As we start this discussion please keep in mind that there are exceptions to every rule about grapes and grape growing in California. We will discuss generalities and specifics as they pertain to the vineyard sites that we are currently working with at SECRET DOOR. That said, let’s dive in…
NAPA VALLEY FLOOR VINEYARDS
Don’t kid yourself, the reputation of the Napa Valley was established and continues because of valley floor vineyards. Most of the vineyards in the Napa Valley are valley floor or gently rolling vineyard sites. Vineyards like the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard or Georges III are on valley floor and relatively flat. The vineyards that make up wines like Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de la Tour Private Reserve, older Louis Martini, Joseph Phelps, Spottswoode, Martha’s Vineyard from Heitz Cellars and and even Opus One are from the Napa Valley floor just to name a few.
What makes the Valley Floor sites interesting? There are many reasons, the soils have washed down from the mountains and form excellent soils for grape vines. The evenness of the terrain means more consistency from vine to vine and ultimately a more consistent ripeness level over for the fruit. The tradition of focusing on the valley floor means there is more familiarity with these sites – more history – more understanding of how they perform and confidence that they will produce superior wines.
Valley floor sites (including the Hirondelle Vineyard site we use for SECRET DOOR) are easier to farm and offer the opportunity to spend more time on the details of the vine. It is possible to get crews in quickly even with difficult weather years to harvest fruit or deal with the weather challenges.
The wines themselves tend to be a little more lush, creamy, sleeker tannins, juicier and overall rounder and easier to drink than true mountainside sites. It’s easy to love these wines and to see them develop over time. Specifically, we are looking at Hirondelle Vineyard to produce aromatic, fresh and sleek Cabernet Sauvignon that will drink well on release but should age gracefully. We are using 100% Cabernet Sauvignon which gives more structure and firmness but in any case the valley floor sites are frequently more opulent and even decadent that hillside wines. Hirondelle Vineyard will no doubt have Napa Valley floor character but it is also made with the intent of allowing it to age for a long time.
The challenges of valley floor vineyards are farming as well as wine quality. In farming, lower and flatter sites can suffer more from frost damage as well as rains. Low lying sites trap cold air and allow it to pool over vineyards causing additional damage in frost effected vintages. Rain does not run off as efficiently in flat vineyards and can linger causing both humid conditions that promote the grapes to rot as well as berry swelling and dilution. These are not frequent challenges but when they do occur their impact on valley flood sites are greater.
Great wines can be made from valley floor fruit. The challenges can be dealt with and a careful vineyardist will mitigate the potential problems and deliver clean and healthy grapes.
Mountain Side Cabernet Sauvignon
The first impulse is the believe that hillside/mountainside fruit is always better than valley floor Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s a simplification that does not always ring true. Mountainside sites have thinner, less fertile soils; they can be water-challenges and can produce uneven crops. That said, at their best mountainside vineyards offer something that valley floor vineyards can not consistently do – more structure, grittier tannins, more intensity and power as well as great aromatic complexity. Wineries like Mayacamas, Mount Veeder, Continuum, and others specialize in mountain grown fruit from all over the hills of the Napa Valley.
The biggest challenge for hillside sites or sites on top of a mountain is moisture. Getting and maintaining regular sources of water on a mountainside site is a real challenge and it is very tough to grow vines on a hillside in the Napa Valley without access to water for micro-irrigation. Once the water issue is solved then the challenges of getting crews and equipment up and down a hill come into play. Hillside sites are often secluded and far away from the main roads so equipment must be staged in advance of work for efficiency and there is considerable time used in getting to and from these vineyards with crews to work on them.
The benefits of mountainside fruit – these can be the most intense and flamboyant wines made in the Napa Valley. The vineyards often produce very small and very concentrated crops that have dynamic flavor profiles as well as the structure to age for long periods of time in fact, they often require some initial patience to allow the wines to soften a bit and reveal their more charming side. The small crops and challenges of working these sometimes very steep vineyard sites mean the cost of the fruit can be very high. We think it is worth it.
Mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon compared to Valley Floor Cabernet Sauvignon
So much of the character of the resulting wines from mountainside or from valley floor sites is a result of winemaking choices that it gets tougher to make broad statements about these wines. It does seem apparent that in general, hillside and mountainside vineyards produce more tightly wound, and focused wines with intensity and power but also very distinctive aromas and flavors. On the other hand, valley floor vineyards produce wines that have nice structure but berrylike fruitiness with somewhat more open knit, giving and supple textures.
HIRONDELLE VINEYARD – Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley
We love this vineyard site. It is relatively flat and lies right along Silverado Trail just north of the City of Napa next door to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. There could not be a more textbook Stags Leap District site. It is situated right beneath the rock outcropping of “Stags Leap”. The 2017 vintage has produced a wine of both purity of aromas as well as sleek, supple tannins. It’s a great example of both the Stags Leap District as well as valley floor vineyards.
SAGE RIDGE VINEYARD – Napa Mountainside
The breathtaking views from this mountainside vineyard to the east of the town of St. Helena are unique. The resulting wines from this remote and treacherous site are classic Napa hillside – great depth, powerful aromas of fruit and soil, plenty of tannin and focus for the long-run. The 2017 vintage is going to take a bit of time to reveal all its charms but it is loaded with personality and character. Now it is very structured and powerful in barrel with truly a long life ahead. It shows what carefully grown hillside/mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon can do Napa.