Discover Topography | Give The Site Credit
“Geography is Where a Vineyard is Located, Topography is How the Vineyard Looks When You Get There.”
Is terroir and topography like potato, potatoh? Not quite, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. Defined as the arrangement of the natural features of an area, the reason topography is often confused with terroir is that it actually relates to three different physical characteristics of the land: elevation, slope, and aspect. Yet, despite its misrepresentation, it plays a critical role in determining the quality and character of the wine produced. So much so that Seven Apart founder Don Dady identified ‘topography’ as the third element that sets our vineyards apart. To better understand the role of topography in our winemaking process, we sat down with our seasoned and award-winning Vineyard Manager, Mike Wolf.
The Importance of Topography in Winemaking
The vineyards of the Napa Valley are planted in a wide variety of locations – hugging valley floors, clambering over hills, climbing steep mountain slopes, or nestling beneath towering peaks. This diverse landscape provides an assortment of mesoclimates and soil types in which to grow various cultivars. Closely linked to geology, topography forms an important part of the terroir concept and has a strong interaction with the environmental components of climate and soil. Its effect, both below and above the ground, is considered to be one of the major factors when it comes to the quality of the grapes. Topographic effects can be indirect, due to soil types, exposure to wind, and ventilation, or direct, due to the immediate effects of the incidence of the sun’s rays on the earth’s surface.
“I understand why topography is sometimes confused, as it is a lot more subtle than elements like soil or climate. It’s something you have to pay attention to on a really small scale. Depending on the vineyard, elevation, slope, and aspect come together to create the site. And depending on the winemaker, you can try to take advantage of those differences – or try to mask them,” opens Mike.
In February and March, Mike was fighting a new kind of battle in the vineyards – and topography had a role to play. “After years of fires and drought conditions, all of a sudden we’ve had floods in California!” he says. Then in late March, the rain turned into snow – up to a foot deep at the top of Atlas Peak. The ever-changing weather conditions in Napa Valley emphasize the importance of adaptability in vineyard management and using topography to one’s advantage. Mike believes that “there really is not a break between seasons. Things just kind of operate on a continuum.”
The Topography of Stags Ridge and Base Camp
Nestled high up on Atlas Peak, our Stags Ridge vineyard benefits from a unique topography that sets the stage for cultivating exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon. Unlike what you might first think, when you get up to the top of Stags Ridge it’s not steep – the vineyard gently rolls and undulates on top of the mountain. This ensures a more consistent growing environment, with neither extremely cold nights nor scorching hot days. Mike explains, “the fruit ripens slowly…the acid kind of respires in a nice even sort of pace with the increase in sugar.”
The southwest-facing slope of Stags Ridge also aids in mitigating frost risk, as cold air is less likely to accumulate on sloped terrain. “Another benefit to this aspect is that when there is heavy flooding, the rainwater can first soak in as needed and then run straight off. The soils are very rocky and porous, so we don’t struggle with waterlogged vines up there,” says Mike. Of course, the downside to it, which speaks to the changing environment, is that longer ripening creates more risk at the end of the season. Mike adds: “Every day the fruit stays out, there is one more day that you could have a fire.”
In contrast, our Base Camp vineyard is situated on the valley floor, where the risk of fires is less, and the vines are easier to monitor. The vineyard features a two-tiered landscape, with a gentle slope toward the Napa River. Despite its predominantly flat terrain, the vineyard benefits from the west-facing aspect and a slight elevation drop of about 15 feet, which helps with drainage. That said, the flatter terrain means the grapes are more exposed to the elements. When it’s hot, the vines risk overripening, and when it rains, excess water can easily collect. To cope with these challenges, we have installed a substantial subsurface drainage system to prevent waterlogging, using a grid of perforated pipes and drain rock to guide water into storage tanks for future irrigation.
Embrace The Differences
When it comes to topography, Mike’s approach is to embrace the differences and allow the vines to express their unique terroir. “There’s a difference between uniformity and homogeneity. You do want uniformity in growth. I think that’s really important just to give this site credit,” Mike shares.
