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Understanding Oakville’s terroir

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Yesterday’s Taste of Oakville, the annual trade event showcasing dozens of the Cabernets and blends from this prime Napa Valley appellation, was held as usual in Robert Mondavi’s beautiful Tokalon cellar. I didn’t take any formal tasting notes, as it’s very crowded and noisy and the environment doesn’t lend itself to formal tasting.

Prior to the event, in the morning there was a Master Class on the terroir of Oakville. This is a topic of endless fascination to geeks. Heidi Barrett (who was not there) spoke of it in the chapter I devoted to her in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.

You can visualize Oakville of consisting of three areas: the Eastside benches and hills of the Vaca Mountains, where the elevation line goes up (as one of the panelists said) to about 1,500 feet; the Westside benches and hills of the Mayacamas Mountains, where the line extends only to about 500 feet, and the broad swathe of flatland inbetween. These flats are located more or less between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Through them runs the Napa River as well as its smaller tributary, Conn Creek.

We tasted three wines, each represented by a panelist. The wines and speakers were Oakville Ranch 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($60, Phil Coturri, viticulturalist, representing the Eastside), Venge 2006 Saddleback Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($125, Kirk Venge, winemaker, representing the valley floor) and BOND 2006 Vecina ($300, Mary Maher, viticulturalist for BOND and Harlan, representing the Westside).

Here’s what each said, paraphrased. Fascinating stuff.

Phil Coturri: Wants to make the soil come alive. Plants extensive cover crops (clover, mustard, even peas) to increase organic matter in the volcanic, minerally soils; as it decomposes it adds complex nutrients. This is the hot side of the valley (because the vines receive the afternoon sun), but what rescues the grapes are the canyons in this high elevation vineyard, which suck in cooling breezes in the afternoon, making them cooler than either Rutherford or St. Helena. The wine itself was starting to lose its baby fat of fruit, showing loads of firm minerals that are a reflection of its terroir.

Kirk Venge: The flatland vineyard has silty, clay loam and gravel soils. It is more vigorous than in the benches and hills, with a fairly high water table. Kirk therefore controls vigor by dry farming, the use of devigorating rootstock, and not planting cover crops; the absence of their added nutrients also helps to control vigor. The vines receive sun all day long, but are helped by the fact that Oakville receives a maritime breeze coming up through Carneros by 3 p.m. most afternoons. The wine was very fruity and soft, with a fat, fleshy texture. Delicious, but lacked the structure of the Oakville Ranch and BOND bottlings.

Mary Maher: The mountain vineyard is comprised mostly of a thin (6”-12”) layer of “valley sequence” soil on top of Sonoma Volcanics. It is well-drained. “Drainage drives our farming.” Mary uses cover crops as well as compost to enrich the soils and control erosion. The area is cooler than in the east or on the flats, as it does not receive the full afternoon sun. This coolness gives West Oakville Cabernets the most intense tannins in the appellation. The Vecina Ranch, which is just south of Harlan Estate, requires irrigation because the vineyard is so well drained. The wine, 100% Cabernet unlike Harlan Estate, was enormous, showing black cherry, mineral and spice flavors. It is an authoritative, masculine wine, with firm tannins, and is very ageable.

All three of the wines, I thought, were marked by cherries, rather than the blackberries and cassis I normally associate with Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. I don’t know why. The weather that year was very moderate, as it has been since 2005, except for a July heat wave. Bob Levy (Harlan’s winemaker) told me (10/3/06), “I think it’s going to be a very promising year,” although he was just at that moment starting to harvest his Cabernet. The season’s first serious rain did not fall until Nov. 2.

However, at lunch we had a 2007 Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and it was back to classic blackberries and cassis. An extraordinarily delicious wine I gave quite a high score just a month ago. And it costs all of $45.

One could study Oakville for many years and always learn something new.

  1. I’ve been a fan of Saddleback for quite awhile. Talked on the phone with Nils once.

    One thing I have not been sure of, is Venge properly pronounced
    Ven-gee with a hard g, or ven-djee with a soft g?

  2. gdfo, I think of it as “VEN-gi” with a hard “g” but I never really asked.

  3. Stuat Spoto says:

    Did you try Spoto Wines at the Taste of Oakville?

  4. Mr. Spoto, no I did not. I generally go to TOO to see old friends, make new ones and represent my magazine. I tasted perhaps 6-8 wines, informally.

  5. Steve, thanks for the re-cap blog of the event. I know the Oak. Growers Assn. appreciates it as do I.

    I’ve heard my name said several ways. Ven-geeee, Vonge’e, Ven-gay and it all works the same. But Charlie Olken has it right!)

  6. Kirk, as usual Charlie has it right! All hail Charlie Olken!

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