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A new chapter for Napa

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Napa’s finest wines receive stratospheric scores – but there’s much more to the region’s story. Gavin Smith talks to Master Sommelier and Colgin COO about why it’s time to stop focusing on critical acclaim and let Napa’s vineyards speak for themselves

Last year Colgin celebrated its 30th harvest. In a relatively short time, this Napa estate has become one of the most successful wineries in the region, if not the world. Its three single-vineyard wines – Cariad, Tychson Hill and IX Estate – regularly receive 99-100 points scores across the board, establishing it as one of the region’s cult Cabernet estates that has put Napa on the international fine wine map.

Despite its international repute, however, Paul Roberts – Master Sommelier and Colgin’s COO – believes the estate, and Napa Valley as a whole, is still only just starting to tell its story.

Napa, more than anywhere else, has been massively influenced by wine critics’ scores. While there is much fanfare over being awarded a perfect 100 points, these headline-grabbing scores have distracted from the actual reasons why this hugely heterogeneous region can produce such great wines, and that the wines themselves are distinctly varied, both in style and flavour profile. For some collectors, if a wine from Napa doesn’t have a 99 or 100-point score then they aren’t interested; however more engaged collectors are starting to identify the nuances within the region and are eager to learn more.

Roberts has noticed this first-hand. “[People] don’t want to rely only on a score for guidance but instead begin to look for reasons why they really like these wines from Pritchard Hill, for instance… this is an evolution.”

It reminds Roberts of a conversation he had with Dominique Lafon (Domaine des Comtes Lafon) when visiting Burgundy. Lafon said to Roberts, “When Domaine Faiveley sued Robert Parker in 1993, it was the best thing that could have happened to Burgundy. Parker left Burgundy and no other critic at the time had the influence like he did.” Lafon felt that it forced the wineries in Burgundy to focus on the story behind their wine – the characteristics of each vineyard – instead of a score. “This has to be the next evolution in understanding the great wines and the great terroirs of Napa,” says Roberts.

While Roberts emphasises that Colgin doesn’t trade on its scores, it is fortunate to have them. “But Napa is about a place – and we need to talk about this more,” he says. “The place is going to outlive you, me, Robert Parker, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Antonio Galloni, all of us will be dead and gone, but the land abides. The place will hopefully begin to take on its own unique story, just in the same way you think Romanée-Saint-Vivant is different to Richebourg.”

Tasting Colgin with Roberts, you quickly realise that for him tannins (their shape, intensity and mouthfeel) are an important aspect of understanding Napa’s different terroirs, as well as what really sets Napa apart from other Cabernet-growing regions around the world.

Firstly, there’s the sheer volume of tannins. Top Napa Cabernets have higher skin-to-juice ratios than even the First Growths, notes Roberts, and therefore much more “antioxidant” tannins than their Bordeaux counterparts, vital for long ageing and development in bottle. Colgin’s mountainside IX Estate vineyard on Pritchard Hill produces berries that are, on average, 30% smaller than those grown in Pauillac and, to Roberts, have a completely different tannin profile. “While we love and enjoy drinking Bordeaux wines,” says Roberts, “Napa shoots itself in the foot every time we keep comparing our wines to Bordeaux. The climate, the terroir, the soils, they are just completely different.”

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Paul Roberts MS and COO of Colgin at the winery on Pritchard Hill

When asked to describe the differences between the various regions within Napa, Roberts wants the tannins to guide you. While the reality is more nuanced, generally Roberts finds that the further south you are, the more elegant the tannin profile. In the south it is slightly cooler, something further exaggerated by the elevation. The northern part of the valley, however, produces “exotic, fleshy, powerful wines”. He finds that the mountain appellations – Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Diamond Mountain – produce powerful, dense, tannic, structured wines.

Today Napa wines are often divided into those from the valley floor and those from mountain sites. While this binary division is one way to approach the geographical distinctions within Napa, but it is, Roberts feels, overly simplistic. Most importantly, it doesn’t allow for wines that are neither valley floor or mountain – the hillside vineyards, such as Colgin.