By paying close attention to topography, Mike believes that winemakers can capitalize on the subtle nuances that exist within each vineyard. His philosophy revolves around the idea of working with the land rather than trying to mask its natural variations.
At Seven Apart, our vineyards’ topography is a testament to the intricate relationship between nature and winemaking. Through the careful management of our Vineyard Manager, Mike Wolf, we strive to express the unique qualities of our Stags Ridge and Base Camp vineyards in every bottle.
Discover Altitude | 1,475 Feet In the Air
Nestled amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, a small vineyard thrives at a stunning 9,000ft above the sea. It’s a testament to the limitless possibilities of high-altitude viticulture. Priorat, Spain and Mendoza, Argentina are well-known for producing quality wines grown up to 5,000ft. At the same time, the low-lying Médoc region in France is equally celebrated for producing some of the finest wines in the world. Meanwhile, the Grand Crus of Burgundy flourish on mid-slopes between 755 and 1,300 feet. Clearly, when it comes to altitude – it’s all relative.
How Does Altitude Affect Wine?
In the context of wine growing, altitude (also referred to as elevation) refers to the height of the vineyard above sea level. Small differences in elevation can have surprisingly big effects on wine quality and, indeed, on the ability of individual grape varieties to ripen at all. Typically, grapes grown at lower elevations may experience more moderate temperatures, greater humidity, and richer soils, resulting in wines with softer tannins, lower acidity, and more fruit-forward flavors. In low-lying regions like the Médoc in France, the wines are known for their intense fruit flavors and soft tannins. These wines are typically full-bodied and can be enjoyed young or aged, depending on the producer and the vintage.
As the vines ascend to higher altitudes, they encounter cooler temperatures. Cooler temperatures at higher elevations can slow the ripening process and promote the development of nuanced and complex flavors. At a higher elevation, there is also increased ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which stimulates the production of phenolic compounds that contribute to the wine’s structure and depth. In addition, higher elevations tend to be drier and windier than lower elevations. This can be beneficial for vineyards because it can help to reduce the risk of disease by keeping the vines dry and preventing the growth of mold and mildew. This combination of factors can lead to more concentrated flavors, higher acidity, and more tannins in the grapes, resulting in wines with greater complexity, structure, and aging potential.
The Allure of Atlas Peak
Atlas Peak has been producing renowned wine since 1870. Located in the Vaca Mountains east of Napa Valley, the elevation of Atlas Peak ranges from 1,400 to 2,600 feet above sea level. This is relatively high for the Napa region, meaning the mountain appellation sits above the morning fog layer – a prime spot for bold red wine varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Atlas Peak vineyards are generally planted on steep slopes, which allows for good drainage and ensures that the vines receive plenty of sunlight. In fact, when founder Don Dady first arrived to inspect the now-current site of Seven Apart, he was in awe of the steep slopes around him:
“Good wine starts with good fruit. That’s why I was on the lookout for the perfect vineyard. When I came upon Stags Ridge Vineyard, what caught my attention was: you get mountain fruit. You’re on the tip-top of Atlas Peak, which is the back of Mayacamas – the highest mountain range in Napa. It’s a unique spot,” shares Don.
Atlas Peak’s elevation adds a distinct flavor profile to mountain fruit. At 1600 feet, UV exposure increases by almost 5%, and every vineyard above the fog layer at 1500 feet experiences greater exposure. These conditions enhance polyphenol development (i.e., wine’s flavor compounds), leading to richer color and texture in the wine, with more pronounced tannins. The steep slopes also mean that the majority of the fruit needs to be hand-harvested – a marker of quality.
Of course, as a compliment to Stags Ridge Vineyard is Base Camp – a thriving valley floor vineyard situated where Silverado Trail meets Soda Canyon Road. Following Seven Apart’s acquisition in 2018, Base Camp was replanted, presenting a unique opportunity for Don and his winemaking team. “Base Camp offers low-elevation fruit and Stags Ridge mountain fruit, giving us the best of both worlds,” Don explains.
