“The Napa Valley, Then and Now: The Evoltion of Grapegrowing and Winemaking” was the title of a seminar I took this past summer at the Society of Wine Educators Conference in Orlando, Florida with Barry Wiss. With the cold weather outside, I am channeling summer and warmth and so Napa came to mind. The seminar was interesting but what I thought was most remarkable was how far the association has come that they are now showing the diversity of terroir, grapes grown and attention to microclimate variations.
I tended to think of Napa as a whole, homogenous region, with a warm climate. I was quite wrong apparently. This above all was made plain in this particular seminar. In the past, I have taken the Napa Rocks seminars about the soil variation but little had been discussed about climate, another fundamental part of what can be defined as “terroir.”
Terroir affects viticulture in terms of site selection, topography, soil composition, drainage, sun exposure, and climate/temperature. Terroir affects viticulture also in terms of canopy management, soil management, irrigation, and trellising systems, root stock selection, and grape varieties.
Napa is divided into many sub-Appellations including Calistoga, Howell Mountains, Diamond Mountains District, Spring Mountains District, Chiles Valley District, St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Atlas Peak, Stags Leap District, Yountville, Oak Knoll District, Mt. Veeder, Wild Horse Valley, Coombsville, and Los Carneros. Each of these American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) has a very different blend of soil, climate, grapes and elevation.
While people usually make the case that Napa is similar to Bordeaux, this seminar was trying to show that it is also comparable to Burgundy, growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in some places as well.
Napa has a long growing season and much vintage consistency as well as a marketing cohesion that is enviable. The Napa Valley Vinters trade association which promoted both this seminar and the Napa Rocks seminar I took in 2010 is very well organized and a great promoter of all things Napa related. The valley also hosts a very well known auction and a Premiere auction, and a green program .
I also learned some facts that surprised me including that the Napa Valley only grows 4% of California’s grapes and that only 9% of Napa County is planted to grapes. Wiss also spoke about how Napa is surrounded by what he called a ring of fire – it is the most geologically active place on earth, between the Pacific plate and the North American plate, and the San Andreas fault. The valley is also bordered by the Vaca and the Mayacama mountain ranges.
Apparently, the valley has at least half of the world’s soil types in one area or another from alluvial soils to good draining ones, the diversity is clear. It also became clear that elevation plays a role in the various AVAs from the mountains to the valley floor.
We tasted through a very wide variety of grapes from Albarino to Dry Riesling to Roussane and Pinot Grigio, among the whites and from Sangiovese to Malbec, Charbono and Zinfandel among the reds. I like some of the wines, not all (tasting notes below) but what excited me most was the variation.
I have always stayed away from Napa because the wines have been too big, too oaky and too expensive in my view. This class gave me new perspective on the area and a desire to look again at what they are doing.
Hills Family Estate Albarino 2012 $24
The grapes come from the Steward Ranch Vneyard on the valley floor in Los Carneros which has a long, cool growing season. Only 500 cases are produced of this 100% Albarino wine which was made in stainless steel. It was lemon yellow in color with grassy, citrus, floral notes on the nose and palate with good acidity and a long and persistent finish. A nice wine for a salad or a first course.
Waterstone 2011 Pinot Gris $18
The grapes come from the Chiles Valley region of Napa with its clay-loam and shale soils. The area has a long growing season with persistent morning fog. The grapes go through whole cluster pressing and are fermented in stainless steel. Half is then put into oak for 150 days and then blended with the lot that didn’t go through oak aging for the final blend.
I found the wine to be a rich version of Pinot Gris withtropical fruit notes and a creamy finish thanks to the oaky treatment and lees stirring. Only 180 cases were made of this wine.
Trefethen 2012 Dry Riesling $23
This wine from the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley was a favorite with good acidity but also more residual sugar than I would have expected. Nice apple, pear fruit notes on the nose and palate. The wine was beautifully balanced and a nice surprise. 2012 was apparently a classic vintage for the Napa Valley with warm days and cool nights and a dry and warm spring with a cooler than average fall.
Truchard Vineyards 2011 Roussanne $35
The family planted three acres of this Northern Rhone variety in 1998 in the volcanic rock and ash soils of their Carneros vineyard. This wine which I had been curious to taste didn’t show its best that day with the acidity a bit out of balance. I take it to be an issue with that particular bottle and look forward to trying it at a later date.
Terra Valentine Amore 2010 $40
This wine made from 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec was juicy and rich in both its aromas and flavors with spice and lush berry notes. The Sangiovese fruit was sourced from Piero Antinori’s Atlas Peak vineyard then was given heavy oak treatment. Very unlike an Italian Sangiovese, taken on its own, I can see why this wine appeals to a wide audience even those it isn’t my particular style.
Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder 2008 Malbec $75
This 100% Malbec wine was rich and chewy with chocolate notes and dark fruit, oaky with soft tannins, I liked the minerality that came through and was a surprise due to the elevation of the vineyard. Not your classic Malbec, this Calfornia version might please Malbec lovers in any event.
Robert Foley 2010 Charbono $35
The grapes’s original name was Deuce Noir and was imported to Calistoga from the Savoie region in the French Alps in 1880. I found this wine to be interesting albeit a bit thinner than I would have imagined. I have only tasted one other Charbono so I don’t have a lot of comparable tasting under my belt to know if this is a typical expression of Charbono or not. The winemaker notes that this vintage was the smallest on record due to the crop level being the low.
Napa Cellars Napa Valley Zinfandel 2011
This winery also sources fruit and gets their Zinfandel from vineyards in St. Helena, Yountville and Calistoga. Zinfandel only makes up 2% of Napa’s total acreage. Zin is zin and this one was a classic expression of this big, juicy wine with hints of black and red fruit, pepper and spice notes, ripe tannins and sweetness. At 14.7% alcohol, this wine needs big food to support it such as barbecued ribs.