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Extreme Winemaking at Mt. Brave in Napa Valley

mt brave logo onlyThere are mountain vineyards, and then there are mountain vineyards. High atop Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley, breathtaking views evoke a quiet rapture, an appreciation requiring no further explanation or comment. Mt. Veeder speaks for itself.

While visiting in person surely would be the best way to appreciate this land, pictures will have to do here. There is no place, apparently, where the vineyards are flat. In fact they are about as opposite of flat as you could imagine. Within this ever changing topography the micro-climates have their own micro-climates. Everything must be done by hand, and some of it slowly just to be safe. It all changes when you farm this kind of land. There must be a good reason, or is there? We think so, but more on that later.

Wine has been crafted from Mt. Veeder soils since the early 1860s. Along with other Napa winemaking mtbrave_l2_2pioneers such as Charles Krug and Agoston Haraszthy, Captain Stalham Wing, who arrived on Mt. Veeder in 1853, showed the first Mt. Veeder wine at the Napa County Fair in 1864.

For 150 years, determined winegrowers were moving forward where many thought the conditions too severe, too extreme, and too lacking in promise. The land that is now home to Mt. Brave was originally purchased in 1841, before the Gold Rush forever changed California and two decades before the Civil War.

Today Mt. Brave produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, along with a little Cabernet Franc for blending, and the task of producing great juice from these formidable vineyards now falls to the team of winemaker Chris Carpenter and Vineyard Manager Mariano Navarro. These gentlemen know this terroir, the climate and every little nuance that affects the grapes and resulting wine. With the incredibly complex array of micro-climates this rugged terrain introduces, extensive local knowledge is imperative. We were intrigued, and I asked the wine making team for a little more detail. Here are the questions and answers which shed a bit more light on farming and wine making on Mt. Brave.

  1. How many acres are under vine, by varietal if possible.

Mt. Brave comes from two neighboring estate vineyards, Mt. Brave and Veeder Peak, and between the two we have 20 acres—14 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 3 acres each of Merlot and Malbec

2.  How much wine does that generally translate into – what is actual production?

It depends on the vintage, but in 2011 where yields were lower we produced around 4,700 cases total between the three wines.  2012 was a higher-yielding year, and we produced closer to 6,500 cases total between the three wines.

3.  How long does a typical harvest take, considering the terrain and all hand labor?

We’ll typically harvest the Malbec on two or three different days, depending on ripeness, and same for the Merlot.  The Cabernet Sauvignon, being a much larger area, will typically be harvested over the course of several weeks as the different blocks are ready at different times—for example we may harvest 10% of the blocks on one date, harvest 30% a week later, and then 1-2 weeks later harvest the remaining. 

4.  Do they generally pick all at once or make multiple passes – really a question as to how uniform the maturity of the grapes generally is.

As above, we will make multiple passes to ensure that each block, each row is picked at the optimal ripeness.  Some sections of a given block or blocks have slightly different exposures or inclines or may receive more shade from neighboring trees, so they will be ripe at different times.  Our vineyard and winemaking team is very precise and will take the time to harvest the vineyards slowly, in sections so that all the fruit is harvested right when it reaches optimum ripeness.

5.  Any plans to expand at any point in the future?  Is Cab, Merlot and Malbec where Mt. Brave stays?  We love a great Cab Franc!

For now, Mt. Brave will focus on the three varietals, with a little bit of Cabernet Franc used for blending in the Cabernet Sauvignon.

6.  What would Chris and Mariano say are the top two differences between more traditional practices versus the mountain terrain and grapes of Mt. Brave?

First, the terrain itself makes farming much more time-consuming and complicated.  Because we are between 1,400 and 1,800 feet in elevation, with very steep slopes, working in the vineyards can be quite treacherous and almost everything must be done by hand. Secondly, the combination of the soils and microclimate at our vineyards are remarkably different than what you would find on the valley floor, for example.  Thin, nutrient-poor soils result in tiny, intensely-flavored berries, and this, combined with our location above the fog line where it can be 85 degrees and sunny at 9AM while the valley is still covered in fog, create vastly different farming conditions that those at a lower elevation.

7.  Is there any irrigation, ever?

Yes, we do irrigate when needed, as the soils are very thin and don’t hold much water.  It’s all about balance and precision—giving the vine the exact amount of water it needs to maintain healthy, active growth. That’s the beauty of being 100% estate—our vineyard team knows the vineyards incredibly well and knows exactly the amount of irrigation that is needed.

8.  What kind of oak does Chris favor, and how long are the wines in barrel typically?  The 2011 Cab is all French oak and 91% new, but do the other wines see American oak?

Chris uses a combination of different cooperages, but all are French.  Typically the wines are in barrel for 18-19 months.

9.  With an excellent 2011 Cabernet, compared to many we’ve tried from Napa, how are the 2012 and 2013 wines shaping up in your estimation?

With both 2012 and 2013, we really couldn’t have asked for better growing conditions—ideal spring bud break, warm days with no heat waves, and cool nights followed by a steady early fall.  With near perfect ripening conditions, the resulting wines are already of an extremely high quality.  We’re looking forward to releasing the 2012s shortly, and the 2013s will follow next year.

mtbravehomepage1

We received a bottle of the 2011 Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon for review. Here is what we think:

IMG_1334Wine:    2011 Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauignon

Winery Location: Napa Valley, CA

Tasted By:  Neil & Cheri                 Date: May 2015

Tasting Notes: This wine is a dark, deep red with purple tinges. The nose is very expressive, with currants and plum aromas. On the palate the tannins are stiff, and this needs time to reach its peak, but it is still very approachable right now. It’s full bodied and rich, especially for a 2011 Napa Cab. There’s a great acid balance in this wine, and it worked superbly with a grilled hangar steak. A very long finish caps off a very excellent experience. This is really good Cabernet.

Price Point –    $75 at the winery. Probably in the $60s somewhere near you.

Would We Buy It?    We would, and we don’t say that lightly at this price. Now we wouldn’t buy a case, but as a special bottle this is worth the money. If you can afford to drink it every day then by all means enjoy.  The 2012’s must be insanely good.  We can’t wait to try them.

mt brave download 2As we said, there are mountain vineyards, and then there are mountain vineyards. Some are relatively flat and benign, just high in altitude. Mt. Brave appears to be aptly named however, and cultivating grapes there is not for the feint of heart. The results indicate it is also rewarding. Mt. Brave is definitely on our list of wineries we’d like to visit next time we get to the California North Coast region.

Mt. Brave is part of the Spire Collection, a group of wineries from around the world which in our experience to date are all outstanding producers.  You can visit their website here.  To learn more about Mt. Brave in particular visit their website at http://www.mtbravewines.com/.

If you’d like to read the previous article on smaller Napa and Sonoma producers, specifically the wines of Bob Pepi, click here.

We’ll continue this thread with a look at La Jota next.

A votre sante!

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