Our editor Daniel Goh visits the famous California wine region that is Napa Valley and comes away awed by the diversity of its terroir and wines. And the view that it’s hard to talk – or write – about wine without knowing its provenance.
Madison Kreamer – the Assistant Manager of Wine & Spirit Education at Trinchero Family Estates – was driving down the winding St Helena highway in Napa Valley. She was hosting members of the wine trade from Asia for a tour of Trinchero Family Estates‘ various wineries in Napa, and was ferrying us to our next destination when at one point she slowed down the car.
“Notice how lush the Mayacamas is compared to the Vaca,” she said, gesturing at the mountains that flanked both sides of the valley.
The Mayacamas Mountains on the western side of the California’s foremost wine growing region – and which separates Napa from Sonoma Valley – was cheerily green; on the opposing side, however, the more arid Vaca Range loomed, bare of vegetation in some places. We hadn’t noticed until she mentioned it.
Someone in the group let out an audible gasp. I didn’t realise it was me.
Napa Valley is California’s most eminent winemaking region, and by extension, also America’s best-known one. Even though it’s essentially a small strip of land with just 46,000 acres (18,600 hectares) under vine, Napa punches way above its weight in other areas. From statistics provided by the California Wine Institute, Napa Valley produces just 4% of California’s total wine production – and just 0.04% of the world’s total – in terms of value it contributes almost 30% of the entire California wine region’s impact to the US economy.
Some of the biggest names in the wine world hail from this region; Opus One, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Inglenook, and even cult brand Screaming Eagle, for example. And of course there’s family-owned Trinchero, one of America’s largest wine companies – in fact, it’s the fourth largest wine producer in the United States – and probably best known for its iconic flagship Sutter Home brand.
We would find out later during an intensive study course on Napa Valley at the Trinchero Napa Valley winery that the reason the Mayacamas and the Vaca were so wildly different in their greenery was due to the difference in the way both mountain ranges were formed millennia ago during the formation of the San Andreas fault. Over the course of millions of years, tectonic shifts and volcanic activity, coupled with hillside erosion and the intermingling of debris in the alluvial fans, led to more than 100 different soil variations in this region.
“That’s effectively half of the world’s soil orders available in just one small area,” shared Barry Wiss, Vice President of Trade Relations at Trinchero, as well as the President of the Society of Wine Educators, who along with Kreamer was giving us the intensive. This, he added, accounts for why Napa Valley has 17 American Viticultural Areas (AVA) alone, each defined by different viticultural characteristics and allowing it to be home to many different grape varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot to even cool climate ones like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Macayamas provides an effective barrier by shielding the Napa Valley floor from the cold winds coming in from the Pacific Ocean; San Pablo Bay to the south, and a small mountain opening near Calistoga, allow just enough marine breeze to cool the valley floor. The Vacas, on the other hand, shields the valley from the scorching heat of the Central Valley to the east of Napa towards Sacramento.
If that all sounds too technical, what’s most important to know about both mountain ranges is that they work in tandem to ensure that Napa Valley has an ideal climate to produce some of the best wine grapes in the world.
But it’s one thing to read about the impact of geology or weather patterns on viticulture from lecture notes, and quite another to experience it.
A walk in the dawn morning – thanks in part to jetlag – literally reveals an entire fog bank that descends on Napa Valley. This cool air coming in from the Pacific Ocean is critical, helping to cool the vines which gives grapes the necessary acidity for a complexity in a wine. Within hours the fog will burn off from the heat of the day; its impact though remains in protecting the grapes during sunny, warm and dry days during the long growing season.
Then there’s soil type. While visiting Trinchero’s Central Park West vineyard in St. Helena, Trinchero viticulturist Todd Berg showed us two different rows of vines; one was growing more far more lushly than the other, despite both being the same grape varietal and located within the same microclimate.
“They’re sitting on different soil types. One’s more alluvial,” Berg explained. “I’ll have to trim the vigorous one though; the grapes are getting too much shade from leaves.” Too much shade, he said, and the grapes don’t get enough sun to build up enough sugar in the berries that would later give wine its power and fruit intensity.
That became obvious when we popped open the Trinchero Napa Valley Central Park West Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, a generous wine that afforded amazingly big fruit notes in plum and blackcurrant. There’s just a touch of milk chocolate and wood spice on the palate that helps break through the monotony in the melange of fruit and give this quintessential St. Helena cab added complexity.
How good was the wine? Well, The Wine Advocate gave this vintage 94 points and James Suckling awarded it 95 points, so we reckon it’s quite well liked by critics.
Next Kreamer brought us up to Trinchero’s Cloud Nest vineyard, hidden atop Mount Veeder, which forms part of the Mayacamas in the southwestern part of Napa Valley. Here the air is cooler in the day despite the bright sunshine thanks to its altitude; the vines here are appreciatively less vigorous than those in the valley floor like at St. Helena, a sure sign that they’re struggling deep in the less fertile soil to get to water and nutrients they need.
But a struggling vine is a good thing. Rather than channeling energy to growing more branches and leaves the vine diverts all its resources into its fruit in an attempt to reproduce; that leads to complexity in wines.
Indeed the Trinchero Napa Valley Cloud’s Nest Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 we brought with us was a liquid taste of Mount Veeder. On the palate the fruit is far more restrained than the earlier St Helena cab we had; it certainly needed more coaxing – it needed more decanting, or time in the glass – to bring out the complex notes in tobacco, baking spices and espresso.
When Kreamer went around for a show of hands which cabernet each of us preferred, there was an almost even split. “And that’s why there are different AVAs in Napa Valley,” she beamed.
“If there’s a wine for everybody, Napa can make it all.”
And that’s just St Helena and Mount Veeder. Just south of Oakville is Rutherford, famous for the Rutherford Bench, an alluvial fan with a unique soil type that gives the wine from grapes grown there tight tannins and a dusty cocoa, chocolate or coffee profile that’s affectionately termed ‘Rutherford dust’.
Or how about the Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak AVAs to the east along the Vacas? Those mountain appellations, like Mount Veeder over at the Mayacamas produce smaller berries with higher acidity due to the cooler temperature. Atlas Peak too has a shallow rocky soil type where Syrah grows particularly well.
If there’s a wine for everybody, Napa can make it all.
It’s been said that a good wine speaks of a grape, but a great wine tells of a place. But the truth is, how can a wine connoisseur draw a parallel between what they’re tasting if they’ve never been to the region where the grapes for the wine are grown?
And how can wine experts – or wine writers – share conclusively about wines of a particular provenance without having been there? Can you speak convincingly of Chianti wine without ever having your face bathed under a Tuscan sun, or talk knowledgeably about Margaret River wine if you don’t understand its Mediterranean climate because you’ve never been there?
It’s wine for thought.
This wine trip was organised by wine education and consultancy provider WineCraft Marketing Services and Trinchero Family Estates, but was paid for by the writer.