Friday, July 2, 2021

Favorite American AVAs: Napa Valley

I must confess that for a very long time, I avoided writing about AVAs or American Viticultural Areas. I believe it was mostly out of respect, I felt basically overwhelmed by California as a wine producing state and was not sure where to begin. Yet recently, I changed my mind and decided it was time to write about domestic wines, and what a better way to wet my feet than by starting exploring the most important AVA in the US: Napa ValleyOnly an hour drive from San Francisco, or about 46 miles away, Napa Valley is a small conclave that is only 30 miles long by 5 miles wide, and produces only 4% of the total wine production in California. It was also the first declared AVA in America, which happened in 1981. Later, it was divided into 16 different subregions (see map below), and this was because as we may see, there is a huge diversity of soils, topography and climate inside of Napa; it’s not unusual to find two or more different terroirs within the same vineyard, which will yield completely different wines even if made from the same grape variety.

There are 18,600 ha or 46,000 acres dedicated to vineyards in Napa, featuring over 33 different varieties, which include grapes that do well, not only in cool climates such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also grapes that do well in moderate, warm to hot climates too, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel. In rank of importance Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of this AVA covering 55% of all vineyards, followed by Chardonnay with 14%, Merlot with 10%, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir with 6% each and Zinfandel with only 3%. This is only possible, because of the different microclimates and soils allow producers to experiment. It is important to clarify that an AVA only guarantees a geographic origin, because here in California, as in other parts of the new world, viticulture and vinification are not as regulated as they are in Europe.

The overall climate of the valley is Mediterranean, that means super sunny summers and a rain free growing season, this is going to be very important when talking about vintages, specifically because this Mediterranean climate guarantees consistency over the years, i.e. Napa doesn't usually have any ripening problems, like in other parts of the world. Rains fall mostly in the winter, and more so in the mountains than in the valley floor, in any case, because this is the new world, irrigation is also allowed and used as needed. Now, because this is California, I don’t want you to think it’s super hot all day long, quite the contrary, though during the day, temperatures are high and can reach up to 90º F, at night, they usually go down 20º or more degrees, easily reaching between 50º-60º F. This will allow the vines to rest and promote a nice sugar/acidity balance in the fruit. 

Temperatures vary according to location inside the valley, they are cooler in the south and warmer as we go north. There are three big factors that affect climate here: 1) the proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which is located only 35 miles away. The Pacific provides cool winds and fogs, this is particularly felt in the southern subregions in Napa, such as Los Carneros, Coombsville and Oak Knoll and in the northern part of Calistoga and in the Chalk Hill gap, which is a little opening among the mountains that allow the cool breezes to come in. The other two most important factors are the mountains chains surrounding the valley: the Mayacama Mountains on the west, that serve as a barrier to all the vineyards planted on its east side, and the Vaca range, which will protect the valley from the torrid heat that comes from the Central Valley of California where the biggest/ mass wine production takes place. Now, within the Valley, we find vineyards planted at different altitudes and sun expositions, so ripening and therefore harvesting will happen at different times. There are vineyards planted on the valley floor located at sea level, there are vineyards planted at what is known as the benches or foothills of the mountains, which may have altitudes of up to 1,000 feet and finally, there are vineyards planted on the mountains at altitudes of 2000 + feet.   

The soils in Napa, could be the topic of a complete/separate post, I strongly believe that except for Alsace, no other place in the world has such a huge selection of soils.  Napa has 33 unique soil series and over 100 different types of soils, but to make things easier, the Napa Valley Vintners Association has divided them in 3 types: in the valley floor we have mostly fluvial soils, rich in clay and silts. These are heavy and nutrient soils, that yield fruit forward and lush wines. Better yet, are the alluvial fans, found at the benches, (foothills of the mountains) these are soils that rolled down from the hills to the valley floors, rich in gravel, and with moderate fertility, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Alluvial soils yield fruit forward wines but with solid tannins. And then, we have the poorest of all soils, which are the Mountain soils, very rocky and shallow, mostly of volcanic origin, this is where we find the biggest/structured Cabernet Sauvignons. All this geological diversity happened about 150 million years ago, when the Farallon plate collided with the North American plate, forming the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The pressure and rise of temperature, caused plenty of volcanic action, which generated magma and tufa that spilled all over Napa, this bedrock is known in geology as the Great Valley Sequence. If this was not enough, as the volcanoes were erupting, another bedrock formation came from the sea, this is known as the Franciscan formation, which is formed of marine crust soils, i.e dead seashell rich soils that were pushed from the ocean to the land covering parts of the valley too. Later, the Farallon plate switched directions from west to east, to run from north to south creating what is known as the St Andreas fault, and you guessed it! more volcanic action, yielding a different soil formation known as the Napa volcanics.  Finally, all this seismic activity lifted and created the mountain chains that surround Napa Valley today: the Mayacamas and Vaca ranges. 

