Updated: Oct 4, 2021
As a sommelier, I often field questions about wines from mountain vineyards. Terroir, the sense of place that is conveyed to us in wine, is about the soil, topography, and climate. Talking about mountain fruit finds me often waxing rhapsodic about the unique terroir; vineyards above the fog line with grapes that tend to be smaller with thicker skins due to poor soil, wind exposure, and increased UV radiation. Wines coming from this terroir tend to be richly concentrated in flavor because of the smaller berries, increased tannins and structure due to the thicker skins, and elevated acidity from cooler temperatures at higher elevations. I get this question most often when people are considering Californian wine; three mountain Napa Valley AVAs of note are Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain, and Diamond Mountain.
Atlas Peak rises to 2,600 feet in height; the soil is poor, volcanic, and the terrain is steep and rocky. Cooler temperatures allow for a longer hang time on the vine before harvest, so the wines are deeply concentrated in flavor and structure that can age beautifully in your cellar. This is where Piero Antinori (of Tignanello fame) founded his Antica winery, Alpha Omega sources grapes from vineyards here, and the famed Stagecoach vineyard produces grapes highly prized and sought after by winemakers. You’ll see the Stagecoach name on labels from Darioush, Louis Martini, Quintessa, and Chappellet.
Howell Mountain is a part of the Vaca mountain range with vineyards found between 1,400 to 2,600 feet - often above the fog line. The soil varies between volcanic in origin to iron rich red clay. Grapes are harvested later due to these poor soils and cooler temperatures from the higher elevation. Randy Dunn’s Cabernets from here are highly lauded and long lived, Turley’s Petite Syrah is dense and complex, and Duckhorn’s Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is rich and will reward those who have the patience to cellar it for several years.
Diamond Mountain, with the AVA requiring the elevation of the vineyard to be at least 400 feet, is named for the volcanic crystals that are intermixed with the iron rich red soil. Diamond Creek Cabernets are the most sought after, each being 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from unique single vineyards. Tightly closed with intensity in youth, they may last decades in the cellar to display beautiful complexity. Lokoya and Von Strasser are also producers to seek out to experience Diamond Mountain fruit.
There are many more mountain vineyards in California and around the world. Generally, the wines tend to be more structured, with brighter acidity, and concentration of flavor that can be cellared for a few years to a few decades depending on the wine and producer. They reward those with patience and make wonderful gifts. Please reach out to Mariano to source any of these wines for you. Cheers!