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Napa Valley Reds: Valley Floor Or Mountain Grown?

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - Valley Floor Or Mountain Grown?

Fruit from Wildcat Mountain Vineyards on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley


What is the difference between Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the valley floor and grown on the mountain? This is an interesting and ongoing topic among our Cab loving wine club members, and the Napa Valley is a flashpoint.

Napa has five mountain appellations: Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain District, Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder. Some swear by mountain-grown fruit, claiming its Cabs are bolder, possibly more complex. The mountain vineyards enjoy longer growing seasons and fewer very hot days (though nights can be warmer than the valley floor due to heat inversion). They can have thinner rockier soils and more wind to stress the vines for concentrated fruit flavors. The higher elevations yield bolder tannins, important for aging.

Meanwhile, down in the valley, in appellations like Oakville, Rutherford and Yountville, mostly alluvial soils, more rain and more heat give a different profile to King Cab. Some say it is more Bordeaux-like – riper than the mountain Cabernet, almost hedonistic in its pleasure points.

Monticello Vineyards’ Jefferson House in Napa’s Valley is a wine club favorite

So, terroir certainly plays a role. Yet, we can’t discount the importance of viticulture and winemaking. Decisions made among the vines, at harvest and in the cellar during fermentation and aging can shape a wine possibly as much as terroir, though this can be argued on both sides.

With viticulture, clonal selections, canopy management, soil moisture content and more require a sharp eye on mountain sides and the valley floor. If the canopy isn’t trimmed enough, too much shade can hamper ripening. If trimmed to much, too much sun can yield raisins. The moment of harvest is critical and it is complicated by Mother Nature when she throws in rain or heat spells.

In the cellar, there is a chance for artistry that some say is the force behind many of Napa’s elegant valley floor Cabernets. Choosing a certain yeast may enhance qualities of the fruit. Length of fermentation and the number and type of punchdowns have an influence, as do the type of cooperage and the age of the barrels.

Also important is experience. A vineyard manager who knows the vineyard well can be invaluable. The same can be said of a winemaker who knows the vineyard, the differences between blocks of fruit and how to work with these in the cellar.

Founder/Winemaker Phil Steinschriber of WaterMark Wine analyzing a batch of wine.

Add to this a winemaker with a sense of artistry, and you have a chance to create a fabulous Cabernet Sauvignon like the 2007 Mt. Veeder bottling from Watermark Wines, available with this months’ Aged Cabernet Series. This small (500 cases a year), artisan brand was founded by winemaker Phil Steinschriber, who has produced iconic Diamond Mountain Vineyards’ wines since 1992. “Mountain fruit is different,” he says.  “It’s not as soft as valley floor fruit.”

The late Jay Corley with sons Stephen, Chris and Kevin.

To taste the difference, contrast with the Corley 2007 Napa Valley Proprietary Red Wine, a fabulous Bordeaux blend from Napa’s Oak Knoll District. The Corley family has been farming Napa Valley floor reds for decades, and this beauty hails from two of its estate vineyards in the Oak Knoll district.  The Cabernet Franc in the blend was planted in 1990.

Enjoy with a toast to the diversity of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Try these wines and other Napa gems with a curated wine club delivery from our Aged Cabernet Series.

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