Base Camp & Stags Ridge Vineyard
To understand the impact of elevation on Seven Apart winemaking, let’s take a closer look at our two vineyards, Base Camp and Stags Ridge Vineyard. At almost 8 acres, Base Camp has recently been replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. The elevation ranges between 55 and 75 feet above sea level. This means the vineyard is planted on mostly flat land, ensuring the grapes receive a lot of direct sunlight. The temperatures here can be quite warm, making the grapes ripen quickly.
“Base Camp is our home base. It’s where every adventure begins. The vineyard is also in the process of going organic, meaning the quality of the fruit will increase even further in the coming years,” explains Seven Apart Managing Director Yannick Girardo.
As it turns out, hedging our bets between mountain and valley-floor fruit has also been a saving grace. In the 2020 Glass Fire, the Stags Ridge vineyard fruit was rendered unusable due to smoke taint. The fruit from Base Camp came to rescue the vintage. “If it weren’t for our Base Camp fruit, we would not have been able to release the Seven Apart Expedition 2020.”
The truth is mountain fruit is high risk – but also high reward. At Stags Ridge Vineyard, the vines are planted on steep slopes, which allows for good drainage, plenty of sunlight, and thinner air making the vines less susceptible to pests and diseases. The higher altitude and cooler temperatures mean the grapes ripen slower than they do at Base Camp, allowing them to develop more complex flavors and aromas. The cooler temperatures also help retain the grapes’ acidity, which is important for balance in the finished wine. For all these reasons, this is why we produce three distinct Cabernet Sauvignons from the Stags Ridge vineyard – Seven Apart Shale, Seven Apart Basalt, and Seven Apart Summit.
“While it may seem odd to craft three Cabernet Sauvignons from the same vineyard, there’s so much incredible diversity up there. You might have one section that gives you one unique element and another that gives you something completely different. It’s what makes this mountain fruit so exciting to work with,” ends Yannick.
If you ask us, there’s no doubt that altitude plays a significant role in the grape quality and wine character. But when done right, you can elevate the wine to new heights.
Jeb Dunnuck 2019 Seven Apart Summit – 99 points
“If you can believe it, the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Summit is even better and can be thought of as a hypothetical blend of the Shale and Basalt releases, with the elegance of the Shale and the power of the Basalt. Lots of cassis, raspberries, iron, savory herbs, and lead pencil notes emerge on the nose, and this beauty hits the palate with full-bodied richness, a deep, layered mid-palate, and enough building tannins to warrant 3-5 years of bottle age. This lengthy, insanely good 2019 will have 20-25+ years of longevity.” – Jeb Dunnuck
Jeb Dunnuck 2019 Seven Apart Basalt – 97+ points
” A bigger, richer wine, the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Basalt has a similar darker cherry, plum, and currant driven core of fruit as well more minerality, iron, and roasted herb notes with time in the glass. The palate is on another level and is full-bodied, deep, rich, and concentrated, with incredible tannins as well as balance. This is pure Napa Valley Mountain Cabernet. Hide bottles for 2-4 years, and it’s going to have 25 years or more of overall longevity. Bravo!” -Jeb Dunnack
Antonio Galloni 2020 Seven Apart Expedition Review
“The 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon Expedition is the only wine Seven Apart bottled in 2020. It is one of the better wines I tasted from this very challenging year. Effusive and bright, the 2020 offers up a compelling mélange of dark cherry, plum, crushed flowers and mocha. There’s a good bit of tannin, but also enough fruit to balance things out. I must say, this is an impressive showing from Seven Apart and winemaker Andy Erickson.” -By Antonio Galloni at Vinous, October 2022
Discover Soil: Digging Deep into Atlas Peak
While it might not be as romantic as century-old underground cellars or handmade barrels, soil is the unsung hero of the winemaking world. It is the foundation upon which the vine takes root and flourishes, imbuing the grapes with DNA-like qualities that define the terroir. As one of Napa Valley’s prized mountain appellations, Atlas Peak boasts world-class soil that is as diverse as it is magnificent. At Seven Apart, we are proud to cultivate our vines in this unparalleled terroir.
