Legend has it that a freedom seeking stag once made a seemingly impossible leap between two of the region’s jagged peaks, thus evading hunters and giving this geologically distinct region its rather charming name. Winemaking has a long history here but its elevation to elite status came following the Judgement of Paris in 1976 when a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon varietal from what would become this appellation outscored all other wines in the red category, including those from some prestigious Bordeaux estates. Inevitably, this success immediately raised the profile of wines from Stags Leap and from California in general, with international interest in the state’s wine industry growing as a result.
The area’s terroir is its unique selling point. A blend of free-draining volcanic soils on clay sub-soil, leads to low yielding, non-vigorous vines whose roots are forced to work hard for nutrients and whose fruits are subsequently characterised by intense flavour and consummate balance. These attributes are accentuated by the Stags Leap microclimate which combines warm days (the rocky peaks of the Palisades which flank the AVA to the east, reflect, and thus intensify the sun’s heat) with cooler night time temperatures proving ideal for late ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon.
Whilst Cabernet Sauvignon is the undeniable darling of Stags Leap, accounting for 90% of the approximate six-hundred hectares under vine and producing bold, well-structured wines, other Bordeaux varieties Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec are found in the vineyards here, along with Petite Sirah and the ubiquitous Californian grape, Zinfandel. A tiny amount of white wine is also made in Stags Leap, principally from Chardonnay, however it is the elegant, terroir driven reds on which the appellation’s glowing reputation rests.