Napa Valley - An Overview
Flanked by the Mayacamas Mountain Range in the west and north, and the Vaca Mountains on the east, Napa Valley is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) located in California’s wine country. The valley’s combination of mediterranean climate, geography, and volcanic soil types make it conducive to growing high quality wine grapes.
While Napa Valley is more famous for its award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, the more than 450 wineries in the valley grow and produce a stunning variety of popular and lesser known wine varietals, by taking advantage of the many unique microclimates that exist between the warmer valley floor, and the cooler mountain ranges on its left and right.
Napa Valley is considered one of the premier wine regions in the world, often mentioned in the same breath as those of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Tuscany. However, it did not start out as such. The valley’s first commercial vineyard can be traced back to 1858, when John Patchette established a vineyard and hired Charles Krug as his winemaker. The majority of wines produced in the 19th and early 20th centuries were not of particularly high quality and were primarily intended as jug or table wines. Modern winemaking techniques were not introduced until the 1940s when Andre Tchelistcheff arrived in Napa Valley as chief winemaker of Beaulieu Vineyards. Educated in agricultural technology and a researcher in oenology, fermentation, and biology, Tchelistcheff brought new techniques he had learned in France, such as fermentation in small French oak barrels, cold fermentation, vineyard frost protection, and malolactic fermentation to the region. His impact on California’s wine-making scene was immediately felt, the high quality Cabernet Sauvignon he produced under the "Georges de Latour Private Reserve" label quickly became the benchmark for all California Cabernet Sauvignon.
If Andre Tchelistcheff was the spark that lit the embers, the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting was the firestorm that put Californian wines on the map. A wine competition held in a blind tasting format was organized by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant in Bordeaux, on 24 May 1976. The competition comprised of two blind tastings: a red tasting that pitted Bordeaux reds with California Cabernet, and a white tasting that pitted Burgundian Chardonnays against California Chardonnays. The tasting was judged by 11 judges made up of wine magazine editors, sommeliers, winemakers, wine industry professionals, and Spurrier himself. California came out of the tasting beating its counterparts with Stag’s Leap Cabernet besting several of Bordeaux best reds (incl Chateau Mouton-Rothschild), while Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay also bested other Burgundian favourites (Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive). This was no fluke as numerous anniversary tastings continue to underscore the harmony of California Cabernet Sauvignons and their remarkable ability to age over time.
Despite various setbacks along the way, including an outbreak of the vine disease phylloxera, the institution of Prohibition, and the Great Depression, California wine-makers have adapted, and innovated. The result is a wine-growing region that produces an exciting array of winemaking styles that sees both traditional winemaking techniques alongside more modern ones, high-quality wines that would suit any occasion.
The Wines of Napa Valley
The Napa Valley wine region in California benefits from a diverse range of growing conditions. Although Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the most widely planted, the Napa Valley holds many surprises for wine lovers looking for varieties off the beaten path. From Albarino to Zinfandel, more than three dozen different wine grape varieties flourish in the Napa Valley. We summarize several of the most widely planted varietals:
Red Wine Varietals
Cabernet Sauvignon - Considered the most successful red grape in California. It yields some of the greatest red wine in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant variety used in the finest red Bordeaux wines, such as Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Latour. Almost all California Cabernets are dry, and depending upon the producer and vintage, they range in style from light and ready to drink to extremely full-bodies and long-lived. California Cabernet has become the benchmark for some of the best California wines.
Pinot Noir - Known as the “headache” grape because of its fragile quality, Pinot Noir is tempermental, high maintenance, expensive and difficult to grow and make into wine. The great grape of the Burgundy region of France, and also one of the principal grapes in French Champagne. In California, many years of experimentation in finding the right location to plant the Pinot Noir and to perfect the fermentation techniques have elevates some of the Pinot Noirs to the status of great wines. Pinot Noir is usually less tannic than Cabernet and matures more quickly.
