Chris Carpenter may have the best day job in the world. Through the windshield of his truck, he watches the fog roll over mountain vineyards that are synonymous with long-lived premium wines.
The rugged-looking, former defensive lineman for the University of Illinois agrees his daily travels is a religious experience.
“What often gets lost is the spiritual connection to wine,” he said. “You come off busy Route 29 on a holiday weekend and head into the mountains where there is nobody but you and a few hawks. You are in a beautiful place.”
Carpenter’s beautiful place is on the slopes of Napa Valley’s most famous peaks — Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain — where he oversees vineyards for Jackson Family Wines’ portfolio of sublime, luxurious wines: Lokoya, Caladan, La Jota, Cardinale and Mount Brave. It is at these heights that cabernet sauvignon soars, but now the mountain man has learned that merlot, malbec and cabernet franc do well too.
“With mountain grapes, you’re growing grapes in an area with a diurnal shift. Air masses move in early in the night and cool down the grapes. As cold air drops, the effect kicks things off early in the morning. The combination with the sunlight really increases intensity and phenolics and stops the development of acid and tannin.”
Vines struggled to dig through the rocky terrain in search of little water. While water is scarce, sun is not. While fog cools the valley below, mountain vineyards bask in the sun above the fog banks. Growing season often extends into November.
While some mountain-wine producers hold on to all tannin to lengthen longevity, Carpenter concentrates on managing tannins so they don’t outlive a wine’s fruit.
“A lot of my is thinking about tannin and how to present it so that the wine is enjoyable and still allows to age,” he recently said in a phone interview. Because much of his wine is available only in restaurants, Carpenter said he is conscious of not overpowering a chef’s creations.
“Valley fruit has flash. But mountain-fruit wines age forever,” he said. “If you balance that wine correctly, you can carry that fruit for a very long time.”
Is a mountain a mountain? Hardly. Carpenter said geology, geography, micro-climates and direction of the sun strike unique character to the red varietals grown on mountain slopes.
“Diamond Mountain is like walking on moon dust. Spring Mountain is sedimentary rock. Hall Mountain is laden with iron and clay,” he said.
Mountain-grown wines have intensity, depth and character that isn’t always found in wines made with valley-grown fruit. The challenge, as Carpenter said, is to tame the tannins to make them more approachable on release.
The absolute killer wine of the bunch is the 2018 Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Malbec ($85), perhaps the best domestic malbec we’ve tasted yet. Rich, boysenberry flavors, soft tannins and a luxurious mouthfeel with exotic spices, intense aromas and an inky color. Delicious yet powerful.
The 2017 Mt. Brave Cabernet Franc is a wine with incredible concentration and fresh blueberry and plum notes with hints of lilacs and herbs de Provence on the nose. It isn’t your daddy’s cabernet franc with this structure.
Equally concentrated are the 2017 Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon and the firm but succulent 2017 La Jota Merlot, a wine that finally gives credit to an often-maligned grape variety.
Jackson Family Wines has a “Spire Collection” that allows members to subscribe to a sampling of these special but pricey wines.
Here are some other mountain wines:
Blackbird Vineyards Contrarian 2016 ($135). Veteran winemaker Aaron Pott has been working with this producer since 2007 and his handiwork shows on this blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. Using grapes from vineyards on Spring Mountain, Carneros and Vaca Mountain, the blend sows off Napa Valley’s classic character. Dark fruit and truffle aromas with ripe plum and blackberry flavors with a hint of mocha and anise.
Louis M. Martini Cypress Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($100). A first for this venerable producer, the Cypress Ranch Vineyard cabernet comes from the slopes of the Vaca Mountains in northeastern Napa Valley. Lush cherry and cassis noses with dusty tannins and a lot of complexity.
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Acumen Mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($65). Acumen makes some extraordinary cabernet sauvignons under its luxurious PEAK portfolio, but the Mountainside series of wines are intended to be more approachable for early consumption. The difference in pricing shows it too – the 2016 PEAK Edcora Vineyard is $165. From vineyards on Atlas Peak, this cabernet is tamed with cabernet franc and petit verdot. It is a very complex yet elegant wine with dark fruit notes and hints of chocolate, tobacco and spice.
Ladera Howell Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($115). Opulent blackberry aromas with a hint of mint and ripe plum and blackberry flavors with a touch of oak.
Domaine Bousquet Gaia Cabernet Franc 2018 ($20). From the foothills of the Andes in Argentina, this lush and full-body cabernet franc is a treat. Deep violet color with a pleasant mix of blackberries, blueberries and raspberries with hints of black pepper and mineral.
Veramonte Colchagua Valley Carmenere 2018 ($12). Bright plum and blackberry flavors make this a good match to pork and beef.
Wine Society “Tempt” Canned Wine 500ml N/V ($12). Canned wines are definitely trending in many markets especially in areas where boaters live. Portable and convenient this red wine is also very pleasing. Crafted from a mélange of red grapes but it is primarily syrah and petite sirah. This wine exhibits elegant smooth cherry and plum flavors with a hint of herbs. A bit of a chill works well with this wine.
Carmel Road Cabernet Sauvignon California 2018 ($15). A terrific value that doesn’t skimp on quality. Classic cherry, and berry notes with a hint of cedar and bit of oak make a great package.