Napa Valley Wine Appellations ~Part One~

Napa Valley

People sometimes forget that Napa Valley is a valley and that there are differences between the areas on the valley floor and the higher areas in and around the mountains. Not only does the altitude affect the fruit, but it also impacts the micro-climates and variations in soil composition.

The Vaca Range and the Mayacamas Mountains bookend the valley. Ancient volcanoes formed much of the region but the soil types are diverse, with volcanic material and alluvial (clay) soils making up the bulk of the land. In general, the floor has denser alluvial soil that is good for water retention. The mountains have less clay and a high concentration of volcanic soil that provide a lot of drainage. As a result, the mountain fruit is often more intense.

In total, Napa has 16 AVA’s:

Atlas Peak, Calistoga, Chiles Valley, Coombsville, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Los Carneros, Mount Veeder, Oak Knoll, Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain, St. Helena, Stags Leap, Wild Horse Valley, and Rutherford.

The O’Shaugnessy Estate
on Howell Mountain

Howell Mountain, the most northern AVA on the Vaca range, is also one of the warmest parts of Napa. Because of its altitude (1400 – 2600 feet) it sits above the fog line and since it is far from the San Pablo Bay, it does not receive any of the cooling marine influences. It is superb for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah, grapes that can withstand the heat. One of the producers from this area that we carry, O’SHAUGHNESSY, makes a lusciously typical Howell Mountain Cabernet with brooding black fruits. Viognier is one of the white grapes that can also tolerate the climate. Chardonnay is grown as well but it is often more fleshy than those you’ll find in cooler areas such as Carneros.

The Chiles Valley is southeast of Howell Mountain. Even though it has “valley” in its name, many of the vineyards are on the hillside, but since its highest point is 1200 feet, it gets fog at night. You’ll find a lot of the same grapes grown but the wines often have more acidity because of the cool evenings. BROWN ESTATE is one of the most famous wineries in the Chiles Valley, in large part due to its voluptuous yet balanced Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

Scribe, one of the
great Atlas Peak Wines

Atlas Peak is the other major AVA on the Vaca Range. Between the altitude, which peaks at 2600 and the cooling marine influences, the temperatures are noticeably different from that of Howell Mountain. SCRIBE Winery, which is actually based in Sonoma, sources grapes for its Cabernet Sauvignon from here as the wines have body but also plenty of acidity, a style that they prefer.

The Wild Horse Valley is the smallest and one of the coolest AVA’s in Napa. It has become well known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, rivaling Carneros as the best appellation within the region for these grapes. We will see more wines made from these grapes in the future as its reputation is taking off.

Coombsville, located in between Los Carneros and Atlas Peak, is also a “hot” region. In actuality, it is cooler than other parts of Napa but unlike its immediate neighbors, has staked its reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon, often getting as much structure from its acidity as from tannin. INHERIT THE SHEEP, a winemaking venture started by two Mondavi alumnae (Clay & Tersila Gregory), is one of a number of boutique wineries making waves in this area, and has created a real following among our clients. Not to forget the amazing Merlot produced by COHO from the Michael Black Vineyard.

To leave you in suspense, next week I’ll pick up with the valley floor and move into the AVA’s on Mayacamas Mountain Range.