The label says Napa Valley, but Frank and Karen Altamura’s wines come from a small, remote vineyard east of Napa Valley proper, in Wooden Valley, that's increasingly demonstrating how special a property it is.
Legally part of the Napa Valley AVA, few people know of Wooden Valley unless they’ve seen the sign for Wooden Valley Road while driving around Lake Berryessa. It's a small agricultural area 5 miles east of Napa proper as the crow flies, and separated by the rugged, low-slung, tree-shrouded Vaca Mountains.
The Altamuras chose this site years ago for their vineyard. Their ranch is 400 acres in size, at a 1,000-foot elevation, with 65 acres planted to vines, mostly Cabernet (55 acres) and smaller portions of Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese.
Their 1999 Cabernet recently performed very well in my 10-year retrospective of Napa Cabernets (the results of which will be published in the upcoming Nov. 15 issue of Wine Spectator, as well as online). The 1999 Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon offers a pure, rich mix of youthful plum, currant, blackberry, black licorice, spice and toasty, mocha-laced oak. The 2005 Cabernet (93 points, $75), the current release, offers a juicy blend of black cherry, wild berry, plum and currant, firm on the midpalate and gaining depth on the finish.
The 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (94, $45) offers smoke-tinged peach, honeydew melon, fig, candied nectarine and mango flavors that are ripe, rich and luscious. It shares the Cabernet’s vibrancy.
The Sangiovese has also enjoyed its moments of triumph. The 2004 (92, $45) is rich and complex, with chocolate-covered cherry and espresso bean flavors.
Napa natives, the Altamuras have always maintained a low profile. That’s common among people who grew up in the wine and grape business. Frank worked at Caymus early on, and in 1985 he and Karen started Altamura, focusing initially on Chardonnay made in an ageworthy style. A family dispute led them to sell their property and winery on Silverado Trail (it is now home to Darioush) and focus on their Wooden Valley ranch.
What makes Wooden Valley special is its altitude and cooler growing climate. Wooden Valley is typically 6° to 7° F cooler than Napa Valley, where the Altamuras reside, "so we have longer time to ripen [grapes] there," Frank said. Altamura’s Cabernet is also a bit of a throwback to the days when wineries such as Caymus aged their wines for three to four years in mostly neutral oak. From shy-bearing vines, the Cabernet produces about 1.5 tons per acre, and once vinified, it spends 30 to 36 months in mostly new French oak.
For Altamura, his wines have more of a European flair. "I think the Cabernet is more elegant, and not the heavier weight of many California Cabernets," he said. "We know our vineyard and can pick when we want to." Typically with Cabernet he’ll have 12 to 15 different lots fermenting and barreled and from that he can pick the cream of the crop.
The 1999 is a perfect example how well the Cabernet can age. Now 10 years old, it should make it to 2020 with ease.
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — September 3, 2009 9:20am ET
Chris Haag — vancouver, bc — September 3, 2009 6:36pm ET
Don R Wagner — Illinois — September 3, 2009 11:40pm ET
Andy Orons — Pennsylvania — September 7, 2009 2:37pm ET
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