Connect the Rocks: An Exploration of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Terroir

by John Szabo, MS

This past September Sara d’Amato led a master class on the Napa Valley, focusing specifically on the difference between “mountain” cabernet sauvignon wines – those made from grapes grown on the hillsides on either side of the valley – and “valley floor” wines, those grown on the, flatter land in between. It’s not the first time such a comparative tasting has been done; d’Amato referenced a similar recent tasting in London during which no universal conclusions could be drawn.

It’s true that winemaking techniques can massage wines into a certain style regardless of the origins of the grapes, to a certain degree. Yet most will agree that mountain wines have more tannins/structure and savoury character, while valley wines tend to be more open, fruity and soft even when young. That’s certainly my experience. I also find that mountain wines tend to have more freshness (acidity) and better overall balance – fully ripe fruit at more moderate (natural) alcohol levels thanks to a generally longer growing season. More fertile valley floor soils also promote more vigorous canopy growth, resulting in more herbaceous flavours in cabernet. But after that, it’s case by case, and exactly where the valley ends and mountains begin is of course a matter of debate, with some sub-AVAs within Napa overlapping what I’d consider both types of areas.

Napa Valley Masterclass, Sara d'Amato

In the end, it’s what in the glass that counts. Below is the lineup of wines from the tasting divided into (my) mountain and valley categories, with my reviews and scores.

Valley Wines

Trefethen Family Vineyards, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley  (Agent: N/A) $60 USD Quite woody – sawdust dominated off the top, with underlying dark, ripe fruit. Texture is fairly loose knit, with dusty tannins and high alcohol. Average length. Score 89

Farella Vineyard, 2012, Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa Valley (Agent N/A) $65 There’s a fine succulence and juiciness here, more pronounced acids, light but firm dusty tannins. Nicely elegant and refined, with lingering finish. Pure cabernet, all new French wood, but well-integrated.

Farella Cabernet Sauvignon

Honig, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (Agent: Lifford Wine Agencies) A very ripe, blueberry jam-flavoured wine, fat and round, with high alcohol, soft, supple texture. Simple and fruity, with lots of mocha-wood flavour. Score 88

Darioush, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (Agent: B&W Wines) A deep, dark, brooding, plum pudding, fig and raisined fruit-flavoured wine in one dimension; wood is coated by powerful fruit extract. Hot finish. Big and chunky. Score 89

Gallica, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa Valley (Agent: Lifford Wine Agencies) 25% cabernet franc. Open, fruity, polished, light acetone on the nose, but also lighter on its feet on the palate, Powdery-fine tannins, balanced acids, high but integrated alcohol. Very good length. Classy, refined, polished. Score 95

Rocca Family Vineyards, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grigsby Vineyard, Yountville, Napa Valley (Agent: BND Wines) Raisined – jammy ripe fruit, minty-eucalyptus notes, sweet tart, more candied red fruit dominated. Hard acids. Basic. Score 89

Young Inglewood Vineyards, 2012, Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley (Agent: Profile Wine Group) Lots of mocha espresso off the top, matched by ample dark, very ripe fruit. The palate is full, massive really, with huge fruit extract, yet this manages to stay relatively well balanced. Tannins are big, abundant but supple; black cherry liqueur flavours linger. Impressive. Score 94

Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley $105 (Agent: Small Winemaker Collection) Spottswoode has been farmed organically since the 1980s. There’s a touch of old school funk here, in the classically restrained style of Spottswoode, with more dusty-firm tannins, more grippy, or rather with less jammy fruit extract to coat and soften as with many Napa wines. I love the perfume, including floral and resinous aromatics and flavours, adding several extra dimensions. Superb length. Score 95

Napa Valley Masterclass

Mountain Wines

Silverado Vineyards, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, SOLO, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley $115 (Agent: Kylix Wines) Attractively ripe, very dark fruit, balanced by spicy, resinous herbs. This is a real mouthful, yet finely balanced on a very large frame. Huge tannins are ripe and bold but supple. Excellent length, too. Fine wine. Score 94

Signorello Estate, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (Agent: Profile Wine Group) An unusually firm and structured Napa Cabernet, made from fully ripe but not raisined fruit, and judiciously oaked – Signorello has really made a move back to the style he originally espoused, namely more balanced, restrained and elegant, and the 2013 is brilliant. Tannins are abundant but textured like raw silk, neither soft nor hard. Excellent length. A nice step up over the 2012 in my view, in a very different style. Score 93

Terra Valentine, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, (Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley (Agent: N/A) Very ripe fruit – seems Terra Valentine really swung for the fences in 2013, producing a massively structured, big, bold, firm, high alcohol wine. This will need years to unfold, but despite it’s extreme concentration, the balance remains intact, just ratcheted up a few notches. Best after 2020. Score 93

Y. Rosseau Wines, 2013, Cabernet Sauvignon, Le Roi Soleil, (Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, CA) (Agent: N/A) Quite closed on the nose, even a little awkward, but that hides for now an underlying perfumed elegance, particularly floral. There’s superb succulence and elegance on the palate, firm and tight structure, genuine density and depth, concentration and balance. This combines power and finesse, the ideal for Napa. A true mountain wine with structure and class, at the top of the class.

Y Rosseau Cabernet Sauvignon