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.