The grandeur of mountains belies their willingness to nurture plants and yet mountains are one of the premier places for wine grapes worldwide. Shallow topsoil, water drainage and wind often the enemy of many other plants produce wine grapes of exceptional quality from Bordeaux to the mountains of northern California.
While all mountain terrains provide challenges for even the most stalwart wine growers with rugged terrain, steep slopes, stony soils and hand cultivation, it is the soil, climate, aspect and water of each mountain that defines its wine.
In Napa Valley there are five mountain American viticultural areas (AVAs), the largest in acreage is Mount Veeder yet it produces only a little over one percent of the Napa Valley grapes. Mount Veeder AVA is in the southern part of the Mayacamas Mountains that divide Sonoma County and Napa Valley.
In Napa Valley, the mountain AVAs are largely volcanic soil, but Mount Veeder is predominantly sandstone and shale. It is also the coldest mountain AVA cooled by bay breezes from the San Pablo Bay combined with its altitude. But it wasn’t any of these differences that the Mount Veeder Appellation Council talked about in San Francisco this week at a press luncheon; it was the water.
In northern California a discussion of water is usually related to its scarcity. The fissures on Mount Veeder hide water in unconnected reserves unlike the large water tables under the Napa Valley floor shared by many vineyards. The specificity of each vineyard means a winemaker might find water at 100 feet or 1000 feet or anywhere in-between. The earthquake of 2014 made it even more interesting with water flow increasing in some areas and drying up in others or water pockets in fissures moving hundreds of feet up or down.
Whatever the conditions on each wine grape growing mountain, it is the combination of stress created by its unique climate that produces its wine’s signature flavor profile. The descriptions always involve small berries (with a higher skin-to-flesh ratio) creating rich flavors and the slow growing season (at higher altitude) intensifying the flavor.
On Mount Veeder it maybe the other rugged plants that grow nearby that effect the wines flavor like wild sage and redwoods. Until the 1960’s, the Mount Veeder area was commonly called “Napa Redwoods”, named after the coastal redwoods that are the most eastern in the country. Wine descriptors included forest flora aromatics, brambly fruit, sage and stony minerality.
Perhaps it is more ethereal than bound with mere words. Christopher Sawyer, sommelier and luncheon panel moderator described it as “tranquility in a glass.” To illustrate the flavor profile Mount Veeder panelists Carole Meredith of Lagier Meredith, Yannick Rousseau of Y Rousseau Wines and Dave Guffy of Hess Collection presented a 2013 Lagier Meredith Syrah and original winemaker vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon from Hess Collection (2001) and Y Rousseau Wines (2008). Always a delight to experience the ageability of great wines, this Mount Veeder press luncheon was no exception.
Mount Veeder reserve wines are often cellared for 10-plus years, with increasingly distinctive character and complexity, although texture, richness, and age-worthiness vary according to winemaking techniques.
In addition to the dominant Cabernet Sauvignon that is grown on Mount Veeder, Malbec wines shown during the Spring Wine Tasting held at the Presidio Golden Gate Club in San Francisco were fabulous. Mount Veeder wine growers also boast the first plantings of Petit Verdot in California and cuttings from these vines now dominate the Petit Verdot in Napa Valley.
The contours of the mountain create many nooks and crannies where small pockets of wine grapes can be planted in diverse conditions to those a short distance away. In some of these golden pockets white wine grapes including Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner and Albarino are being successfully grown. Like John Muir, I feel the mountains are calling and I must go – to explore all the wonderful wines they have to offer. This sampling only wetted my whistle.