Note: This tip is an excerpt from the Sept. 30, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator, "Napa Valley." For more tips on visiting Napa Valley, including our editors' picks for don't-miss wineries, hotels and restaurants, pick up a copy, on newsstands now.
Napa Valley's reputation was underscored when it became California's first American Viticulture Area (AVA), in 1981. Napa County's political borders mostly define the legal boundaries of the AVA, but the heart of the county is the narrow valley that stretches 30 miles from San Pablo Bay in the south to the border with Lake County in the north.
Since the 1981 boundaries were set, the valley has been further subdivided, into 16 nested appellations that vary in size from 3,300 acres to more than 16,000. The following five are known as the "Mountains AVAs," perched atop the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains. They are listed from north to south and west to east; check out our map of Napa Valley for reference.
Diamond Mountain District
Established: 2001 | Total acreage: 5,000 | Acres planted: 500
Located southwest of Calistoga, Diamond Mountain gets its name from the volcanic crystals scattered through the reddish, fine-grained soil. The vineyards, which must rise above 400 feet in elevation to be included in the AVA, are planted on a variety of different grades and exposures.
Diamond Mountain is known for ageworthy Cabernets. The wines show the austerity of mountain-grown fruit and are firmly structured, tannic and intense in their youth. They often require patience to show their best and can last for decades. The mountain was first planted to vineyards in 1862. Al and Boots Brounstein's Diamond Creek label launched the modern era in 1968, with its single-vineyard wines showcasing the mountain's diverse terroirs.
Wine to try: Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District District Collection 2014 (92, $95)
Spring Mountain District
Established: 1993 | Total acreage: 8,600 | Acres planted: 1,000
Towering above St. Helena in the Mayacamas Mountains, this cool, wooded appellation reaches 2,600 feet at its highest point. Terraced vineyards dot the east-facing slopes and meadows, mostly above the fog line. The vines bask in the early-morning warmth and are cooled in the afternoon by breezes sweeping across the mountains from the Pacific. The soil is generally deeper than other sections of the mountain, with a mix of Franciscan sedimentary rock and Sonoma Volcanic formations.
Chardonnay and Riesling were the early pacesetters, but the region is best known now for intense, powerful Cabernet Sauvignons and rich Merlots. Pride Mountain Vineyards has the strongest track record for Cabernet.
Wine to try: Barnett Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District 2014 (91, $75)
Established: 1983 | Total acreage: 14,000 | Acres planted: 1,500
Above the fog line on the western slopes of the Vaca Mountains, Howell Mountain stretches across 14,000 acres with a wide variety of grades and exposures. Vineyards are planted at elevations of between 1,400 and 2,600 feet on a mix of decomposed volcanic ash, known as tufa, and iron-rich red clay, soils that are thin and nutrient-poor. Howell Mountain grapes develop and ripen late in the season.
Howell Mountain's signature style of Cabernet is massive, and marked by distinctive earthy tannins. Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Merlot also perform well, displaying the appellation's characteristic intensity and complexity. Randy Dunn set the benchmark style when he launched his nameake winery in the late 1970s, and the area is now home to more than a dozen wineries.
Wine to try: Turley Petite Syrah Howell Mountain Rattlesnake Ridge 2015 (92, $44)
Established: 1990 | Total acreage: 16,000 | Acres planted: 1,000
Intense and ageworthy wines are the hallmark of this rugged appellation perched in the mountains west of Yountville. First planted in the 1860s, Mount Veeder is known for sturdily built Cabernet Sauvignons marked by firm tannins and flavors of mineral, sage and black cherry. The area also produces concentrated Syrahs and elegant Chardonnays. Mount Veeder is gaining greater attention with the arrival of Jackson Family Wines (Mt. Brave) and Bordeaux's Tesseron family, who purchased actor Robin Williams' wine estate. They join longtime champions such as Mayacamas and Hess Collection.
Mount Veeder's soils are distinctive—primarily sandstone and shale from an ancient uplifted seabed. Vineyards are planted at various elevations, exposures and grades on the steep, forested slopes. With Carneros lying to the south, there is a strong maritime influence, with cool days and warm nights that result in one of the longest growing seasons in Napa.
Wine to try: Lagier Meredith Syrah Mount Veeder 2014 (94, $48)
Established: 1992 | Total acreage: 11,000 | Acres planted: 1,500
Soaring above the Stags Leap District in the southeastern mountains to over 2,600 feet in altitude, Atlas Peak is rugged, with steep slopes and large rock outcroppings. The thin, porous volcanic soil and cool daytime temperatures typically produce Cabernets that are dense and firm, with rich fruit and chewy tannins.
Development has been slow on the mountain, but it received a boost when Italy's Piero Antinori launched his Antica Napa Valley in the 1990s, planting a variety of grapes. Atlas Peak's vineyards have gained greater recognition in recent years with a growing number of wineries, including Hall and Alpha Omega, using its grapes. E.&J. Gallo's purchase of the 600-acre Stagecoach Vineyard, which stretches across Atlas Peak and neighboring Pritchard Hill, signals the increasing desirability of mountain sites, as plantable land on the valley floor dwindles.
Wine to try: Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay Atlas Peak 2015 (88, $35)