California’s Mountain Masterpieces

Some of the most memorable wines I’ve had in the course of my wine journey have come from mountain vineyards — opaque, structured behemoths that even after decades of life still erupt from the glass with sensations that linger deliciously well after the last sip, intellectual wines with complexity that allow for enjoyment on many levels. One of the keystone characteristics of mountain wines is not just the ability to improve with age, but the need to age so the tannins are tamed and integrate with all of the other flavors.

Tannins bring great structure to wine and also provide color and flavor.

Courtesy Pride Mountain Vineyard

With its coastal mountains formed from tectonic uplifts and ancient volcanic activities, California has as much or more true mountain vineyard acreage as anywhere in the world and as such is the perfect study in the whys of great mountain wines. California’s most famous mountain-wine treasure is Napa where ranges rise steeply and majestically on both sides. The Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Range to the east. The star regions here are Spring Mountain Vineyards, Howell Mountain Vineyards, Mt. Veeder Winery, Atlas Peak AVA and Diamond Mountain Wine Country. The vineyards were etched from steep terrain covered with eons of shrubs and rocks and almost devoid of natural water sources. The low-fertility soils are shallow and drain easily yielding crop loads a fraction of vineyards on the valley floor.

So let’s take a look at what makes wines made from mountain terrain different and often exceptional. The best place to start is in the skin because that is where the gifts of mountain life are bestowed on the fruit. A grape’s skin is much like our own in that its main function is protection from extreme heat, cold, sun exposure, fierce winds or drought. Mountain vineyards throw all of that and more at the vines forcing the grapes to create substances such as anthocyanins, of which tannins are the most well known, to protect and serve the grapes.

Courtesy Pride Mountain Vineyard

Tannins bring great structure to wine and also provide color and flavor. In the hands of a talented wine team these compounds develop correctly in the fruit and are treated correctly during winemaking and aging to enhance their positive characteristics in the wine.

The wines are dense and tannic in their youth and demand years of patience to show their stuff. But what stuff it is because with age they blossom with complex layers of dark fruits, minerals, earth and tannins that rarely become soft but integrate and provide structure like no other.

So the next time you crack a bottle from Pride Mountain Vineyards, CADE Estate Winery, Dunn Vineyards, Cain Winery or the like, take a moment to appreciate the hard work of the people and the vines that created the masterpiece you are enjoying. Cheers to them.

Lou Phillips

Lou is a Level 3 Sommelier based on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, who loves traveling the wine world doing research for his writing. He also consults for collectors and businesses buying and selling fine wine and creating special events.