Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mount Veeder: Cabernets Of Authority And Grace

"Napa Valley" is the most readily identifiable American Viticultural Area, but it's also the silliest. To be accurate, the appellation  should be "Napa County," not "Napa Valley," but "Napa County" doesn't ring with the same color and romance as "Napa Valley." "Napa County," well, sounds amorphous, bureaucratic and political. In reality, the same could be said of "Napa Valley."

There is a Napa Valley, but it isn't the appellation "Napa Valley," which as conceived, developed and marketed includes a whole bunch of terrain beyond Napa Valley itself. Look at a map and you will find that the Napa Valley appellation includes four mountains and two other valleys, which while close to Napa Valley aren't really of the valley.

Whether because of embarrassment, insecurity or pride, various grape-growing and winemaking groups within the "Napa Valley" appellation recognized many years ago the absurdity of the appellation's broadly embracing boundaries and took it upon themselves to correct the matter. They created sub-appellations more in keeping with the spirit of what an American Viticultural Area is to be, which is to say an enclave whose grape-growing environment - soil types, elevation, sunshine, rainfall and the like - are so compact, consistent and distinctive that the resulting wines are somehow markedly different than wines from even nearby areas.

Tasting and talk were the order of the day
Today, "Napa Valley" includes 16 such sub-appellations. One is Mount Veeder, established in 1990. As an appellation, Mount Veeder stretches north/south through the Mayacamas Mountains just to the west of the city of Napa. Sonoma County is just on the other side of the ridgeline. Vineyards within the appellation tend to be small and scattered, adding up to only about 1,000 acres total. In elevation, they range from 400 feet to 2400 feet. Cabernet sauvignon accounts for nearly two-thirds of the appellation's production, but 16 other varieties are grown within its boundaries. There actually is a Mount Veeder, rising 2,670 feet in the northwest quadrant of the appellation, named after a German Presbyterian pastor, Peter Veeder, who lived in Napa during the Civil War era and who liked to hike in the hills west of the city.

Winemaking commenced in the range at about the same time that Peter Veeder was getting his exercise. Today, some 30 wineries exploit the appellation, producing a total of around 45,000 cases of wine per year.

So what distinguishes Mount Veeder from Napa Valley generally and its 15 other sub-appellations? On paper, the difference largely is soil. It's sedimentary, a former seabed, while the soil of  Napa's other mountain districts is volcanic. Given its elevation, the region tends to get more sun and less fog than much of the rest of Napa Valley. Given its proximity to San Pablo Bay, it's cooler than most other Napa Valley enclaves. It's growing season is longer, with harvest usually commencing later than in other Napa Valley areas. And its stingy soils yield little more than two tons per acre, about half the Napa Valley average, say appellation officials.

But what of the wines? What sets them apart from others in Napa Valley? That's what I wanted to know, and why I jumped at a chance to attend last weekend's 13th annual Mount Veeder Appellation Wine Tasting. For three hours Saturday afternoon, 26 wineries within the appellation poured past, current and pending releases at tables around the sculpture garden of The Hess Collection, one of the first wineries you reach as you drive into the appellation from the south.

In my first trek through the circuit, with the blues band The Hummingbirdz performing off to one side, I concentrated solely on the appellation's flagship varietal, cabernet sauvignon. They were largely from the 2008 and 2009 vintages. As a group, they were dry, medium-bodied and balanced. The typically low yields for the region was represented in concentrated fruit flavors, mostly from the blackberry and cherry families. A few were warm from alcohol, but none singed the palate. Tannins were supple. By and large, winemakers respected the purity of the fruit by not overlaying it with too much oak. These were wines built to last, and I came away feeling that several would hit their stride only after five or so years in the cellar. The few older vintages on hand confirmed that Mount Veeder cabernets can retain their fresh-fruit attributes with remarkable grace.

Some newer releases stood out more than others, for various reasons. A couple were exceptionally aromatic, their smells assertive and beckoning. The Y'Rosseau Wines 2009 Mount Veeder Le Roi Soleil Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) was one, its smell running to essence of blackberry, beseeching the taster to return again and again for another sip. The Rubissow Wines 2008 Mount Veeder Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) was another, the juiciness of its aroma just the gate to a garden lush with berries and cherries. The Rubissow also stood apart for an unusual yet compelling current of peppermint, spearmint or juniper that coursed through it.

While Mount Veeder cabernets were easy to appreciate for their direct fruitiness, a few stood apart for their complexity, including traces of flinty minerality that must evolve from the ancient seabed in which Mount Veeder vineyards are planted, none moreso than the Mount Veeder Winery 2008 Mount Veeder Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($80); this is one formidable wine not likely to hit its peak for another five years. Another was the vibrant and gracefully layered The Hess Collection 2008 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvee, a marvelous blend of Bourdeaux grape varieties that at $36 the bottle was the best buy of the tasting. And no wine was more complex than the Fontanella Family Winery 2009 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($52), which for its elegance and power was another exceptional buy.

For the most part, the cabernets didn't possess particularly long finshes. A couple were downright blunt. An exception was the O'Shaughnessy Estate Winery 2009 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), which had the longest finish of the day, testifying to the expansiveness and richness of its mouth-filling fruit, herbs and spices.

While Mount Veeder is largely cabernet territory, other varietals are showing well on the appellation's shadowy slopes. Lagier Meredith eschews cabernet sauvignon, yet may have generated the most buzz of the day with the authority and length of its meaty and spicy Lagier Meredith 2010 Mount Veeder Syrah ($48) and with the charm and snap of its Lagier Meredith 2010 Mount Veeder Mondeuse ($42), a rare black grape which here produced a wine so powerfully suggestive of marionberries coated with several twists of black pepper that it could trigger an explosion of planting across California. Another variety that looks to have potential on Mount Veeder is albarino, to judge by the pretty, spicy, vibrant and refreshing The Hess Collection 2011 Mount Veeder Albarino, a wine so limited in production at this point that it is available only at the winery. Chardonnay, of course, is tended on Mount Veeder, but the results tasted Saturday were less than enthralling, with the exception of the gloriously fruity and endearingly spunky Spotted Owl Vineyards 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($45).

In conclusion, I suggest that wine enthusiasts keep an eye out for these kinds of regional tastings. They're more limited than tastings that corral as many producers as they can, but that's their appeal. Rather than ramble from producer to producer, region to region and style to style, a defined regional tasting lets you zero in on the one or two types of wine for which an appellation is recognized, and thereby truly find what a place has to say. Besides, smaller and more manageable tastings appeal to winemakers because they can engage customers and potential customers more meaningfully. You could see a lot of that at the Mount Veeder tasting, a model worth emulating.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent report Mike. I was sorry to have to miss the Mt. Veeder tasting this year, but you gave me a good sense of what went down.