Arizonans know mountains, from Flagstaff's spectacular San Francisco Peaks to Tucson's imposing Santa Catalina Mountains. But do Arizonans know that mountains do more than provide beautiful scenery, recreation and ecological values? Mountains also can produce wonderful wines. Proof comes from California and elsewhere.
Although there are no vineyards high on California's Sierra Nevada, some of the state's coastal mountains are another story. Napa's Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain are prime examples renowned for their wines. Although these mountains don't reach high elevations -- Mount Veeder is 2700 feet -- they tower above a low-elevation landscape where the city of Napa is only 20 feet above sea level.
The high quality of mountain wines results from several environmental factors. When lower elevations are covered with ocean fog, mountain vineyards receive full sunshine that helps ripen grapes. However, ripening occurs slowly because of cool temperatures, and as a result mountain wines usually have excellent balance of sugars and acidity.
In addition, mountains often have shallow top soils only 1-2 feet deep that don't hold much moisture and aren't fertile. While these are poor soils for most crops, they are ideal for wine grapes because stressed grapes have powerful flavors and produce wines of great character.
Mountains also have small pockets of many different environments because elevations, soils and slopes are highly variable. This produces differences in grapes, making mountain wines complex and distinctive.
Below are several mountain wines I recommend. Prices are higher than many other wines not only because many mountain wines are exceptional (and long-lived), but also because mountain vineyards are uncommon, low-yielding and costly to plant, maintain and harvest.
Pahlmeyer 2012 Merlot "Napa Valley" ($85): One of the best Merlots I've tasted in several years comes from vineyards at 1500-2100 feet along the ridge of Atlas Peak. This highly polished wine features gorgeous fruit and impressively smooth texture, yet has attractive tannins that provide structure. The finish is a "wow", featuring great strength and length. Its fine mountain sibling, the Pahlmeyer 2013 Chardonnay "Napa Valley" ($75) is a bold, textured wine with expressive oak.