So here’s the deal: over the last few years, the landscape of wine has changed a lot. Both in terms of styles and places to drink, it seems like every day there’s a new way to drink wine, and every new wine trend seems to have taken over.
Red wine experts in the UK are divided on the question of whether wine in the United States is better than the local stuff . There is even a book out on the subject . What is not in dispute, however, is that there are distinct differences between the wines produced in California’s coastal “Valley” and the wine grown in the Central Valley of Fresno and Bakersfield, California.The Napa Valley is an incredibly diverse wine region, says Rebecca Weinburg, viticulturist and winemaker for Quintessa at the Rutherford American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Napa. Studying the differences between accidents in mountainous areas and in valleys is a good start to understanding this diversity.
Altitude has the most obvious effect on the wines made from the grapes grown in these areas. It is also influenced by factors such as fog, terrain, soil type and day and night variations or differences between day and night temperatures.
According to Weinburg, mountain wines in the glass are most notable for the mouthfeel and texture of the tannins.
In general, the tannins in mountain wines are denser, stronger and longer and take longer to develop in barrel and bottle, she says. The tannins in the valley are full and dense, but lack length.
According to Alan Viader, the difference between mountain and valley wines is the concentration of aromas and flavors. He is the director of production and winemaking at Viader Vineyards & Winery, located at the foot of Howell Mountain in Napa. The vines grow on a steep 32% slope at an elevation of 480 to 1200 feet above sea level on soils low in nutrients and moisture.
As a result, these vines have to dig deep to find water. Their berries ripen more slowly, resulting in finer, more concentrated grapes that produce intense aromas and flavors.
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Temperatures can be moderate, even at high altitudes, although it gets cooler the higher you go. In Napa, vineyards above the fog line experience more regular sun exposure with fewer temperature fluctuations between day and night.
We no longer have the extreme peaks and valleys we had during the low point, Viader says.
Mt. Newton Winery Vineyard Veeder / Photo by J. Pennick
These conditions affect the grapes and wine differently.
Temperate temperatures … allow the growing season to be extended and the fruit to ripen slowly and evenly, says Laura Deiermond, grape grower and winemaker at Newton Vineyard, which has vineyards in the Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder AVAs.
The slower development of the skin and sugar accumulation in the mountain AVA results in grapes with classic berry flavors, Deiermond says, often with a deeper color and firmer tannin structure. All this can contribute to the development of the ability to live in old age.
Although the soils in the hills tend to be rocky, the soils on the valley floor are actually quite diverse, says John Ruehl, general manager of Trefethen Family Vineyards at the Oak Knoll AVA in Napa.
Vines planted on heavy soils need more crown management to reduce growth intensity, he says.
The Trefethen site in Napa Valley has a mix of soils that Ruehl says contributes to the diversity of the wine line.
Land with a high gravel content has good drainage and is therefore particularly suitable for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, he says. Richer soils are better suited to varieties like Merlot and Chardonnay.
Trefethen Family Vineyards / photo courtesy of Trefethen
While Trefethen’s topography is mostly flat, Quintessa has rolling landscapes with mountain and valley features, Weinburg said. The eastern hills with their white ash soils produce wines with a floral character, red fruit and a characteristic tannic structure, long and finely blended. The central and western hills with mixed volcanic and sandy soils produce wines with deep red and black fruit and concentrated, supple tannins.
Ultimately, quality grapes and world-class wines depend on proper winemaking practices and vineyard balance, which can mean different things due to environmental factors.
You can make good wine in the hills and valley bottoms, Ruehl says. Provided the farmer understands the terrain and the science.
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