Geoffrey Dean reports back on a London Wine Fair masterclass on the differences between valley floor and hillside Napa Cabernet Sauvignons and discovers the many differences between the two distinct terroirs.
Looking at eight different Napa Cabernet Sauvignons is a good way to highlight the stylistic differences between hillside and valley locations.
Stylistic differences between Cabernet Sauvignons from hillside and valley floor vineyards in Napa were very evident during a tasting at the London Wine Fair. Of the 16 sub or ‘nested’ AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within the federal Napa Valley AVA, five are hillside entities: Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain District, Mount Veeder, Diamond Mountain District and Atlas Peak. Pritchard Hill, where many prestigious wineries are located, is not an AVA, falling as it does under the St. Helena AVA.
Briefly, the hillside vineyards are characterised by greater variation in soils and orientation, are more exposed to winds and enjoy warmer nights but lower daytime temperatures.
The valley floor AVAs, such as Los Carneros, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Stags Leap District and St. Helena, have mainly alluvial soils and cooler nights (leading to generally lower pH levels than in hillside vineyards). Some valley floor AVAs have lower temperatures than others, such as Wild Horse Valley, the coolest of all Napa AVAs.
The sheer number of these AVAs points to the region’s diversity, with each of the 16 possessing distinct attributes. Running through Cabernets from eight different AVAs is a good way to highlight some of them.
- Silverado Vineyards 2012, Coombsville AVA (valley floor): bright acidity, beautiful structured tannins, very dense mid-palate
- Trefethen Family Vineyards 2012, Oak Knoll District AVA (valley floor): pure red and black fruit, very subtle oak expression, quite delicate tannin profile, “simple but in a wonderful way” (veteran Napa winemaker, Rosemary Cakebread, Gallica, )
- Clos Pegase 2012, Calistoga AVA (valley floor): perfumed, floral, lush fruit from series of different vineyards, primarily sourced from Calistoga (which received AVA status in 2010); 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 11% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc.
- Darioush 2012, Mt Veeder AVA (hillside): a statement wine with winemaker looking for power (big meat wine that needs time as the tannins are overt); huge intensity of flavour, yet some delicacy with layers of complexity and great length; 100% new French oak used (Taransaud).
- Gallica 2012, Oakville AVA (valley floor): opulent and voluptuous with soft tannins; medium to full-bodied with lovely cedar wood and forest floor notes and blackcurrant fruit. Made by Cakebread.
- Stony Hill 2012, Spring Mt AVA (hillside): considered one of the great Napa properties (famous for Chardonnay and Riesling); dry-farmed (which is unusual); old barrels used to accentuate fruit, with fresh blueberry notes giving tartness; youthful tannins from 8-year old vines; 13.3% abv.
- Viader Liquid Cashmere 2013, Howell Mt AVA (hillside): 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 47% Cabernet Franc; elegance and harmony from the split cepage, with firm structure from the steep, rocky volcanic soils; full bodied, big and spicy with black pepper, coffee and tobacco notes.
- Spring Mountain Vineyard 1998, Spring Mt District AVA (hillside): one of the oldest and most iconic wineries in Napa; very sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon (has a dash of Merlot and Petiti Verdot); 61% from top La Perla vineyard; 22 months in 100% new French oak; 1998 considered a most difficult vintage at the time (like 2011) but this wine “awesome now” in Cakebread’s view.