As I pack today to get ready for heading up into the snow and cold of the Blue Ridge chain in Georgia, it got me thinking about Juan Valdez, remember him? I think it was Folger’s brand, “the richest, most aromatic” coffee because apparently coffee beans grown in the mountains are richer and more aromatic than the swamp cousins. It’s true, by the way. Coffee beans at elevation are naturally harder, producing coffee with richer flavors! Who knew? Juan Valdez did!
Same phenomenon is true for wine grapes. Most jug wine grapes are produced on flat, nutrient-rich soil where tons per acre is important, not necessarily flavor. Conversely, most of the top wines in the world are produced from grapes grown on hills, mountains and in some cases breakneck terraced cliffs. This change of microclimate, including soil type, soil depth, mineral present, rainfall and drainage, exposure etc. changes the vine and changes the grapes. Usually one can expect lower yields in these inhospitable places, combined with smaller berries and therefore more concentration and intensity of color, flavor, acidity and tannin.
This basic difference, caused simply by where the grapes are grown, is one of the basic wine regulations throughout the world. Take a place familiar to us all, Napa Valley, California. I believe there are about a dozen and a half different microclimates recognized by the wine police and grape growers alike. Really it’s the BATF, and the microclimates are sub A.V.A.s, some of which we all know very well. Rutherford, Oakville, St. Helena, Yountville, Calistoga and maybe Oak Knoll are the best known, probably because they are on the valley floor, and visitors drive through and to them every day. Some of Napa’s top A.V.A.s in terms of quality and not popularity could possibly be the ones with the word ‘mountain’ in their names. Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder ring a bell? Sure they do! Atlas Peak is maybe less known, but that is changing!
Just like those coffee beans, grapes from these mountainous areas produce wine that is “the richest, most aromatic” in the Valley. They just don’t taste the same as the same wine made on the fertile alluvial valley floor. Higher acidity and firm tannins are usually the obvious immediate difference. If you want to experience firsthand the difference, open any of number of our BLOCK Series Cabernets (you can find in store now and make sure it is Napa) and compare it to either the BLOCK 609 Cabernet Atlas Peak (if you can find one) or more currently, the Block 415 Cabernet Spring Mountain – you’ll taste the difference!
Shayne Hebert, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Wine & Spirits Supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwineShayne