From the Mountaintop: Highland Estates Cabernet

By Winemaker Matt 
In: Wine 101

Working on the Kendall-Jackson lineup of wines from Sonoma and Napa counties is one of the best parts of my job. The last time we talked about terroir, I mentioned that the diversity of the land where we grow our grapes is phenomenal. Nowhere do I get a better sense of the land than when I work on the Highland Estates wines.

Earlier this week Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson winemaster, and I sat down to look at the Highland Estates series for 2009.  We were working on wines that have more or less been offered since 2002.  It’s a lot of fun to see how the vineyards express themselves with each vintage, and how, too, the voice of the land remains constant over the years.

The map above indicates where the primary vineyards for the Cabernet series are found.  The grapes start in the Mayacamas range, which separates Sonoma and Napa Counties, and across to the Vaca range, the eastern boundary of Napa Valley.  The wines that come from these mountain vineyards are very intense and excellent examples of growing at elevation.

I see distinct characteristics in each of the wines. Let’s examine the vineyards one-by-one, starting with the westernmost vineyard, Hawkeye Mountain in the Alexander Valley appellation. The vineyard blocks we use to create this Cabernet are located at 1600-2200 feet of elevation.  Hawkeye is mineral driven, with chalk and crushed rock on the nose and palate.  The fruit can be more austere, tart cherry, plum and cassis notes.  Tannins are firm but mouth-coating and acidity is tangible.  This is great mountain Cab.

Trace Ridge, from the Knights Valley appellation, originates from a rocky outcropping in the foothills of Mount St. Helena.  The elevation is less lofty than Hawkeye (750-900 feet or so), but the fruit is incredibly intense.  Here I note elements of black cherry, blackberry, coffee and cacao, framed by spice notes and bay.  The tannins are huge and somewhat aggressive.  This is still a very young wine and will need several years in the bottle before it starts to open and show all of its magic.

Veeder Peak, the origin of the Highland Estates Napa Mountain Cabernet, is located on the east-facing slope of the Mayacamas Range, just west of Oakville.  The vineyard blocks we use are found at 1350-1400 feet of elevation.  This vineyard produces incredibly small berries and intense fruit.  There are notes of juniper, menthol, black currant and blackberry.  There are no more intense tannins than Veeder.  Making a wine from this spot requires patience and discipline.

Finally, I get to work on a supreme example of mountain winemaking:  The Kendall-Jackson Stature Red Wine.  This is not a vineyard designate, but rather a blend that usually derives from three different mountain sites.  I choose Cabernet from the Stagecoach vineyard on Atlas Peak, blend that with Cabernet from Veeder Peak, Merlot from Howell Mountain and Petit Verdot & Malbec, also from Stagecoach.  The wine is phenomenal expression of three peaks in the Napa Valley and a true joy to work on.  Stature is chimeric: an incredibly elegant wine that belies its extreme power.

I hope that this has whetted your appetite for mountain Cabernets.  You will definitely be hearing more about these sites.