Napa’s climate is influenced heavily by marine fog. Every day during the growing season, a layer of fog forms over the vineyards. Valley floor vineyards sit below the fog line and are protected from the full daytime power of the sun, moderating the climate. Mountain sites are above the fog line and are therefore constantly exposed to the California sunshine, which, according to Roberts, produces “a different berry structure” to the grapes on the valley floor. “The berries are smaller and have much thicker skins, very different tannins and much later picking cycles, since the mountain appellations are cooler due to elevation,” he explains.

“This cloud layer, that determines whether you are in a valley floor appellation, or a mountain appellation, tops off around 1,400 feet,” says Roberts. “Howell Mountain’s vineyards starts at 1,400 feet; Diamond Mountain – most properties sit between 1,600-2,600 feet; Spring Mountain have some vineyards at 3,000 feet.” These then sit comfortably above the fog line and are rightly classified as mountain appellation wines. But Colgin, along with some others, Roberts believes, are wrongly considered mountain wines.

Colgin’s vineyards sit between 300 and 1,400 feet, and remain in or below the fog line. So, in some ways, they are similar to the valley floor, but, because they are on a hillside, they benefit from what Roberts calls “the devigourating nature of a hillside rocky soil”. These hillside vineyards have their own distinct climatic and geological influence – that doesn’t fit with mountain terroir or valley floor, but shares elements of both. For Roberts, Colgin’s vineyards are better described as a mid-slope hillside appellation, and it finds itself in good company.

“If you look back at the time when we released our first vintage,” says Roberts, “we were labelled among a number of wineries as one of the cult Cabernet estates. Harlan EstateBryant Estate, Eisele Vineyards and ourselves – you look, and all of them are planted on mid-slope hillsides." Screaming Eagle (another cult Cabernet estate), Roberts admits, is strictly valley floor, but it is still on a slope. “A lot of people at the time said you are not going to be able to get Cabernet ripe and it’s too hard to plant in the rocky soils on these mid-slopes,” says Roberts. “But now this is where you see a lot of the great estates are situated.”

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The IX Estate vineyard in spring

“Even if you look at a famous vineyard like To Kalon,” says Roberts, “it is roughly the same size as Clos Vougeot. We all know Clos Vougeot is a Grand Cru, but within the vineyard it has some Grand Cru quality terroir, some not so good Premier Cru quality and even some village quality terroir, all within the same delineated boundary. Well, To Kalon is the same. If you get close to the road (Highway 29), it is a totally different style of wine than if you are further back on the toe of the hill where there is deeper gravel. That to me is like the Grand Cru part of To Kalon and that part, like Screaming Eagle, is on a slope, and behaves closer to a mid-slope hillside appellation than valley floor.”

The great advantage of these mid-slope hillside appellations, according to Roberts, is not only better drainage and the natural devigouration of the rocky soils, but a different ripening cycle. Because the soils are that much drier, they warm up quicker at the beginning of the season, pushing the hillside vineyards to bud earlier and to ripen more quickly than those on the valley floor and in the mountain appellations. This helps them avoid the late season rain that can disrupt a vintage. The result, therefore, is much more consistency year to year. Roberts notes that more and more producers are realising the virtues of the Napa hillsides, with the likes of Tim Mondavi now planting on Pritchard Hill.

Despite demand for these hillside plots, which have proven their potential, Roberts doesn’t expect to see the “appellation” expand much more. Regulation and restrictions from California’s Land Use Law prevents any new plantings on Napa’s hillsides, preserving key natural habitats. And that might be no bad thing, since the residential properties being developed in the region and their ornamental plantings of lavender and rosemary, Roberts argues, pose a huge fire risk for the region. California faces a tumultuous future. As aquafers dry up and fires rage around the state, California sometimes feels like a perilous place that needs protecting. Colgin know the dangers only too well.

