With rolling hills, scenic vistas and vineyards surrounded by forests, there is something of a rustic feel to the appellation; something that conjures up a sense of the ‘road less travelled’ despite the AVA being only a few kilometres from California’s viticultural epicentre. Named after the tiny community of Howell Mountain, this AVA - Napa’s first designated sub-appellation - covers a stretch of land in the Vaca range overlooking the town of St. Helena.
In order to qualify for the Howell Mountain label, vineyards must occupy sites at altitudes of at least four hundred and thirty metres (one-thousand-four-hundred feet) above sea level with many of the appellation’s best known parcels situated at much higher elevations. Being above the fog line means that plots here rely on their elevation to moderate extremes in temperature, and as is commonly the case amongst high altitude vineyards, the diurnal temperature variation is also significant. Hence, Howell Mountain’s grapes benefit from a microclimate that enables them to develop a balance of intense flavours without compromising their natural acidity.
Cabernet Sauvignon is undoubtedly king here accounting for more than 60% of the appellation’s production and delivering aromatic, concentrated wines with excellent tannic structure. Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah are also fairly prominent in Howell Mountain’s red grape dominated vineyards, and of the few white varieties to establish themselves here, Chardonnay and Viognier are perhaps the most successful.
The soils of Howell Mountain are typically volcanic or clay based, rocky, free draining and generally dry despite the area receiving significant rainfall compared with appellations on the valley floor. The stressed vines yield small grapes often in small clusters, and the subsequent wines of intense hue and flavour command huge respect from critics as well as high prices. Varietals with the Howell Mountain AVA label consistently rank amongst the best high altitude wines in the United States.