Sometimes when you talk about wine appellations and terroir, it turns into an alphabet soup of AOCs, DOCs and other mumbo jumbo. The French made things super-confusing about 100 years ago with the creation of the Appellation d’Origine Controlee, a set of rules and standards for wine quality to a particular region of the country. Bordeaux has 50-plus appellations.
Thankfully, our main domestic winegrowing areas of Napa and Sonoma counties in California have made things a little bit simpler. This week we’ll tour “Appellation Napa,” and explain the nuts and bolts of the area. And instead of a soup spoon, all you’ll need is a glass.
Of California’s nearly 800,000 acres of vines, about half the land is for wine. The tenderloin of Napa Valley accounts for about 40,000 acres, starting at the southernmost point near Vallejo, and continuing to Calistoga at the northern end. Napa Valley straddles state Highway 29 and is dotted by the towns of Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena. All told, Napa is about 30 miles long by about 15 miles wide.
While Napa accounts for only 10 percent of the state’s wine-producing acreage, about one-third of California’s wineries operate within its boundaries. And like Europe, Napa is broken into distinct winegrowing areas, 10 in all: Napa, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville, Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder, Stag’s Leap and Los Carneros. Each has different soils, elevation and microclimates that add to the appellation’s terroir, as it is known. Mount Veeder, as an example, is known for the well-drained volcanic soil that makes for low yields, yet intense fruit. In Carneros, the cooler weather and marine influences from San Pablo Bay are well-suited to temperamental pinot noir.
Two varieties are synonymous with Napa Valley: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Ever since the Paris Tasting of 1976, when two Napa wines — 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon — topped France’s best, these two varieties have been closely associated with Napa.
Other varieties, in order of prevalence, include sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, merlot, zinfandel and chenin blanc. Bordeaux-style or “meritage” blends are also common. For reds, cab will be blended with lesser amounts of cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot. And in whites, it’s not uncommon for sauv blanc to be married with semillon and muscadelle.
Robert Mondavi is the name and face most associated with Napa Valley. A master marketer, he made wine accessible for millions with simplified labels, naming of wines and reasonable prices. He also turned sauvignon blanc into fumé blanc and turned the wine into something exciting and sexy. Mondavi also founded the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, which has become a destination for wine lovers.
His brother, Peter Mondavi, purchased the Charles Krug estate and makes some of the best red wines in Napa. Mike Grgich, the winemaker behind that famous 1973 Montelena chardonnay, still makes killer whites and reds at his namesake winery Grgich Hills. Champagne maker Moët-Hennessy saw the promise of great bubbly in Napa and snapped up acreage in the 1970s, and now makes the wildly successful Domaine Chandon line of delicious and affordable sparkling wines.
The famous nameplates from Napa go on: Beaulieu, Beringer, St. Supery, Schramsberg, Caymus, Franciscan, Louis Martini, Far Niente, Joseph Phelps, Silver Oak, Trefethen, Sutter Home.
Now it’s time to follow your nose — and your palate — to Napa Valley.