By Rose Murray Brown MW  Published in The Scotsman 19 October 2019


My recent visit to seven wineries in Napa Valley highlighted a fascinating distinction between valley floor and mountain wines. 

“In Napa, vineyard site characteristics tend to show up more in wine made on a mountain slope than on the valley floor and benchlands”, explained Ashley Bennett, vineyard manager at Cain Vineyards.

Cain vineyard Spring Mountain Napa Valley CaliforniaCain is one of Napa’s highest wineries, spectacularly sited 2000ft up above the valley floor (pictured above & right) with views out to San Pablo Bay.  Cradled in a bowl on the Mayacamas mountain ridge above the fogline the vines are well protected from wind with good sun exposure.  Like many Napa vineyards it was originally a sheep ranch with prunes, apples and walnuts until vine terraces were built in the 1980s.

Cain Vineyard Spring Mountain Napa Valley California“Our mountain soils are so fragile and thin, it stresses the vines creating small yields.  Mountain grapes are smaller and skins thicker than on the valley floor, so our wines have more colour with bolder tannins, which need careful handling, but they age well”, said Bennett (pictured right) demonstrating by comparing mature Cain Five 2006 with youthful 2012.  “We also get distinct site botanicals in wines up here like wild herbal elements from local tarweed growing amongst our vines”.

Napa has five distinct mountain AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on either side of the valley ranging in elevation from 600 to 2000ft: including Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain (where Cain winery are based) and Diamond Mountain on the west side of the valley – with Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak and non-AVA Pritchard Hill (where Robert Mondavi’s son Tim has developed Continuum winery) on the eastern side.  The western side produces bold structured wines, whereas the eastern hills get more afternoon sun ripening tannins and softening texture and mouthfeel.

Outpost winery Howell Mountain Napa Valley California“If you compare mountain fruit to valley floor, you tend to get more even ripeness with lower acids up in the hills”, says Bryan Timonere of Outpost winery, 2000ft up on Howell Mountain (pictured right) on the eastern slopes, the other side of Napa Valley to Cain.  “This is due to the moderate temperature range in the hills, as we don’t get the heat spikes of the valley floor”, he says.  

It’s all to do with the fog; Napa’s airconditioning unit.  In the mountains above the fogline there is no frost risk or big diurnal fluctuations.  On the valley floors morning fog drenches vineyards, but the afternoon sun on the valley floor can reach temperatures 10 degrees higher than in the mountains creating richer lusher more opulent wines.

Spottswoode Estate St Helena Napa Valley CaliforniaUp in the hills, the vines are also more exposed to wind.  This helps airflow in the vineyard reducing rot, but hillside vineyards get heavier rains than on the valley floors and benchlands – so erosion is a risk and permanent cover crops between the vines are essential – something you rarely see on Napa’s manicured valley floor vineyards.

Robert Mondavi winery Oakville Napa Valley CaliforniaOn the valley floor, there are eight important AVAs including the famous appellations of Oakville, Rutherford, St Helena, Yountville and Stags Leap.  Valley floor soils are more alluvial and richer than on the hillsides. With warmer temperatures, more vigorous vine canopies, higher yields and larger berries – valley wines are more succulent with uber ripeness.  Yet even within St Helena and Rutherford benchlands there are differences due to soils and morning fog density, which can create a snappy acid in the wines.

Shafer Vineyards Stags Leap District Napa Valley CaliforniaCurrently no further Napa hillside plantings are allowed so the mountain wines are becoming more limited in supply.  The ban on hillside planting is to avoid carpeting the steep slopes with vineyards which risk erosion and water sources are scarce here too – and also retains the aesthetics of the beautiful narrow wooded valley for visiting tourists. 

Shafer Vineyards Stags Leap District Napa Valley CaliforniaEach Napa AVA has its own unique stylistic differences.  For example, tasting at Shafer vineyards in Stags Leap District (pictured above & right) where the vineyards are on steep slopes on the eastern side, but not at high altitude, the wines have exotic black fruits, lushness and soft tannins.  At Inglenook in Rutherford (pictured below) the Cabernets were earthier and savoury and at beautiful Spottswoode winery in St Helena (pictured above), the Cabernets have gorgeous perfume, generous fruit and soft silky tannins – both very different from the sturdier mountain Cabernets of Cain and Outpost.

Inglenook Estate Rutherford Napa Valley California“It is also not just about the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon from the hills and valleys, but the intervention of the winemaker is also crucial too for determining the style of the wine – with ripeness of fruit at picking, the selection of the best fruit, handling the tannins in the winery and the use of new oak” says Bennett.

“Napa is still in its adolescence and we are still finding our way”, says John Williams of Frogs Leap in Rutherford, one of the original valley floor 1970’s pioneers.  “I remember when all Napa vineyards were dry-farmed – now people say they cannot grow grapes without irrigation.  We are still learning that it is not about manicuring vineyards to look perfect, but biodiversity and organic viticulture is becoming essential here for both the hillside and valley floor growers alike”, he says. 


Spring Mountain: CAIN CUVEE NV2012
(£22 Justerini & Brooks

Great introduction to Cain’s style from 2012, which Cain’s winemaker Francois Bugue calls a textbook year.  Generous fruits, floral, herby, fresh acid with soft silky tannins.  50% Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec made to be approachable in alcohol (13.4%).

Cain Five 2006 Spring Mountain Napa CaliforniaSpring Mountain: CAIN FIVE 2006
(£85 Justerini & Brooks

Iconic example of mature Napa mountain wine made from five Bordelais varieties.  Strawberry, wild herbs, cedary with meaty undertones with an underlying firm structure, mouthfilling rounded fruits.

Stags Leap: SHAFER TD-9 2017
(£59 Raeburn Wines; £62 Tanners Wines)
Named after late-John Shafer’s first 1970’s tractor, which he taught himself to drive after moving to Napa from Chicago.  Hefty 15.3% alcohol here, but its 62% Merlot base alongside 22% Malbec and 16% Cabernet Sauvignon is succulently fruity with fresh acidity.

(£84 Woodwinters; £89 Tanners Wines)
Pure Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon showing Shafer’s exuberant blackcurrant fruit style, silky soft tannins, chocolate vanilla notes; more approachable and fruit forward when young than their premium Hillside Select.

Spottswoode Lyndenhurst 2016 St Helena Napa ValleySt Helena: SPOTTSWOODE LYNDENHURST CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
(£70 Domaine Direct; 
Generously fruity introduction to the great Spottswoode estate’s opulent style of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon with a mix of valley floor estate and bought in grapes.  Layers of dark cherry fruit, bright snappy acidity and silky tannins.

(£40 Highbury Vintners; Wines with Attitude)

Blueberry, raspberry and rosepetal aromas, lush texture, soft tannins, bright acidity with earthy spicy notes from mix of American and French oak ageing; one of Napa’s best Zinfandels.

Frogs Leap Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Napa ValleyRutherford: FROG’S LEAP CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2016
(£50 Woodwinters, Berry Bros, The Wine Society)

Bold forward style with plummy cedary aromas, earthy undertones slightly evolved with soft powdery tannins, built to last, but approachable now; good example of valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon.

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