Exploring Mountain Wines With Cardinale’s Chris Carpenter

Winemakers face numerous challenges working with grapes from mountain vineyards, but the results tend to be well worth it. Chris Carpenter, winemaker at Cardinale in Oakville, CA, shared some insight on moutain wines during a special master class in New York on Dec. 4. 

Cardinale was established in 1982 by Jess Jackson to create a world-class cabernet sauvignon from top vineyards throughout the North Coast. Carpenter, who joined the company in 1998 and was named winemaker in 2001, blends the cab with a small amount of merlot, which helps soften the tannins and adds another layer of complexity. “The most merlot I’ve used was 27%; the least was 9%,” he said.

Chris Carpenter of Cardinale Wines

Chris Carpenter of Cardinale Wines.

Today, mountain-grown Napa grapes have been the foundation of Cardinale, especially those from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. But there are considerably more issues with farming vines grown on a mountain vs. those in the valley.

For one thing, mountain soils tend to be shallower; rain gets washed down to the valley floor so mountain soil doesn’t have the same nutrients as the valley. Also, trees shade the wineyards on a mountain, or the trees compete with the vines for nutrients, Carpenter noted.

The lack of flat surfaces on a mountain means there are different ridge exposure to the sun, Carpenter said. Farming mountain vineyards is trickier as well, since you can’t use a tractor on a steep slope. The yields from mountain vines are considerably lower vs. valley vineyards.

So why cultivate mountain-grown grapes? Because “the results for the fruit are incredible,” Carpenter said. When the vines are struggling, they put more energy into reproduction to try to save the species, he explained. You get the best flowers at the end of the plant’s life.

With mountain vines, “the fruit has a greater concentration of flavor” as a result of the struggle, with layered complexity, acids that hold longer and age-worthy tannins, Carpenter said. Blending with the fruit from the valley floor enhances the characteristics of the wine.

Putting the wines together is like an orchestra, Carpenter said: Everything works together, but you can pick out grape characteristics from the different locations. “Ten to 15% of what we do in the winery affects what’s in the glass; the rest is from the vineyard.”

Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers magazine, a sister publication of Beverage Dynamics.

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