Arizonans know mountains, from Flagstaff's spectacular San Francisco Peaks to Tucson's imposing Santa Catalina Mountains. But do Arizonans know that mountains do more than provide beautiful scenery, recreation and ecological values? Mountains also can produce wonderful wines. Proof comes from California and elsewhere.
Although there are no vineyards high on California's Sierra Nevada, some of the state's coastal mountains are another story. Napa's Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain are prime examples renowned for their wines. Although these mountains don't reach high elevations -- Mount Veeder is 2700 feet -- they tower above a low-elevation landscape where the city of Napa is only 20 feet above sea level.
The high quality of mountain wines results from several environmental factors. When lower elevations are covered with ocean fog, mountain vineyards receive full sunshine that helps ripen grapes. However, ripening occurs slowly because of cool temperatures, and as a result mountain wines usually have excellent balance of sugars and acidity.
In addition, mountains often have shallow top soils only 1-2 feet deep that don't hold much moisture and aren't fertile. While these are poor soils for most crops, they are ideal for wine grapes because stressed grapes have powerful flavors and produce wines of great character.
Mountains also have small pockets of many different environments because elevations, soils and slopes are highly variable. This produces differences in grapes, making mountain wines complex and distinctive.
Below are several mountain wines I recommend. Prices are higher than many other wines not only because many mountain wines are exceptional (and long-lived), but also because mountain vineyards are uncommon, low-yielding and costly to plant, maintain and harvest.
Swanson 2013 Pinot Grigio "Sonoma Mountain" ($21): With its vineyards 750 feet above the valley floor, this expressive wine has bold fruit attractively balanced by crisp acidity and finishes long and strong. A touch of Chardonnay provides additional character. Definitely not a wimpy, run-of-the-mill Pinot Grigio!
Hess Collection 2011 red blend "19 Block Mountain Cuvee, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley" ($38): This Cabernet-Malbec-Syrah blend is quite a bargain at its relatively moderate price. There's beautiful purple-hued color, forward complexity on both nose and palate and refined integration. Attractively lighter in intensity than many mountain reds.
Nino Negri 2010 "Sfursat di Valtellina, Italy" ($40): This wonderful wine is made from Nebbiolo grapes grown on steep slopes in the southern Alps. The grapes are partially dried (as in Amarone), and the result is a very complex, long finishing wine with well-balanced fruit and acidity and tannins that provide core structure.
Enzo Bianchi 2009 red blend "San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina" ($55): The vineyards may be high in elevation (2500 feet) rather than mountainous, but I can't resist including my favorite wine in this price range. This Cab-dominated blend has voluptuous fruit, velvety texture, seamless integration, engaging complexity and a powerful, extended finish.
Mt. Brave 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon "Mount Veeder, Napa Valley" ($75): Don't be put off by the light attack of this exceptional wine, because power beautifully builds in mid-palate, is accompanied by excellent balance and is very persistent throughout a long finish. Another personal favorite in its price range.
Pahlmeyer 2012 Merlot "Napa Valley" ($75): One of the best Merlots I've tasted in several years comes from vineyards at 1500-2100 feet along the ridge of Atlas Peak. This highly polished wine features gorgeous fruit and impressively smooth texture, yet has attractive tannins that provide structure. The finish is a "wow", featuring great strength and length. Its fine mountain sibling, the Pahlmeyer 2013 Chardonnay "Napa Valley" ($75) is a bold, textured wine with expressive oak.
Krupp Brothers 2012 red blend "The Doctor, Napa Valley" ($100): This superb blend of mostly Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is a co-favorite in its price range. It comes from 1300-1800 feet elevation and exhibits powerful complexity, refined texture, forward fruit, outstanding balance and a finish that persists for minutes. Its wonderful mountain siblings are the Krupp Brothers 2013 Chardonnay "Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley ($65), which is moderately oaky in style, and Krupp Brothers 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon "Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley" ($85), with an exceptionally rich, persistent finish. The latter sibling is available only by direct shipping from www.kruppbrothers.com.
Roberts + Rogers 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon "Howell Mountain, Napa Valley" ($100): My co-favorite in this price range is a memorable wine. There's pleasing fruit on the attack, but power and complexity quickly define this wine and then produce a minutes-long finish. Tannins call for pairing with beef. Available only by direct shipping from www.robertsandrogers.com, and case orders receive a 44% discount!