Steve Matthiasson is one of the most in-demand viticulturalists in Napa. He has worked all over the valley, and consults for wineries in both the hills and valley floor, as well as some other projects in California. Amanda Barnes interviews him on the viticulture of Napa – the good, the bad and the ugly – and the geology and climate and how that affects the style, flavour and profile of Napa’s famed Cabernet Sauvignon. They also talk about the many other different varieties of wine that you can find thriving in Napa Valley.
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Clip excerpt of Steve Matthiasson Cabernet interview for the hearing impaired:
Amanda Barnes: You said that one of the most exciting things about working with Cabernet Sauvignon here is the ability to blend with different valleys. Can you give us a brief rundown of what different geological formations we have in Napa and how that impacts the resulting Cabernet Sauvignon?
Steve Matthiasson: So Napa Valley is a long, skinny valley. It has about half the known, described soil types in the world are found in this one place.
On one side of the valley – the east side of the valley, we have a big volcanic fissure that opened up that entire mountain range. And on the west side of the valley it is marine soils that got lifted up into those mountains. And so we have different clays, and high-magnesium clays on one side, and you have high-potassium, different types of clays and rock on the other side. And then you have all these mutations within.
And so, and climate wise the mouth of the valley is much cooler as you move up the valley further away from the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate where the cool air comes in, it gets progressively warmer. So you have all these different scenarios here. And Cabernet responds differently to these different scenarios.
So the classic volcanic mountains on the east-side, Howell Mountain, Pritchard Hill, Atlas Peak, are all big wines, muscular wines. Tons of tannins, and tons of colour – just power. The western mountains in the southern part, you have really bright acidity, and real savoury qualities. They also make big wines but much edgier, savoury character. On Mayacamas, Mt Veeder. Here on the valley floor, the alluvial fans tend to be a lot of finesse, very fine grain tannins, very aromatic, red fruited, but long. And then you have Calistoga can be very earth driven, because they ripen pretty fast. And it maintains these early, earthy characters. As you get down to Oak Knoll valley floor, much more in the cherry character. Coombsville you have the black fruit and a lot of tannin density, and brightness and freshness in Coombsville because it is a cooler climate and volcanic soils.
And so you can pick from these different areas and craft them together and make a layered, complete Cab. And that’s part of our tradition in Napa. We’ve had great single-vineyard Cabs as part of our tradition as well, but alot of these Cabernets that really, I feel, put Napa on the map were blends of these different areas layered together, to make these complex, complete Cabernets.
Amanda Barnes: Super! So Napa might be quite small but there’s a heck of a lot of variety!
Steve Matthiasson: Oh yeah!
Steve Matthiasson on Napa Viticulture
Amanda Barnes: So Steve, we are in one of your vineyards in Napa, and you have been working with lots of different viticultural techniques and management over the years. VSP, is it a friend or a foe for Napa?
Steve Matthiasson: Boy, foe! Because great wines, there’s plenty of great wines from VSP but we are always trying to do better and deal with the challenges. The advantage of VSP is that it gathers light, so when Napa was replanted after phylloxera in the 90s, late 80s, early 90s, we went to alot of VSP because there was a lot of research in other grape growing parts of the world – mainly Europe and the northern half of Europe – that VSP was making better wine. And in all these regions people loved, really did well with VSP. So we planted a bunch of VSP and we learned that it gathers too much light for us. And we learned that, before we had very shaded canopies, we went from a little bit is good, a lot is better is not necessarily the rule for viticulture. It is always balance. Just like wines, every thing has to have balance. We are looking for balanced light, balanced vines, balanced everything. And so we swung all the way to there. And so now the, sort of, thinking is that we need to put cross arms on our VSP and try to get more diffuse light, but some shading, or in our rows so that the sun comes down over the top on the hottest part of the day, it doesn’t hit it from the side. There are some of the early wines, you thought you wanted the sun to hit it from the side, and it was just too much sun on the fruit. So we’ve sort of gotten away from that now. And kind of going back to the older idea of protecting them from the sun, but just not as much as we used to.
Amanda Barnes: Super. So you are going back to the old way? You are actually starting to plant your first parral again? And you are going to a bit more California sprawl. What is California sprawl for someone that doesn’t know?
Steve Matthiasson: So the old California sprawl was that all the shoots just flopped down on both sides, and so the vines looked like – if you remember the Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street? That’s what the vines looked like, just all flopped down to the sides. And that’s the California Sprawl. The California Sprawl does not work when the vines are too vigorous because what happens is that the canes all fall down on each other and build these matts, and no light penetrates. But with balanced vigour, which we achieve with cover cropping or the rootstock or the right site, the California Sprawl, if the shoots can come up and kind of stay somewhat upright and just somewhat come over, but light can get through there, then it is phenomenal, and that’s really our goal that we try to achieve with all the trellising that we are working on now is to try to achieve all that filtered light. That is perfect in a naturally balanced California Sprawl vineyard.