Much is written and argued today about the presence of regional identity and terroir in various wines, but particularly in reds based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Bordelaise have maintained for decades that there are noticeable differences between communes, St. Julien and St. Estephe for example, but wine consumers seem to pay more attention to individual Medoc chateaux than they do to any regional terroir differences that may exist.
The same might be said for California Cabernet Sauvignons, especially from the relatively small Napa Valley, where many sub-appellations are clamoring for consumer attention by claiming that its individual microclimate and soil sets are uniquely different from other sub appellations only yards away. Recent studies commissioned by Napa Valley Vintners maintain that there are 33 different soil types within the Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), an area 35 miles long and four miles wide at the widest point. Within this relatively small area are 14 sub-appellations, including Appellation St. Helena.
Considered the birthplace of the Napa Valley wine industry, St. Helena is both a small town and, since 1995, an official AVA, which according to the group known as Appellation St. Helena (ASH), has a 'unique topography' and microclimate that is 'great for many varietals.' The current ASH membership of 69 wineries and growers cultivate a total of 1156 planted acres, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
Appellation St. Helena is an irregular area shaped like an abstract bowling pin, wider at the bottom or southern end, marked by Zinfandel Lane, but then narrowing to about a half mile in the area roughly between Pratt Avenue and Deer Park Road, before bulging out slightly from Deer Park Road to Bale Lane. At the widest point in the AVA, between Zinfandel Lane and Pope Street, the appellation vineyards run into the east and west foothills, giving the ASH appellation a larger hillside-to-valley-floor ratio.
What does this mean to the wine consumer? Based on commonly held beliefs concerning hillside and mountain fruit, ASH wines, especially reds should show more concentration and varietal intensity and maybe higher alcohols. Here is the noted Australian former barrister and current vintner and wine writer James Halliday on the Cabernets of St. Helena, from his excellent Wine Atlas of California: 'The variety responds to the warmer climate in precisely the way one would expect, gaining a few pounds of weight around its girth like a well-fed city lawyer, with the weight hidden by a carefully tailored suit.' With those well-crafted words said, Halliday adds a more specific insight to ASH Cabernet Sauvignon, 'There is luxuriance in the red and blackcurrant fruit which literally floods the mouth, yet the structure is disciplined to the point of firmness. The richness of the fruit provides a natural balance to the tannins and one instinctively feels these will age.…'
Halliday is spot-on about the structure and firmness, although the same can be said for other mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignons. Not long ago I attended a tasting of ASH red wines, mostly from the 2004 vintage, held at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone in the Napa Valley. The hillside firmness was in all the 24 wines tasted, but even more noticeable was a common thread of ripe black fruits, good balancing acidity and the seeming ability of the wines to sop up French oak without being too oaky. Indeed, many of the wines were aged in a high percentage of new oak and for periods exceeding 24 months. As for alcohols, only the Freemark Abbey Bordeaux blend and the Corison Kronos came in at under 14%.
The wines were divided alphabetically by winery name into three flights of eight wines each, with blends mixed in with 100% Cabernet Sauvignons. Except for the Jaffe Estate Transformation 2005, all of the wines were from the 2004 vintage, an early harvest with low yields. The growing season started in March with warm weather and early bud break and flowering. A cold spell followed in April, but summer heat spikes rushed the harvest into early September. The consensus among ASH winemakers is that while 2004 caused some frazzled nerves, the wines are concentrated and packed with fruit and potential.
Pam Starr, winemaker for Crocker & Starr said that 2004 was a year of changes. 'We had a fast harvest where all the varieties ripened at once. It was a warm finish with an extremely small crop.' She expressed satisfaction with the 2004 vintage adding that 'the wines have durability, without many raisin flavors.' Starr estimates that the 2004 crop within the ASH appellation was 50% of the 2005 crop.
Within a group of so many wines carrying the same appellation, there were some wines that stood out and others less impressive. Generally, ASH Cabernet Sauvignons have an intensity of fruit that rarely is over the top, supported by firm refined tannins and good crisp acidity. I did find a low level herbaceous note in some of the wines that some might describe as leafy or even earthy. Rather than detracting, the herbal note, when present, added to the wines' interest and personality. In the Wine Reviews section, I go into more detail and ratings of 10 Appellation St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignons I found especially appealing.
Premium winegrowing in the St. Helena area can be traced back to the 1860s, with such noted winemakers as Charles Krug. By 1875, the St. Helena Viticultural Club (SHVC) was in full form and before the turn of the decade, membership was up to 100. Krug and other fellow winemakers such as Henry Pellet were busy encouraging growers to plant European varieties instead of the ubiquitous Mission grape. After some ups and downs, including the scourge of Phylloxera, the SHVC was reorganized in 2004 as Appellation St. Helena.
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