Saint Helena: Distinguishing a Napa Floor AVA

One of the criticisms of Napa Valley is that its sub-AVAs are more marketing than anything else, and don’t really tell a consumer anything additionally significant about a wine. Napa Valley’s sub-AVAs are divided into two groups — floor and mountain:

  • Floor: Calistoga, Saint Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville, Stags Leap, Oak Knoll, Coombsville
  • Mountain: Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Atlas Peak, Chiles Valley

Comparing Napa Valley floor AVAs with mountain AVAs is apples and oranges. But comparing the floor AVAs to each other is little more apples to apples. When people gush about Napa Valley wines, it’s usually Rutherford and Oakville that get all the attention. Oakville has its signature tannins. Rutherford has its famous “dust”.

Where does Saint Helena fit in?

Established in 1995, Saint Helena AVA is small, sub-district of Napa Valley, with approximately 9,000 acres under vine. It takes its name from Mount Saint Helena. And it’s home to some of California’s most famous wineries (Beringer, Charles Krug, Corison, Duckhorn, Freemark Abbey, Heitz, and Joseph Phelps to name just a few).

Saint Helena is one of Napa’s warmer sub-AVAs, only Calistoga to the north is warmer (it’s counter-intuitive, but it’s a lot warmer in the northern parts of Napa and cooler in the southern parts). Saint Helena gets a degree of protection from its western hills (which also provide heat reflection), and consequently has less fog and wind influence than AVAs to the south. Summer temperatures often reach 90°F. The warmth makes it perfect for producing rich, structured reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. White wines aren’t terribly common in St. Helena, but a handful of producers are making Sauvignon Blanc.

Saint Helena resembles an hourglass in shape, with the narrow center sometimes called “the pinch”. It marks the area where the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains converge. Unlike other parts of the valley floor, St. Helena is almost entirely the product of river erosion. The alluvial fans (triangle-shaped deposits of gravel, sand, and silt) in Saint Helena are smaller and younger than in the rest of Napa Valley. Saint Helena’s soils are a mixed bag. In the north and east, the soils are mostly volcanic, deep and fertile. In the south and west, soils are more sedimentary, gravel-clay, with lower fertility and moderate water retention.

Disclosure: The following bottles were provided to me by Appellation Saint Helena for tasting.

Saint Helena Winery 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/93
Saint Helena Winery is a small, private winery (not open to the public), specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon. The estate is 13 acres (bale loam soil on a ribbon of gravel), all hand-tended, and makes fewer than 1,500 cases of wine.

100% estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged for 22 months in 70% new Frech oak barrels. Gorgeous tension and balance, with integrated, layered flavors of black currant, black plum, crushed violets, and vanilla. 15% ABV. Retail = $96.00.

Saint Helena Winery Sympa 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/94
99% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot. Aged for 22 months in 70% new French oak barrels. Ripe, dense black fruits, with notes of dark chocolate and pipe tobacco. Intense and balanced, while still maintaining elegance. Finish for days. A thought-provoking wine. Outstanding stuff. 15% ABV. Retail = $140.

MC4 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Saint Helena Napa Valley
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/94
This is a true micro-production wine. A Cabernet that comes exclusively from a one-acre vineyard in the St. Helena appellation. The vineyard is organically farmed by solely by two families (the Martins and the Croshaws).

100% Cabernet, aged in new and 2nd turn French oak. Deep garnet in color, with aromas of black cherries, blackberries, cigar box, vanilla, baking spices, and crushed fresh mint. A truly special wine, beautifully structured, elegant and finely balanced with a thoughtful, lingering finish. 14.2% ABV. Retail = $75.

Pellet Estate 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/91
Henry Pellet, one of the founding fathers of Napa valley, planted the Pellet Estate in 1859. Pellet Vineyard produces roughly equal amounts of Clone 4 and Clone 337 Cabernet Sauvignon, and small amounts of Merlot and Petit Verdot. The soil is bale gravelly/rocky loam, on an alluvial fan.

