Napa Valley with Altitude 2009 Wine Tasting Event
Altitude. It's what distinguishes "hillside" or "mountain" fruit from grapes that are grown on flatter, lower lying areas. In the Napa Valley, the Mayacamas mountain range is home for the vines bearing such fruit, residing specifically in any one of its three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), as they're officially called: Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, and Mount Veeder. It was this collection of elevated subregions that was represented at a recent wine tasting in San Francisco, Napa Valley with Altitude.
Set in the beautiful Officer's Club at Fort Mason, with a view overlooking the San Francisco Bay, the tasting was a sumptuous affair. Conveniently, there was an appropriately sized room for each of the three AVAs, with tables featuring generous spreads of finger food in two of the larger ones. The most impressive feature of the event, though, was the simple fact that all these Napa wineries had come together to showcase their sensational wines, and not only to the trade and media, but to the public as well. It served as a ripe opportunity for serious professionals and amateur enthusiasts alike to behold the fruits of these producers' labor, their painstaking technique and graceful artisanship. This was a rare treat!
The common demoninator among these producers was exactly as the title of the event suggested: altitude. But what does it mean? Why is it important? How it is different? The answer to these questions lies in a micro-lesson in viticulture, to whose points a number of the producers frequently alluded in their discussions with me about the progeny of the very grapes they ultimately elaborated into often gorgeous exemplars of napavallian elixir. The short answer is balance. And in this context, that's manifested in three elements that make hillside fruit so special:
- Temperature. Heat is necessary for ripening, but as with all good things, there's a limit to how much grapevines can get before the fruit they bear begins to lose its balance of flavor, losing crucial acidity during the ripening process. The elevation of a hill can provide a cooling effect while the grapes still receive the amount of sunshine they need to fully ripen.
- Aspect. A hillside can provide a more direct angle towards the sun, maximizing exposure to an extent that vines at the base of the hill don't enjoy. That same aspect may provide vines with a more direct angle towards periodic winds (in this case occuring in the late afternoon) that would compound the cooling effect, allowing acidity levels to remain high.
- Soil. Optimal soil drainage is easier to attain and far more likely to occur naturally along a slope, rather than on flat ground.
Granted, these viticultural elements yield but the beginnings, the promise, of true enological greatness. Ultimately, though, the rest lies in the hands of the winemakers themselves who, in the group of wineries represented here, overwhelmingly rose to the challenge of manifesting the fullest potential of their respective mountain fruit. To taste these wines was an exquisite pleasure. To taste them in the presence of the critical mass of their creators was downright titillating.
I'm tempted to mention what I feel were the absolute standouts. But it wouldn't be entirely fair to do so since I didn't taste every single wine represented. I did, however, taste the majority, and can confidently assert that there were some truly stunning wines poured at this event. The preemminence of Napa overall, and specifically of the wineries of the Mayacamas mountains, was unmistakeable. What's more is that this event marked a singular occasion wherein these producers gathered to exhibit their wines — and in the city, making it all accessible to those who might not otherwise make the trek to the furthest reaches of the Napa Valley. This tasting event was exciting, enlightening, and truly something special. I can only hope we see a return of it next year, along with perhaps similar events in the city, featuring some of Napa's other AVAs.
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, founder and chief wine officer of Uncorked Events, an organization that consistently coordinates wine events with style and panache in Northern California.