There is something about the hills that speaks to many a soul. Whether it’s a recollection of childhood “King of the Hill” triumph or enjoying the powerful sensations of height and distant views, it draws us to hike, climb, camp and just be at elevation.
Mountain AVA wines were the topic of November’s St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel session, and you could feel the anticipation of the group at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. The amphitheater-style classroom was packed with 28 panelists and the volume of discussion throughout the afternoon was high.
Six flights of wines, totaling 30 samples, were tasted from the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Divided by AVA, the flights went geographically, starting south and moving northward: Mount Veeder, Atlas Peak, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain (two flights), and Diamond Mountain.
At least one thing is shared among the mountains of Napa Valley: a grapegrower whose vineyards are spread across hills and mountain tops needs to be the sturdy sort, one who realizes that it will not be easy to farm here, but nonetheless stubbornly confronts the task head-on, knowing that the outcome will be worth the toil.
The terrain can be tricky to manage. Some slopes are too steep for mechanization, so crews do every task by hand. There is often no option of harvesting grapes at night when they are cooler, so brutal early morning pickings are done to try and beat the afternoon heat.
Rain over the winter causes soil erosion, threatening the loss of thin and precious topsoil. Extra care must be done pre-winter to create channels for rainwater drainage. Nonetheless, many a vineyard crew has struggled in the pouring rain, hauling soil back up the hill.
Some of the difficulties, however, are also key reasons why mountain wines are in such demand. The thin soils don’t hold a lot of nutrients and water for the vine, and therefore the yields (it is not uncommon to hear of 1.5 to 2 tons per acre versus the valley floor’s 3 to 6.5) are lower, and the berries are smaller. This results in concentrated fruit with a larger ratio of skin to juice where the phenolics from the skins – color and tannins – produce deeply colored wines and age-worthy tannins.
Add to that the more intense sun exposure at altitude and aspect, and the resulting wines have great intensity, a firm tannic backbone and lots of rich, concentrated flavor.
The panelists were eager to share their thoughts on the wines:
Robin Baggett, owner of Alpha Omega, who makes mountain wines but not one from Howell Mountain, stated, “I’ve got to get some Howell Mountain fruit” after tasting the two Howell Mountain flights.
Jamie Jamison, general manager and wine director at Brix Restaurant, exclaimed that he wants to separate out mountain from valley floor wines on his restaurant list, saying that the cabs’ strong acids and tannins were really well-integrated and showed beautiful fruit without overpowering oak flavors.
Julie Lumgair, winemaker at J. Moss, eloquently summed up the tasting with her comment: “These wines excited me; they were amazing; you see the winemakers’ hands — beautiful red acid style to bluer-blacker styles. Depending on your palate, every AVA could represent a range of Napa styles.” The diversity of styles within each appellation was a common theme throughout the afternoon.
Josh Widaman, winemaker at Lewis Cellars, agreed, stating, “It was fun to taste the different appellations. With Mount Veeder, even if you have a ripe palate, you can find ripe bluer wines here.” Mount Veeder, being closest to the cooling influences of the San Pablo Bay, nonetheless gets maximum sunshine at altitude, and depending on elevation and aspect, there can be either big, riper wines produced, or juicy, acid-driven wines.
Drinkability was discussed, and Peter Stoneberg of Circle R Ranch on Atlas Peak noted, “I was amazed at how approachable these wines are right now, but they can be laid down and provide very nice wines over time.”
Many panelists commented on the oak influence in the wines, finding more integrated oak flavors in the wines, and a move away from the heavily oaked versions found in previous tastings. Master Sommelier Bob Bath stated, ‘You don’t need a lot of oak; with the fruit there is so much there already.”
Vintner Tom Rinaldi found the wines to be “less green than from the ‘70s, ‘80s; [we are] picking late with softer, less green tannins” (something he called “anger management” to chuckles around the room).
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With nary a negative comment during the discussion, it appeared that the mountains, and specifically mountain wines, still hold a special place in Napa Valley hearts.
Panelists’ favorite mountain AVA wines of the tasting were:
Barnett Vineyards 2016 Rattlesnake Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain ($190) Fiona and Hal Barnett have owned their Spring Mountain property since 1983, and Winemaker-General Manager David Tate joined the team in 2007, creating wines like this deeply red-fruited, aromatic wine with integrated sweet oak spices.
Brandlin 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder ($75) The Brandlins have been in Napa Valley since the 1870s, and their Brandlin vineyard was purchased by Cuvaison Estate Wines in 1998. In good hands under winemaker Steve Rogstad, this wine shows rich, juicy red and black fruits balanced by firm, age-worthy tannins.
Clif Family Winery 2016 Cold Springs Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($125) The bruschetta truck is reason alone to stop in to Clif Family wines, but it would be a sin to miss wines such as this dense, dark-fruited cab with firm tannins.
Dyer Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($95) The brain trust, experience and creativity between Dawnine and Bill Dyer are only some of the reasons to try this full-flavored cab with red cherry, red plum and sweet spice wrapped around a core of firm tannins.
Hesperian Wines 2015 Kitoko Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Atlas Peak ($150) Farming is in winemaker Philippe Langner’s blood, and this wine shows the expert hand of deep, dark fruits made fresh with bright acidity.
Sequoia Grove Winery 2016 Henry Bros. Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($95) Molly Hill is one of those humble winemakers who lets their wines do the song and dance on center stage. Her Howell Mountain cab is a biggie, needing time to soften the tannins on this deep, dark-fruited wine.
Other favorites of the panel:
Artesa Vineyards & Winery 2016 Foss Valley Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon Atlas Peak ($90)
Cornerstone Cellars 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain ($120)
Davies Vineyards 2016 J. Davies Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain ($95)
Juslyn Vineyards 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain ($195)
Mi Sueño Winery 2016 Lynn’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder ($85)
St. Supery Estate Vineyards 2016 Dollarhide Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($85)