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Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet: A study in contrasts

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I’m going to be doing an event soon on Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and the differences between them. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. As a working critic for many years, I of course had the opportunity to taste many if not most of the Cabs from both those regions, over many vintages, and so I formed a picture in my mind of their differences.

I keep in mind that Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland than Alexander Valley, so it’s a bit warmer and drier. (Of course, it needs to be said that Napa is incredibly more complicated than Alexander Valley, terroir-wise. The west-facing slopes of the Vacas in Oakville, at Dalla Valle for instance, are much warmer than, say, conditions at Dominus.) You’d expect Napa Cabernet to be a little riper than Alexander Valley Cab, and that has in fact been my experience. I’ve always thought of Alexander Valley Cab as slightly more herbaceous than Napa Cab. There’s frequently an edge of tobacco, or sage, or green olive in Alexander Valley Cab that frankly makes the wines more Bordeaux-like.

In Napa, too, the tendency to let Cabs get ultra-ripe, in the modern Parker style, is also much more pronounced than in Alexander Valley. This is primarily for economic reasons; wineries that have gotten very high Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast scores naturally are reluctant to change their house style, and those high scores are generally a reflection of their wines’ opulence. I don’t feel bad at all for whatever I contributed to encouraging that style, despite the fact that it’s come under some assault lately. I like a big, rich, dramatic, powerful Napa Cabernet.

But Alexander Valley wineries never felt the same pressure to mimic that Napa style. I suppose some tried to get their grapes ultra-ripe, but it really doesn’t work in Alexander Valley. The best growers realized they had to do more to achieve success than simply copy Napa. Even if they wanted to, Alexander Valley’s cooler climate would have made it more difficult.

I keep in mind, too, that when we speak of “Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon,” we’re really talking about Cabs from the foothills, slopes and mountains of the eastern side of the valley, which is the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains. (It’s silly to have to call them “Alexander Valley,” but until there’s some new A.V.A., that’s all we have.) There’s a lot of Cab planted down on the valley floor, mainly along Route 128, but the best Cabs have some elevation—and in some cases, quite a bit of elevation. Being 800 feet or 1,400 feet up in those mountains creates vastly different terroir conditions from lower down on the valley floor. The temperature is cooler during the daytime, but warmer at night due to an inversion layer, and the vines are generally above the fog, even on the foggiest days when the valley floor is smothered in the white stuff. There’s also more intense solar radiation up on those mountains, and while I’m not an expert in precisely how that affects the grapes, I think it tends to make the fruit more intense.

The fruit also is more intense up on those mountains because the soil is really sparse. Not much grows up on those west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas except madrone and other drought-resistant flora. The native grasses and herbs pretty much dry out and turn golden during our summers, and you can sometimes find those dried herb touches in the Cabs. This too helps to make Alexander Valley Cabernet distinctive.

Then there’s the tannins. They’re dustier, sometimes a little grittier or greener in Alexander Valley than in Napa, particularly in a cool year. Overall, Alexander Valley Cabs tend to be drier, more elegantly structured and more ageable than Napa Valley Cabs, which are more dramatic and flashy. Having said all this, it can be hard to pick out Alexander versus Napa in a blind tasting, even for an experienced taster. I don’t think it would be hard to tell a Colgin from a Jordan, because they’re made in such different styles. But a 2008 Lancaster from a 2008 St. Supery? Not so easy.

I do think this is a good time for Alexander Valley Cabernet to shine. It’s been a little lost in the glare of Napa Valley, as have all of California’s other Cabernet regions (Paso Robles in particular). But we’re in new times, when new consumers are more open to exploration and discovery. And Alexander Valley Cabernet is better than it has ever been. Lots of restaurants feel they have to have Napa Cab on their wine lists because their well-heeled customers expect it, and that’s totally understandable. But if I were a somm, I’d be looking at Alexander Valley mountain Cabernet. It’s a story waiting to be told, and worth the telling.

  1. Alexander Valley cooler than Napa Valley–really? It would be interesting to drill down on degree days in Healdsburg and Geyerserville vs Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga.

  2. Degree days as listed in first edition of General Viticulture by Winkler, et al:
    Napa 2880 Oakville 3100, Calistoga 3150, St Helena 3170;
    Healdsburg 3190, Geyserville not listed (but gives me the chance to spell it correctly this time).
    To the north of Alexander Valley: Hopland 3150, Cloverdale 3430.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat “Food + Wine” Section
    (November 23, 2011, Page D1ff):

    “Tasting Tours: King Cab;
    If for you, life is a cabernet, then the Alexander Valley is your destination”

    Link: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/2299308-181/king-cab

    By Peg Melnik
    The Press Democrat

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    The late Robert Balzer wrote rhapsodically about the 1974 Rodney Strong “Alexander’s Crown (Vineyard)” Cabernet Sauvignon — declaring it (if I recall correctly) his “wine of the year” when it was released.

    An excerpt from his 1986 Los Angeles Times wine column about a Rodney Strong-led seminar on his wines:

    “Our seminar also included a visit to the spectacular Alexander’s Crown vineyard in the Alexander Valley, a hilltop where Strong pioneered a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon planting. The vertical tasting of these singularly elegant Cabernets, from 1974 to 1981, was almost awesome. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the stunning debut of the 1974 Alexander’s Crown. Wholly seductive then, it’s holding well. But it was the variation from vintage to vintage that made this tasting adventure such a privilege. The current release, 1980 ($12), which shows the depth and complexity of the 1974, belongs in any wine lover’s collection of fine clarets.”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1986-10-05/magazine/tm-4277_1_chalk-hill-vineyard%5D

    You should seek out a bottle of the 1974 and sample it as “field research” for your seminar.

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