January 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Conn Creek Puts Napa's AVAs in Focus

by Larry Walker
Conn Creek Winery
At Conn Creek Winery in Rutherford, Cabernet wines from all of Napa Valley's 14 AVAs, plus the proposed Calistoga appellation, are displayed in the AVA room, an ongoing experiment designed to demonstrate terroir.

  • In an ongoing terroir experiment at Conn Creek Winery, winemaker Jeff McBride makes individual wines from all 14 AVAs in Napa, plus the proposed Calistoga AVA.
  • The grapes are picked and vinified in the same way for each wine--yet each wine has its own character.
  • McBride feels that, through these explorations, Napa Valley may someday arrive at distinct flavor profiles for each of the region's AVAs--as is done in France's Bordeaux region.
Explaining terroir, and the difference between AVAs that are in close proximity to each other, is a challenge--even for seasoned winemakers. At Conn Creek Winery, in the Rutherford AVA of Napa Valley, winemaker Jeff McBride is actually demonstrating the concept. The winery's 3-year-old program involves making and comparing individual wines from all 14 AVAs in Napa, plus the proposed Calistoga AVA.

The 15 experimental wines from the 2004 vintage are currently housed in Conn Creek's AVA room, giving McBride's experiment in "taste-of-place" wines a market-driven spin. Members of the Conn Creek Napa Valley Wine Club can use the room as a one-stop shop to taste all of Napa in one visit, or drop in to make their own wine blends.

For the purposes of Conn Creek's experiment, all 15 wines were treated identically as far as winemaking procedures, and all of the grapes were picked at 25° Brix.

During a recent tasting of the wines, McBride said, "What I look for is a flavor profile and a structural profile that comes across regardless of vintage."

The wines we tasted from the 2004 vintage more or less confirmed McBride's preliminary comments on the three-year experiment.

In Napa, a number of factors come into play in shaping the wine profile. One of the more obvious is the change in climate from north to south, the warm top of the valley and the cooler AVAs closer to San Pablo Bay. Other variables include altitude, soil structure and sun exposure.

Jeff McBride
Conn Creek Winemaker Jeff McBride hopes to develop distinct flavor profiles for all the Napa AVAs.
"Roughly speaking, there is a northern belt that includes Calistoga, St. Helena and Howell Mountain, which can be characterized by smaller berries--about the size of the fingernail on your little finger. As you move south, you get into deeper soils with a higher clay content and the berry size increases," McBride said. He added that berry size is linked to extraction of grape tannins, with more extraction from the smaller berries. "In the north, the wine seems more astringent because of those tannins, while it seems more accessible in the southern part of Napa." (In the Wines & Vines tasting, the St. Helena sample was considerably less tannic and extracted than the Calistoga wine, with more lush fruit.)

McBride said another north-south difference is in total phenolics. "Calistoga, for example, gets 3,000-3,400 parts per million of total phenolics. In Oakville, that drops to 2,300-2,800."

He has found higher acids and lower pHs in the south, especially in Carneros, Yountville and Atlas Peak. "Those high acid wines can take more oak than the lower acid, higher pH wines from northern Napa. I can back off on the use of new oak for appellations in the north," he said. In general McBride has found more red fruit character in wines from the southern portion of Napa, and more dark fruit in the north.

One particularly interesting tasting contrast was between the Mt. Veeder AVA and the pending Calistoga AVA. The wines seemed remarkably similar, both showing a lot of extraction. McBride said that despite its higher altitude, Mt. Veeder is a warm region that is also stressed by the soils. However, another high elevation AVA, Chiles Valley, comes across in flavor profile as similar to Carneros. The chilly nights and soil structure--with a high clay content similar to Carneros--produce wines of higher acidity.

As for the mid-valley AVAs, McBride found, in general, more integrated tannins with higher fruit tones. Stags Leap wines tended toward a tannic structure similar to that found in the north, but with a lower pH.

McBride emphasized that his comments are very preliminary. "Where do we go with this? Can we get to the point of Bordeaux and arrive at the distinct flavor profiles you find in a Medoc, or a St.-Emillion, for example? I think we can."

He believes the next step is to work with various tasting groups within the individual AVAs. "We can work from the AVA down to the vineyard level," he said.

"I do believe the concept of terroir is legitimate, but we don't have the answers yet. It's an ongoing process," McBride said.
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