For the past two decades, we’ve been visiting the Napa and Sonoma Valleys almost annually. The two Valleys run parallel, separated by the Mayacamas Mountains in northern California. Both are terrific tourist destinations and among the top wine regions in the United States. While Sonoma is much larger in terms of vineyard area and variety of wines produced, Napa is the better-known region of the two with a world-class reputation built on Cabernet Sauvignon. For years, wine enthusiasts have debated the difference between the Cabernets produced on the Valley floor versus those produced from fruit higher up on the mountainsides.
Though the first winery was established in Napa Valley in 1858, wine from the region wasn’t given much thought outside of the U.S. until May 24, 1976. That auspicious date is forever etched into Napa’s history as the day the rest of the world was forced to take notice. The “Judgement of Paris”, a blind-tasting competition held in France, pitted California Chardonnays against Burgundy Chardonnays in the white wine category, and California Cabernet Sauvignon against Bordeaux. In both categories it was a Napa winery that took first place: Chateau Montelena for the top Chardonnay, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for the top Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 1981, Napa Valley became California’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA) and the second AVA in the country. There are 16 AVAs within the Napa Valley AVA with the majority more often referred to as either “Valley floor” AVAs (Calistoga, Coombsville, Oak Knoll District, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Stags Leap, Yountville), or as “Mountain” AVAs (Atlas Peak, Chiles Valley District, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain).
Napa Valley enjoys a Mediterranean climate which is defined by their consistent moderate temperatures. It is one of the most sought-after climates for viticulturists with its long, warm days and cool evenings providing ideal conditions to allow for a slow and even ripening of grapes. Napa’s dependable weather and its wide diurnal temperature shifts is particularly favourable for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and it is this variety that is most associated with Napa Valley. The consistency is evident on the Valley floor but the high elevation and steep slopes of the mountains results in a significantly different temperature profile than the Valley below.
Some Napa Cabs have become the darlings of collectors and attracted a near rabid following of purchasers prompting the moniker “cult cabs”—a result of their high scores and limited availability pushing their prices far beyond what many wine enthusiasts consider affordable or good value.
After years of largely drinking Napa Cabs produced on the Valley floor, we got to taste the difference first-hand when we ventured up to Spring Mountain for the first time and had the pleasure of interviewing Stu Smith from Smith-Madrone Vineyards and David Tate, winemaker at Barnett Vineyards.
Wines produced on the Valley floor are largely what have carried Napa’s reputation since the Judgement of Paris. Vineyards such as To Kalon, Beckstoffer, Eisle and Martha’s Vineyard have near legendary status.
The wines are big and bold and are characterized by ripe fruit, good structure and a smooth, long finish. Some of our all-time favourites include BV Georges de Latour, Joseph Phelps Insignia and Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard.
The Valley floor is far more fertile and sees more heat as well as more rain. On the Valley floor, it’s less challenging to grow fruit and the focus is on canopy and crop management. On the mountain, the steep slopes cause the vines to struggle more and, as a result, produce much lower yields—typically less than half of what is grown on the Valley floor.The low yields drive all of the vine’s energy into fewer grapes creating greater intensity and higher tannins.
The Valley floor often is cloaked in fog in the mornings whereas the Mountain vineyards tend to see sun all day long. Higher elevations also have greater diurnal temperature swings and these features can create noticeable differences in the styles of wine they produce.
But as David of Barnett Vineyards explained to us, mountain fruit isn’t necessarily more rustic than the Valley, it depends on the winemaker, “If you make wine on the mountain in the same way as you make it on the Valley floor, you’ll end up with a very unpleasant, tannic wine. Down in the Valley the berries are bigger, so you have more juice to skin. It’s all about tannin management and how you extract it. As a winemaker, you really have to put your thinking cap on and think outside the box when you come from the valley to up here.”
While we first fell in love with Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from the Valley floor, our eyes (and palates) have been opened to a whole new style which we love just as much. We do not believe one to be “better” than the other. As with all wines, we love their differences more than their similarities and enjoy high quality wines that embrace their unique terroir.
What we have come to learn over years of tasting Napa wines from both the Valley Floor as well as from its various Mountain regions (Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Pritchard Hill, et. al.) is a stylistic difference that is quite noticeable. Much more wine is produced down in the Valley than up on the mountain, so we take the Valley style as the Napa standard. What you get is fully ripe fruit with dark colour, full body, lush textures, and tannic structures in their youth that better integrate after a few years in the cellar. Red and black fruit flavours dominate, often showing currant and black cherry.
Mountain fruit shares the dark colour and full body but tends to have a more rustic edge to it, is more structured and not as lush as the wines made from the Valley floor. Tannins in Mountain Cabernets are often big and can take a decade or more to soften and integrate with the rest of the wine’s components. While the Valley wines are often fruit forward, the Mountain wines are more given to savoury elements and show more of the secondary notes of cedar, earth, mineral and spices. Drinkers whose palates tend toward softer, rounder wines will be easily smitten by the plush, soft textures that can be found in the Valley. Those seeking savouriness, complexity and can take a more tannic structure will appreciate the rusticity often found with wines made up on the Mountains.
Of course, one style is not inherently better than the other, it will merely bring more satisfaction to one palate over the other. We have favourites from both areas and appreciate the variety in styles that can match our shifting moods. Some of our favourite wineries on the Valley floor are: Heitz Cellars, Grgich Hills Estate, Dominus, Beaulieu Georges de Latour, Seavey, Joseph Phelps Vineyards. And from the Mountainsides: Smith-Madrone Vineyards, Barnett Vineyards, Phillip Togni, Dunn Cellars.