I don’t think I’ve had one conversation about Napa Cabernet in the last ten years that didn’t use the term “mountain fruit,” because since I first learned the difference between the aforementioned term and the grapes sourced from the Napa Valley floor, I’ve made sure every single customer that’s asked for my advice has understood the concept. I like to think of it like a stew. When you’re making soup or chili, you want to simmer it on a low heat for as long as possible. Cabernet is no different. When you’re looking to make top quality Napa wine you want those grapes to ripen as slowly as possible and hang on the vine until all of the flavors have had time to develop. Cabernet grown on the Napa Valley floor gets exposed to the California sun from morning to sunset, roasting all day long under the heat; thus, it ripens quickly. Cabernet grown on the side of slope gets much less exposure, so it tends to ripen more slowly, developing more complexity in the process. It’s for that reason that wines from Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, and Mount Veeder tend to carry higher price tags. Mountain fruit is generally on another level from valley floor fruit—literally and qualitatively.
One of my favorite Napa producers that specializes in mountain fruit is Robert Craig. Using site specific parcels, the winery not only makes wines with character and terroir, but also gusto and supreme concentration. The 2014 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon $94.99 is a spectacular example of not only the structure and power that the region is known for, but also just how rich the flavors can get high on the mountain as it’s jam-packed with cassis and blackcurrant notes. Craig’s vineyard is at 2300 feet along the summit and the temperatures there are about ten degrees cooler than on the valley floor, which allows the grapes to ripen much more slowly while maintaining acidity and tannic structure. With all of those elements in full display, it’s not a wine I would open tonight, but rather ten to twenty years from now. Mountain fruit can take a while to unwind and show its real potential. The 2014 Robert Craig Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon $89.99 is a bit lower at 2000 feet, but it gets a nice cool breeze that comes over the mountain top from the coast, again allowing the grapes to cool off and maintain acidity after a warm day of development. The Spring Mountain has incredible purity and grace, less meaty and chewy than the Howell, but still capable of going the distance in your cellar.
If you’re looking for serious Napa Cabernet, you’ve got to look to the mountains. As a mountain fruit specialist, Robert Craig is a great place to start.