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29 May 2018 | Chris Costales

California Mountain Fruit--How Grapes Express Themselves in Higher Elevations

We have done a lot of interesting tastings lately at The Wine Country and for our July 8th Friday night event I thought it would be fun to showcase how grapes express themselves when grown on mountain vineyards on high elevations.

These rugged steep rocky soils have long been prized for producing amazing ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon, but Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can thrive here equally as well.  

Napa Valley includes five mountain appellations and we will be pouring wines from the Spring Mountain District, Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain areas. Many wine lovers look for these appellations for the bold intensity and complexity they express in the grapes.

Mountain vineyards have a longer growing season and receive more sunshine hours than the valleys below which, combined with the additional wind stress the vines are exposed to, will help to thicken grape skins, intensifying flavor and creating a bolder tannic structure for the wine.  This contrasts greatly with the softer, plush and more fruity valley floor grapes.  

Steep slopes can be difficult to manage here, and attention to direction the slope faces is extremely important.  One side may be so steep and cool that red grapes will not be able to ripen while the other is dry with so much sun exposure that overripening may be a problem.  With thinner soils that drain away most of mother nature’s rain, grapevines here struggle to produce, which results in tiny small berries rich with concentrated flavor.  

On average harvests on the mountainsides will happen later, sometimes as long as two weeks, and allow the winemaker to pick the grapes when they are mature and high in both ripeness and acidity.  For contrast, in the valley in very hot sunny years fruit can ripen very fast long before it develops mature flavor.  

Howell Mountain vineyards are elevation specific and must be sourced from 1,400 to 2,400 ft.  The vineyards here are surrounded by dense pine forests and its location on the northeastern side of the Vaca Mountains also makes it one of the coolest and wettest of the mountain appellations. The soils here have large amounts of volcanic ash which provides good drainage and the rocky landscape imparts a unique terroir in the wines of black fruit and wild blackberry aromas.

Mount Veeder AVA is actually one of the largest appellations in the Napa Valley, but few grapevines can actually be planted due to its winding steep terrain filled with ferns, pine trees and oak forests.  On its southern border, the San Pablo Bay provides a maritime influence which cools it slightly compared to its northern border.  A white ash soil called tufa can be found here which limits the vines vigor and promotes strong tannin and minerality development.  I have always loved how the intense power of the black and blue fruits here are perfectly balanced by the strong but approachable tannins.

The Spring Mountain District appellation is connected to both Napa and Sonoma by the Mayacamas Mountains which separate the two, and elevations here can get as high as 2,600 ft.  The total appellation acreage is 8,600 but only little more than 1,000 is actually used for grapevines though as the steep aspects and heavy dense forest turn many aspiring viticulturalists back toward the relative ease of the valley floor.  Even prohibition couldn’t stop the vineyards from being farmed here as the ample wooded forests here provided plenty of privacy.  

Many people feel that the many herbal plants in these nearby forests and sometimes in the vineyard itself, provide similar wild herb aromas in the wine much like wild scrub brush influences the wines of the Rhone valley and Provence in France.  In fact, Cain winery likes to say that botanicals it gets from a tarweed plant unique and native to its vineyards provides a citrus, musky herbal floral expression to its wines.

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