Napa Valley, Calif., is one of the most iconic and noteworthy grape-growing regions in the United States. California is a beautiful state, and I personally had the luxury of visiting this wine country two years ago. I would have to say that it was one of the best trips that I have ever been on. When you are traveling through wine country, there are grape vines as far as the eye can see. According to the Guild of Sommeliers, “45,000 acres of vineyards carpet the valley floor and dot surrounding hillsides and mountains”—which means there is a lot of wine growing in California!
Napa Valley has become the hub for wine tourists from around the world. In particular, wine tourists are seeking cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet sauvignon is the principal red grape variety in Napa Valley, with merlot, pinot noir, zinfandel and syrah following closely behind.
Cabernet sauvignon prospers in Napa Valley because of the Mediterranean climate. When planted on the valley floor, the wine is more elegant, with approachable tannins. On the mountainsides, the wines are typically fuller-bodied with opulent and powerful black fruit. The major white grape varieties are chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and amount for more than 90 percent of the total white grape plantings. The “classic” style of chardonnay is full-bodied with rich tropical fruit and with flavors of oak and cream. Sauvignon blanc is typically made in a Bordeaux-like style throughout Napa Valley. Flavors exude citrus and grassy notes with bright acidity. Other white grape varieties planted are viognier, pinot gris, riesling, muscat and chenin blanc.
American Viticultural Area
Napa Valley was the second region in the United States to be designated an American Viticultural Area in 1981. Within the Napa Valley AVA, there are sixteen separate sub-AVAs. Each of these sub-AVAs provide different characteristics to the wine because of the different soils, elevations and styles of wine.
Geographically, the sub-AVAs are broken down into three categories: the Valley Floor AVAs, the Mountain AVAs and other AVAs that are in the surrounding areas. The two mountain ranges that surround the valley floor are the Mayacamas Mountains and the Vaca Mountains. Within these two mountain ranges, there are five sub-AVAs: Mount Veder, Spring Mountain District, Diamond Mountain District, Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain. Each of the mountains has a distinctive flavor. One of the most widely known and oldest mountain AVAs is Howell Mountain. Howell Mountain is my personal favorite mountain AVA because the wines are known to be powerful and age-worthy. A few of my favorite producers on Howell Mountain are Ladera, Cade, Robert Foley, Duckhorn, O’Shaughnessy and Cakebread.
There are eight valley floor AVAs, which are Coombsville, Oak Knoll of Napa Valley, Yountville, Stags Leap District, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga. As I said before, each of these sub-AVAs has different styles of making wine, and all taste very different. One of the most well-known and noteworthy sub-AVAs is Oakville. The infamous Screaming Eagle and To-Kalon vineyards are planted within this district. I highly recommend tasting from each one of the sub-AVAs so that you can understand the difference and have a better understanding for Napa Valley. The other AVAs are Chiles Valley District, Wild Horse Valley and Los Carneros.
When I was in wine country, Carneros was one of my favorite AVAs to visit. Carneros is shared by the Sonoma region and was covered in fog every time I drove through. Tasting wine in this part of Napa was especially fun because Carneros is known for producing wonderful sparkling wine, pinot noir and chardonnay. It was a nice transition from mostly tasting cabernet sauvignon. I haven’t yet come across a pinot noir that I didn’t like from Carneros.
Fog is a distinctive characteristic for Napa Valley. According to the Guild of Sommeliers, “The fog settles on the valley floor in the late evening and may not burn off until midmorning, impacting nighttime temperatures and sunshine hours on the valley floor.” Every day that I spent in Napa Valley, there was fog present in the morning. The photograph at the top of this article best depicts the fog and was taken midday in the heart of downtown Napa.
Napa Valley is a fascinating region that is full of history, which is why my next article will discuss how Napa Valley came to be the star that it is today.
Michelle Richards is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Along with hosting wine tastings for local organizations, she serves up wine goodness at St. John’s Restaurant. Your can contact her by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.