Syrah - The up and coming red grape in California, even though it has always been one of the major grapes of the Rhone Valley in France, making some of the best and most long-lived wines in the world. People love the spicy, robust flavour of this grape, and it’s a perfect grape for California because it thrives in sunny, warm weather.
Zinfandel - Many different styles of Zinfandel are made. Depending on the producers, the wines can range from a big, rich, ripe, high-alcoholic, spicy, smoky, concentrated, intensely flavoured style with substantials tannin, to a very light, fruity wine. Zinfandel is very closely related to its Italian cousin, Primitivo. Zinfandel and Primitivo are both clones of the Croatian varietal Crljenak.
Merlot - Merlot tannins are softer and its texture more supple. It produces a soft, round wine that generally does not need the same aging as a Cabernet Sauvignon. Often referred to as the velvet glove, its softer, rounder qualities makes it the preferred blending varietal to balance the more tannic and structured Cabernet Sauvignon.
White Wine Varietals
Chardonnay - Chardonnay is the second most planted grape variety in Napa Valley, and grows with particular success in the calcium-rich soils and cool climate of the Los Carneros AVA (South Napa Valley), where it can ripen slowly. Often called the winemaker’s grape, Chardonnay profoundly expresses the flavors created by specific winemaking practices. Depending on the level of barrel fermentation, lees stirring, and malolactic fermentation, this Burdungidan grape varietal can range in style from fresh, crisp and lively to rich, round and buttery. This wide range of styles mean you can probably find the right Californian Chardonnay for a wide variety of dishes, from seafood to most pork and poultry dishes.
Sauvignon Blanc - The intense flavor profile of Sauvignon Blanc quickly grabs your attention. Herbaceous, grassy notes and vibrant acidity are hallmark qualities of this grape, and it is capable of showing a wide variety of stone-fruit character. Most Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in neutral vessels, such as stainless steel and concrete eggs, to allow its distinctive varietal character to shine through. However, some Sauvignon Blanc is fermented and aged in oak, creating more layered flavors and textures in the finished wine, and is often labeled Fumé Blanc. Fresh and bright and perfect for a picnic on a sunny day, Sauvignon Blanc goes great with light summer fare and salads and goes wonderfully with shellfish and goat cheese.Pinot Grigio (Gris) - Pinot Gris/Grigio is a variant of the Pinot Noir grape, and often has a grayish-blue color to its fruit, accounting for its name (Gris/Grigio meaning gray in French/Italian). Wines from this grape can be light to medium bodied with a yellow to copper-pink color and aromas of citrus, pear, apple, melon with some light green notes. In most of Italy, Pinot Grigio is made in a light, citrusy style, while in Alsace, Oregon and Napa Valley, richer, more full-bodied wines are produced.
Napa Valley Regions
There are presently 16 subregions within Napa Valley including 2 that overlap into Sonoma and Solano Counties.
Coombsville - New! Located just east of the city of Napa, mostly an alluvial fan of the Vaca Mountains. Up-and-coming region for Cabernet Sauvignon. Established in 2011.
Oak Knoll - The rolling hills leading into Napa, lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because of fog and dank weather. Cabernet from this area is not what most Napa lovers want. Established in 2004.
Yountville - In the valley and also an alluvial fan of the Mayacamus mountains. Home of the culinary genius of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Watch for limo traffic. Half of the area is planted with 4,000 acres and Cabernet is good. Established in 1999.
Oakville - Slightly warmer than Yountville. Home of the original Brun & Chaix’s Napa Valley Vineyards. Big names like Silver Oak, Far Niente and Groth are neighbors. Established in 1993.
Rutherford - Valley floor, warmer than Oakville. Awesome and expressive Cabernet Sauvignon. Hold your wallet close, it gets expensive. Established 1993.
Stags Leap District - On the Silverado Trail which has slopes and alluvial fans of the Vaca Mountain range (the Eastern Mountains). Really dusty and savory Cabernet Sauvignon and home to the famous but a bit snobby Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Established 1989.