On 17th August 2020, a freak storm hit California. The state saw 10,000 lightning strikes in 24 hours. One of the two huge fires that the storm caused started directly opposite Colgin’s vineyards. “Within four hours, we were in an evacuation zone,” says Roberts. “The fire couldn’t be put out by a fire crew because it was on such a steep hillside, they couldn’t get to it. All air assets had been deployed to southern California, since that is where they thought the storm would hit.” Fortunately, vineyards act as firebreaks and Colgin’s vineyards were saved – although they didn’t make any wine in 2020 because of the smoke damage.

Such a close call has Roberts and his team doing everything they can to minimise the risks. A massive amount of brush clearing, putting in fire roads as well as bringing in new technology to minimize the risks. At the top of Colgin’s vineyards, Roberts recently approved a heat camera that can sense and detect the emergence of a fire, allowing them to deploy helicopters and put fires out early, before they have a chance to spread.

While these issues have become a day-to-day concern in the region, Roberts is confident Napa is turning a page in its history. If you look beyond the headlines of high scores and wildfires, Napa’s vineyards and varied terroir are starting to find a voice – and that’s where the real story is.

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The IX estate vineyard, Pritchard Hill, Napa

Your guide to Colgin’s three single vineyards: IX Estate, Tychson Hill and Cariad

While Colgin’s three single vineyards all share mid-slope hillside positioning and the climatic benefits this brings, the sites produce three very different styles of Cabernet, due to their different soils and microclimates.

IX Estate

IX Estate is an 8.07-hectare vineyard situated on Pritchard Hill overlooking Lake Henessey at an altitude of between 1,100 and 1,400 feet. The IX Estate vineyard’s bedrock is made up of old lava flow, full of iron. The soil looks red, dotted with large volcanic boulders. According to Colgin’s COO Paul Roberts MS, the iron component gives an almost sanguine nature to the tannins. “There are lots of them, but they are very, very fine,” says Roberts. “Then there is an almost bloody note – not as much as in the Northern Rhône – not full blood – not that extreme, but more mouth-watering, not from the acidity but from the flavour/nature of the tannins.” The wines from IX Estate have a distinct red fruit profile on the palate which is a classic element of this part of Napa. The wild flora and fauna around the vineyard, to Roberts, “add an almost herb component, as close as you get to garrigue in the south of France – thyme, rosemary, wild sage.”

Tychson Hill

Tychson Hill is an historic vineyard site, first planted in the 19th century. The vines were pulled out during prohibition, with the site only replanted by Anne Colgin in the mid-1990s. The vineyard is north of the town of St Helena at an altitude of 300-422 feet. In total 2.42 hectares are planted to vines. The bedrock is also volcanic, but with a very different volcanic origin to IX Estate, with a mix of gravel and obsidian black stone (a black volcanic glass). According to Roberts, the wines from Tchyson Hill has less tannin than IX Estate and they are rounder, without the edges you get in IX Estate. “The tannin quality of the wine begins to emulate the shape of the stones you find in the vineyard,” says Roberts. “Tychson Hill is a much older material – so a finer quality of tannin.” The diurnal shift at Tychson Hill also has a distinct effect on the wines, with a shift of up to 9-10˚C – which provides much more aromatics and more red fruit character. “The climate can fully volatilise and metabolize tannins,” says Roberts, “so they appear much softer.” It is also, he believes, Colgin’s most approachable wine in its youth.

Cariad

Cariad is a steeper vineyard site, 3.2 hectares in the western hills of St Helena at an altitude of 400-500 feet. The vines are grown on what is an uplifted, old gravel riverbed. The tannins, according to Roberts, are “more spherical because of the rounded stones in the vineyard”. The fruit is more purple in character. Earlier vintages of Cariad were a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend that typically was the slowest maturing of the three, needing the longest time for the tannins to fully integrate, but today much of the Merlot has been replaced with Cabernet Franc, which Roberts believes brings a much “fleshier beauty” early on in its maturity.

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