, scientists are working with vintners to better understand its health effects,” said Dr. David Agus, professor of Medicine & Engineering at the University of Southern California. He is also an author of several books, including “The End of Illness,” “A Short Guide to a Long Life” and “The Lucky Years: How to thrive in the brave new world of health.”
For decades, Dr. Chris Cates had been working as an interventional cardiologist, recommending to heart patients that they keep their heart healthy by enjoying a glass of red wine each day. “Since we learned that wine was beneficial in a group of studies called ‘The French Paradox’ where it really showed that French people live longer than Americans even though they smoke and arguably have worse diets than Americans,” Cates said. “The thing that really shook out from all of that is the importance related to red wine and the polyphenols and antioxidants in wine.”
Basically, plants synthesize the antioxidant resveratrol as a response to natural UV sunlight. Resveratrol is a naturally occurring polyphenol antioxidant that is found in some plants, like grapes. The phenolic content in wine can be separated into two groups, flavonoids and non-flavonoids. Flavonoids contain anthocyanins and tannins which give the color and mouth feel of the wine. The non-flavonoids include the resveratrol and phenolic acids. These phenolic acids provide some of the most important elements in assessing a wine’s quality and are, very possibly, responsible for the beneficial health properties of red wines.
Renowned Bordeaux-based oenologist Michel Rolland said, “Growing these mountain grapes are far more difficult to farm, and the growing season tends to be considerably longer. It’s much more difficult to plant, more difficult to establish the vines and they produce far lower yields. However, the end result is a grape expressing intensity of stellar quality as difficult growing conditions often lead to extraordinary wines.” Rolland maintains hundreds of vineyard clients across 13 countries around the globe.
So, I contend some of the finest wines produced are high- elevation mountain wines. Pour a quarter glass of red wine grown in volcanic tufa, swirl it and sniff it to fully absorb its aromas and flavors and you’ll immediately notice how much more you sense and appreciate those floral sensations. These wines are much more expressive, pure and aromatic as a result of the higher elevation, cleaner air, volcanic soil, natural nutrient content in the soil. These vines are healthier, fresher and despite their stress, happier.
Wine is born of passion, evolving over time, offering a truly beautiful thing that speaks to us through heightened sensory emotions that can sometimes reflect wonderful universal mysteries in a surprising fashion, evoking one of life’s many unforgettable pleasures. I think the people who plant vineyards at higher elevations possess a different sort of inner motivation and optimism, perhaps more in harmony with Ernest Hemingway’s view that “wine is one of the most civilized and natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection.” It is good to know that luscious healthy pleasures can be derived from this geographic pedigree of mountain vines that survived Napa’s fires.
Igor Sill farms a mountain vineyard on Atlas Peak Mountain in Napa. He’s a wine lover, winemaker, writer and member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and of the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group. He is a judge for the International Wine Challenge, London, and holds his master’s from Oxford University.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Dr. David Agus, Dr. Chris Cates, Michel Rolland, Spencer Christian, Dr. Miranda Hart, University of British Columbia Okanagan and Jessica Sill for their much appreciated assistance, insights and contributions to this article.