St. Helena - So much traffic! This area is mostly fluvial soils that are deep, making the wines slightly less unique. However, many major cellars and homes are in this area including Heitz, Duckhorn, Beringer, Merryvale. Established in 1995.
Calistoga - Just a few miles north of the town of St. Helena and the edge of the valley where the Vaca Mountains and the Mayacamus Mountains intersect. The area has low nighttime temperatures and high daytime temperatures similar to mountain AVAs. Volcanic soils and impressive meaty Cabernet and Zinfandel wines. Old Vine Zinfandel can be found here. Established in 2010.
Diamond Mountain District - On the Northern end of the Mayacamus Mountains. Volcanic soils are prevalent. Home to Schramsberg, Napa’s sparkling wine house and Diamond Creek. Established in 2001.
Spring Mountain District - Middle of the Mayacamus Mountains. Volcanic soils and also sandstone soils making rounder more gentler wines than their northern neighbor. Home to Pride Mountain Vineyards. Established 1993.
Mount Veeder - The start of the Mayacamus Mountains from the bay area. The majority of the vineyards in Mount Veeder grow Cabernet Sauvignon and are on volcanic soils similar to Calistoga at the top of the valley. Watch for vintage variation. Established in 1993.
Atlas Peak - Large boulders and higher elevation benches in the Vaca Mountains make for good Cabernet Sauvignon. Most notably, Stagecoach Vineyards sells fruit to 70 wineries throughout Napa and also makes Krupp Brother wine. Established in 1992.
Chiles Valley - A small valley deep in the Vaca Mountains. Great Zinfandels. No fog. Established in 1999.
Howell Mountain - The first sub-AVA in Napa since 1983. Just 1,000 acres. The harsher conditions up on the Mountain make Cabernet Sauvignon struggle to produce small clusters of tiny grapes. The smaller grapes have a higher skin-to-juice ratio resulting in deeper-colored wine with higher tannins giving some of the most concentrated Cabernet wines in the world.
Carneros - Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the kings of Carneros. The AVA on the Sonoma side is home to Buena Vista Winery, the oldest winery in the area started by Agoston Haraszthy. Originally established in 1983.Wild Horse Valley - Similar to neighboring Carneros, Pinot Noir reigns king here. Shares a boundary with Solano County. Less fog and more sunshine although cooler daytime temperatures overall. Established 1988.
How is California winemaking different from the European technique?
European winemaking has established traditions that have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. These practices dictate the way grapes are grown and harvested, and in some cases include winemaking and aging procedures.
In California, there are few traditions, and winemakers are able to take full advantage of modern technology. Furthermore, there is freedom to experiment and create new products. Some of the experimenting the California winemakers do, such as combining different grape varieties to make new styles of wine, is prohibited by some European wine-control laws. Californians thus have greater opportunities to try many new ideas.
In addition to modern technology and experimentation, you can’t ignore the fundamentals of winegrowing: California’s rainfall, weather pattern and soils are very different to those of Europe. The greater abundance of sunshine in California can result in wines with greater alcohol content, ranging from 13.5% to 14.5%, compared to 12%-13% in Europe. This higher alcohol content changes the balance and taste of the wines.
What happened when phylloxera returned to the vineyards of California in the 1980s?
In the 1980s the plant louse phylloxera destroyed a good part of the vineyards of California, costing more than a billion dollars in new plantings.
This time, vineyard owners didn’t have to wait to discover a solution; they already knew what they would have to do to replace the dead vines - by replanting with a different rootstock that they knew as resistant to phylloxera. So while the short-term effects were terribly expensive, the long-term effect should be better quality wine.
In the early days of California grape growing, little thought was given to where a specific grape would grow best. Chardonnays were planted in climates far too warm, and Cabernet Sauvignons were planted in climates far too cold.
With the onset of phylloxera, winery owners had a chance to rectify their errors, and when replanting, they matched the climate and soil with the best grape variety. But the biggest change was in the planting density of the vines themselves. Traditional spacing used by most wineries was between 400-500 vines per acre. Today, with the new replanting, it is not uncommon to have more than a thousand vines per acre.