The flagship wine for Pellet Estate is the Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pellet Vineyard. A blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance Merlot and Petit Verdot. Aged for 20 months in new French oak. Dense and ripe, with flavors of blackberry, black currant, graphite and cocoa. Great balance of fruit and structure. Retail = $95.

Pellet Estate 2017 Henry’s Reserve Napa Valley ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/93
An extremely small production wine (only 30 cases were produced), Henry’s Reserve is a special blend of the best fruit from vineyard micro-blocks, the composition of which will change each harvest. Henry’s Reserve is “the constant pursuit of the most authentic expression, each year, from what fruit this historic vineyard provides us. It never will be, nor is meant to be, the same.”

So, wow. The 2014 blend is 85% Cabernet and 15% Merlot from the Sunchase Vineyard. Aged for 21 months in new French oak. Dense and luxurious. This is what it must be like to sleep on silk sheets. Smooth and round, with flavors of black currant, black cherry, blackberry added complexity from flavors of spice box and graphite. 14.7% ABV. Retail = $125.

Salvestrin 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Crystal Springs Vineyard
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/90
The Salvestrin Family has been growing grapes in St. Helena since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The vineyard and estate winery are certified Napa Green and sustainably farmed. Supportive of the local community, the Salvestrin’s have dedicated a block of Zinfandel grapes since 2005, for local high school viticulture students to tend, and then make their own barrel of wine. (Why, oh why couldn’t I have been a high school student in St. Helena?!?)

100% Sauvignon Blanc. Aged for 6 months in 50% neutral oak and 50% stainless steel. Lush and lean at the same time, with flavors of peach, pear, yellow apple, and herbs. A distinctive minerality on the finish. 14.2% ABV. Retail = $25.

Salvestrin 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Crane Vineyard ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/91
92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc. Aged for 22 months in 60% New Oak: 65% French and 35% American. A poster-child for Napa Cabernet. Dense and full bodied, with cassis and black currant notes, with flecks of baking spice and vanilla. Tobacco note binds it all together to provide even more depth of flavor. 14.8% ABV. Retail = $64.

Corison 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Saint Helena Napa Valley ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/96
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in small French oak barrels. Such intensity and concentration in this wine. Remarkably powerful, yet restrained in its execution. Flavors of red currant, red cherry, blueberry, red plum, and crushed violets. Adding to the complexity are secondary flavors of dried sage, eucalyptus and lavender. Benchmark, classic Napa Valley. An absolutely stunning, joyous wine. My goodness, what this will do with a few years in bottle. 13% ABV. Retail = $100.

Ehlers Estate 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Saint Helena Napa Valley
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/90
Ehlers Estate is located at the Napa Valley’s narrowest point, between the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east. A unique local microclimate allows for constant airflow through the vineyard, ushering in morning fog, and full sun by midday. Onshore breezes moderate temperatures in the afternoon, allowing for slow and steady ripening of the grapes. Ehlers Estate is 100% certified organic, which is something consumers request more and more.

100% Sauvignon Blanc from two tiny (2-acre) vineyard blocks. Both plots have different soil profiles and sun orientation, so the finished wine is an amalgamation. Fermented in stainless steel, and aged 6 months sur lie in stainless steel. Dry and beautifully acidic, particularly lean, favoring restraint over power. Delicate, flavors of citrus, and pineapple, with an underlying current of herbal notes. 13.6% ABV. Retail = $32.

Honestly, telling the difference between Napa Valley “floor” wines is really tough. I’m not saying there aren’t differences to these wines, there are. But I think there’s more that unites them than divides them. And at this level of quality, all of the wines are exceptionally well made.

There is no one right way to make a great wine. Unencumbered by all the rules of the Old World, California winemakers have always been artists and innovators. And they have many choices along the way — grapevine clone choices, root selection, pruning methods, trellising and training, fertilizer, cover crop selection, irrigation, canopy management, etc. My big takeaway, and the thread that unites all of these Saint Helena wines, is that they’re authentic and honest, striking just the right balance between structure and fruit. Terroir-driven winemaking is about letting Mother Nature do most of the talking. And she has spoken.

Salud!

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