A Tale of Fire & Ash
The volcanic soil of Atlas Peak is a story written in the rich tapestry of the earth’s history. It is a tale of fire and ash, of molten rock and explosive geological forces that etched their mark upon the land and transformed it into the fertile ground it is today. This soil was formed over millions of years as volcanic eruptions left behind layer upon layer of ash, pumice, and volcanic rock. Over time, this material was weathered and decomposed, creating soil that is rich in minerals and well-drained – the perfect conditions for grape vines to thrive.
Today, viticulturists and winemakers benefit from the many natural volcanic features on Atlas Peak. Firstly, there is a veritable cornucopia of soil types, including white volcanic ash soils, rusty red soils, and black gravelly basalt. Each of these soil types brings about a unique taste of minerality in the wines, from umami notes to saltiness. For example, if you taste a savory quality in an Atlas Peak wine, it’s likely that the grapes were grown in vineyards with reddish soils.
Another natural advantage from the millennia of seismic shifts is particularly rocky soils. Rocky soils are not only rich in minerals and nutrients but also have excellent drainage that allows the vines to reach deep into the earth for sustenance. The result is grapes known to produce wines with increased aromatics, including floral aromas in red wines. The well-drained soil also prevents waterlogging, reducing the risk of disease and promoting healthy vine growth. The volcanic soils of Atlas Peak are truly a gift to winemakers, providing the ideal conditions for crafting some of the world’s most exceptional wines – particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Perfect Match: Atlas Peak and Cabernet Sauvignon
Ask any viticulturist what the best soil is for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, and you’ll probably get this answer: “Cabernet Sauvignon works well on a variety of soils, but it does best in moderately rocky/gravelly soil with medium-high drainage.”
That makes Atlas Peak soils a textbook choice for growing Cabernet. Why are the two so perfectly paired? Cabernet Sauvignon has the potential to be a very vigorous vine. For this reason, it does benefit from controlled stress. In winemaking, stress on the vines can be achieved through various techniques, such as vineyard management practices, pruning, or in the case of Atlas Peak – natural conditions. Thanks to the rocky terrain, the Cabernet vines need to produce deeper roots, which help to anchor the vines and improve their access to water and nutrients. This results in better vine balance, improved resistance to disease and pests, and better fruit quality.
In addition, the structure of volcanic soil can help to regulate the temperature, which is important for the proper development of the grapes. The soil’s ability to retain heat during the day and release it at night can help to maintain a consistent temperature, which can promote healthy vine growth and improve the quality of the fruit.
As a result, the volcanic rock and ash of Atlas Peak provide excellent drainage and allow the grapes to ripen slowly and develop complex secondary and tertiary flavors that are sought-after by Cabernet connoisseurs worldwide.
Rocks The Size of Sedans
When Seven Apart founder Don Dady first arrived at Stags Ridge vineyard, he was greeted with a rather unusual site. “The rocks were the size of sedans!” he recalls. Towering boulders and rows of cobblestone-like alleyways adorned the vineyard – not exactly an easy location for viticulture. Yet, through tenacity and patience, the site had been planted since 1999 and reaped some of the most delicious fruit Don had tasted in Napa Valley. It was for exactly this reason that he chose Stags Ridge to become the home of Seven Apart wines.
Today, Seven Apart’s collection of storied Cabernet Sauvignons is quickly amassing a cult-like following – a testament to the fact that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to Atlas Peak. The volcanic soil of Atlas Peak has become renowned for producing exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, with its unique combination of volcanic minerals, depth, and excellent drainage providing the ideal foundation for grapes of unparalleled depth and character. This volcanic soil is an integral part of the region’s rich winemaking history and a testament to the power of the earth to shape and define the flavors of our finest wines.