Let’s take a brief tour through some of the most important subregions in Napa. In the south we find Los Carneros, here vineyards are planted low, from 0-700 feet, this AVA, is very much influenced by the Pacific cool breezes and fogs coming from St Pablo’s Bay, which makes this spot ideal to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both used to make sparkling and table wines. Continuing in the southern part of the valley but going north, we have the AVAs of Coombsville and Oak Knoll, also influenced by the fogs and cool breezes, Cabernet Sauvignon from these AVAs are elegant with velvety tannins and herbal notes. Coombsville soils are mostly volcanic (tufa) and have some elevation, up to 1,000 feet. 
Continuing north, we find Yountville, which is a bit warmer but still very much influenced by the fogs. Soils here are mostly clayey, heavy, deep, and damp and better for Sauvignon Blanc than Cabernet. There are some producers that grow Cabernet Sauvignon here, but these are planted on pockets of alluvial soils (gravel) better for this variety.  Then comes Stag’s Leap (home of the winery with the same name), which has both alluvial fans and volcanic soils that will yield beautiful Cabernet Sauvignons, with good acidity and smooth tannins, showing red fruits and less herbal notes than in Coombsville. Continuing to the mid valley, we find the classic AVAs of Oakville and Rutherford, moderately warmer than the previous southern AVAs, we find alluvial fans (gravel soils) in the vineyards on the west and volcanic soils in vineyards on the east. The Cabernets here are fruit forward, fleshy, very much age worthy but also drinkable upon release. There are some high-altitude vineyards in these AVAs too, that will yield similar wines to those coming from the Mountains (more intense and firm). Some of the most important and prestigious vineyards/wineries are located here (Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Staglin, Peju, St Supery, Caymus, Inglenook, etc).  
Moving up north to St Helena and Calistoga (which is the warmest part of the valley) we find warm temperatures to grow powerful Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. Some of the very hot sites in the valley are located here, so harvest happens earlier than in the AVAs in the south. Finally, we have the Mountain AVAs. If you want the biggest, powerbomb reds, go to the Mountain vineyards!  Mostly because grapes that are exposed to the elements: cold, snow, wind, high altitude yield thicker skins, small berries, and bunches, which translates to a higher skin to juice ratio, producing more concentrated and extracted wines. We find very steep slopes here and high elevations that are above the fogs, which means that these vineyards see more sunshine than those located below on the valley floor.  Starting in the southwest we have Mount Veeder, which is cooler in the south, with vineyards enjoying a long and slow ripening season and warmer in the north. Moving up, we have the Spring Mountain, which is probably the coolest of all, producing very elegant but also intense wines. Further north, we find Diamond Mountain , which is a bit warmer, similar to north St Helena or south Calistoga but the wines will have more tannin and power here.  On the east of the Valley and north, we have Howell Mountain that has cooler sites with some warm pockets, volcanic soils, lakes and some of the highest elevations vineyards in Napa. Continuing south and east, comes Chiles Valley, which is a bit warmer, with fruit ripening earlier and less steep vineyards that make farming easier.  And finally, the last mountain AVA is Atlas Peak, it’s cooler and one of the last places to ripen, influenced again by the cooling breezes and fogs from the Pacific. 

As you may see depending on the location, you will find different styles of Cabernet Sauvignons, featuring unique textures, acidity, tannin, and character profiles that may go from red fruits to black and purple fruits. In general, fruit from the valley floors will yield affordable and more approachable wines, soft with round tannins, while fruit from the benches and especially the mountains will have strong tannins and extracted structures that require cellar time, plus some of these can be pricey as you may see below.

The wine industry in Napa is relatively new, with wine production starting less than 200 years ago, and like it happened in Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, the first wines were made from Mission grapes brought by Mexican priests. Now, vitis vinifera production happened later with the immigration of European pioneers such as: Hamilton Crabb, Joseph Beringer, Charles Krug and Gustave Niebaum. By 1889, there were 140 wineries in Napa but then came a series of fatal events, in 1890 phylloxera, the deadly louse that ended the vineyards in Europe, arrived to Napa, decimating most vineyards, in 1906 the San Francisco earthquake affected the area, followed by World War 1 in 1917 and the worst of all, in 1919, the Volstead Act which brought alcohol prohibition to the US and with this the disappearance of most wineries in Napa, since only a few survived by making wine for sacramental purposes.  
 
However, Napa Valley Vintners were resilient and organized themselves in 1944 creating the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Another important milestone that paved the way for Napa to become the first American AVA,  happened in 1976, when the Judgment of Paris took place, this was a blind tasting competition organized by the recently deceased, Wine Critic Steve Spurrier (UK), who had the great idea of comparing California with French wines, and of course, for those that don’t know this, two Napa valley wines won the competition, Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 defeated the most famous Grand Crus in Bordeaux and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 defeated the best Burgundies. This story was published by the Times, and the reputation of Napa as a quality wine appellation was born! For the first time two new world producers proved they could make wines greater than the French!  Nowadays, about 465 wineries continue to produce wine in Napa Valley, 95 % of all wineries are family owned and run, showing how much care and excellent quality there is in this appellation.

Here are some of my favorite Napa wines, chosen from the selection I received during the last edition of Hopwines.

Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountain Merlot 2018, $70

Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $80

Barnett Vineyards Rattlesnake Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $190

Darioush Winery Signature Shiraz 2017, $78

Darioush Winery Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $112

Darioush Winery Darius II Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $285

Louis Martini Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, $45

Marston Family Albion Blanc 2017, $60

Marston Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, $175

Raymond Reserve Chardonnay 2019, $30

Raymond Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $45

Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc 2020, $25

Rombauer Los Carneros Chardonnay 2019, $38

Rombauer Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $68

Signorello Estate Chardonnay Hope's Cuvee 2018, $40

Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Padrone 2016, $175

St Supery Sauvignon Blanc 2019,$24

St Supery Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $48

Staglin Salus Chardonnay 2019, $50

Staglin Salus Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, $115

Staglin Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, $285

 

Of course I could include many more, but I'm running out of space! Instead I will invite you to continue tasting and exploring this incredible appellation. Thank you to all the wineries that provided samples for me and to the Napa Valley Vintners Association for the use of maps and photography.  
Happy Independence Day America! We should definitely celebrate this 4th of July by opening a bottle of Napa wine. Cheers! Silvina.
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