Thursday, May 11, 2023

Napa Series: Mountains & Valleys

Since 1983, when the first official appellations were approved, grape growing and wine making in the Napa Valley have grown to a current total of 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVA). The first six AVAs in this series, from Oak Knoll to Calistoga, were covered in the April 21 blog. 

This second (and final) part of the Napa Series will include a brief look at the remaining 10 AVAs, consisting of a mix of mountain vineyards and lesser known outlying appellations.

Napa Mountain Appellations

The emergence of a vineyard, in often inaccessible mountain locations, happens when land owners, usually looking for a quiet place to live, decide that having a vineyard might be a fun way to raise a little extra cash.  A vineyard consultant is hired, heavy equipment brought in and money starts flowing out. 

Developing vineyards at such storied sites as Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak, required accessibility.  Constructing vineyards at elevations between 1,300 and 2,600 feet above the valley floor, posed many challenges. 

Howell Mountain (AVA 1983)is a northern district, directly northeast of Calistoga.  Cool daytime temperatures and warm nights encourage Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen with intense berry flavors and full tannins. Wineries on the mountain include O'Shaughnessy and Lamborn, while many others use grapes from Howell Mountain including Dunn, Tom Eddy and Black Stallion.

Diamond Mountain (AVA 2001) is between Calistoga and St. Helena on the west side of the valley. A variety of grapes grow best in vineyards up to 2,600 feet. Schramsberg, Napa Valley's celebrated sparkling wine producer is here as is Castello di Amoroso, with its replica of an Italian castle. Wineries include Diamond Creek Vineyards, von Strasser, Schramsberg and Seaver Vineyards.

Historic Schramsberg cellar

Spring Mountain (AVA 1993), south of Diamond Mountain, is known for its complex red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Spring Mountain whites include Chardonnay, and distinctive Riesling from Smith-Madrone. Wines to consider include Terra Valentine, Philip Togni, Smith-Madrone.

Mount Veeder (AVA 1993) is at the southern end of the valley and high in the Macacamas range. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the main grapes, although there are 25 varieties growing at heights up to 2,500 feet.  Wineries include Hess Collection, Mayacamas, Alpha Omega, Mi Sueno and Mount Veeder Winery.

Atlas Peak (AVA 1992) is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Stagecoach Vineyard and Sangiovese from Atlas Peak Winery, once owned now managed by the Tuscany house of Marchesi Antinori.  Bordeaux varieties thrive in the rich volcanic red soil.  Among the wineries using grapes from Atlas Peak are Kongsgaard, Rombauer, Michael Mondavi Family and Bialla Vineyards.

Beyond the Valley Floor

In the smaller valleys, running east and west from the floor of the Napa Valley, the story is mostly the same, especially with a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon.  Farmers and orchard owners calculate that if wine grapes will grow in the Napa Valley, dirt is dirt after all, then why not in Coombsville, Wild Horse Valley, Chiles Valley, Stags Leap District and Los Carneros.

Stags Leap District (AVA 1989) lies between Silverado Trail and the eastern foothills. Pioneers in this sub-region, (technically on the valley floor) include Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Clos du Val and Stags' Leap Winery. Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is as important as any in the valley, especially for intense blackberry flavors and supple tannins. 

A brief note on the apostrophe: The district name doesn't use it, Wine Cellars claims a single leaping stag and Winery believes there are (were) more than one stag.

Los Carneros (AVA 1983) is world famous for its distinctive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while Merlot and Syrah also draw attention.  The sub-region sprawls across Napa and Sonoma counties, at the southern end of the Maycamas range and within sight of San Pablo Bay.  Cool bay breezes set the right conditions for sparkling wines, from Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros and Artesa/Codorniu Napa.

Los Carneros vineyard

Wild Horse Valley (AVA 1988) stretches across Napa and Solano counties in a remote part of Napa Valley.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are prime varieties from Kenzo Estate, owned by Kenzo Tsujimoto, of video game fame. 

Chiles Valley (AVA 1999) is known for Bordeaux varieties and Zinfandel, high in the eastern Vaca Range. Various wineries source grapes including Volker Eisele, Conn Creek and Maroon Wines.

Coombsville (AVA 2011) is a newer Napa sub-appellation, situated east of Napa city. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay are the main grapes. Wineries include Palmaz Vineyards, Frazier Winery and Ancien. 

One could argue that all the hype about the Napa Valley borders on the excess, but time has shown that the region is capable of producing red wines worth shouting about, and in that vein, Napa is no different than Bordeaux. 

Next blog: Oak Seasonings

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