Napa Valley is, without question, the prime real estate region of California, due both to its favourable climatic and regional location, and also to the vast amounts of money that producers have pumped into establishing wineries in this golden valley.
About Napa Valley
The Napa Valley, despite its worldwide fame and reputation, is only a small area, running around 50km long, from the north west to the south east of the north coast of California, just north of the San Pablo Bay, and on the north east corner of the San Francisco Bay, with an essentially hot, and in some cases, very hot climate, tempered by the breezes rolling in from the Pacific. It’s the climate that tends to control what is grown in the region, although an increasing amount of experimentation is now being done, to identify the best grapes for the many different soil types in the valley.
In the south, which partly includes the cool, Carneros valley, the climate is suited to the production of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, however most of the Napa Valley is all about Cabernet Sauvignon, which reigns supreme here – rich, plush, polished – and shiraz, merlot and zinfandel.
Napa has always been the jewel in the crown of the Californian wine industry, with wineries established back in the late 19th century, the oldest being Beringer, which has the status of a place of national heritage; however, its world famous status, and prized location was undoubtedly partly driven by the famous ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting in 1976, where 2 Napa wines, a Chardonnay and a Cabernet won against a grand cru white Burgundy and a Premier cru Bordeaux. Napa became the promised land, with producers and wine businesses falling over themselves to buy land and plant grapes in the 80s. From less than 25 wineries in the 60s, there were 200 by the late 80s.
The Napa Valley has a unique mesoclimate, which enables high quality wines to be produced close to the valley floor, as well as on the hills – from the south, the fog rolls in from the San Francisco and San Pablo Bay region; from the west, the Pacific Ocean blows in its cooling breezes. Many of the top wines are grown on the slopes, and this is where the Zinfandel grape grows most happily. Wines grown in this area will have more tannin and structure.
But the valley floor is home to some of the most premium regions within Napa – Rutherford, Oakville and Stags leap, producing superlative, rich, plush Cabernets, with impressive Chardonnays coming from Yountville.
Grapes And Styles
Cabernet Sauvignon – the undisputed king of the Napa, perfectly located on the hot, sunny valley floors, and thus enjoying the hot sunshine, yet cool maritime breezes and fog, that temper the richness and intensity. The dark-skinned, high tannin, slow-ripening Cabernet is in its element here, able to ripen fully, and thus producing intense, complex, silky and sumptuous wines, with powerful richness, and concentrated blackcurrant, mint and deep chocolate character – without doubt, some of the highest quality Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world… but at a price tag.
Zinfandel - the best is grown up on the slopes of the valley, rather than on the valley floor – soft, velvety, with rich, mulberry and forest fruit character, depth, intensity, and voluptuous complexity.
Chardonnay – the star of the white grapes, best grown in the cooler regions and the hills, but producing, rich, creamy, exotic fruit packed whites, many of which are enhanced by judicious oak treatment – happily the trend is towards lighter, fresher styles, with less oak dominance, but subtle, enhancing wood treatment. At their best, these wines compete on the world stage, with top quality Burgundies. Carneros produces some of the best.
Sauvignon Blanc - the hot Napa climate is not ideally suited to this fresh, delicate, and temperamental grape variety, and there are too many flat, flabby, dull wines, which trade under this label and should be avoided! At their best, they are grown in the cooler areas of the hills, or in southern Carneros, but too often they are either lacking in freshness and acidity, or are still being made in the outdated ‘Fume’ style, which is oaked – although these styles are happily seen less in the UK these days.
Pinot Noir – this temperamental grape, which needs a cool climate, is very happy in the cool climate, Carneros area, where it produces stellar, world class wines, which are simply sublime in their elegance, and restrained, yet intense perfumed, violet and raspberry fruit flavours and aromas – complex, intriguing and beguiling.