Napa Valley Wine Appellations ~Part Two~

Napa Valley

Picking up where we left off last week at the southern end of the valley floor, we find ourselves in the Oak Knoll District. It is not as warm as the AVA’s to its north but still gets hot in the summer. Not only Cabernet Sauvignon, but other varieties that don’t do as well in the heat, such as Riesling, are planted. One of our current favorites from Oak Knoll is the Barrelhead Cabernet Franc, which has some richness but is also distinctly Cab Franc, with hints of pepper and tobacco.

The Stags Leap District northwest of Oak Knoll is the valley floor “star,” known for its superb Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the perfect combination of hot days in the summer, temperature moderating wind, volcanic rocks and a clay foundation. The wines have body, acidity, elegance and finesse. Several famous wineries are based here and many others, big and small such as BENCH VINEYARD, source Cabernet Sauvignon from its golden terroir.

Heading north you’ll hit Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena. It gets warmer as you move further from the San Pablo Bay so by the time you reach St. Helena there are very few cooling influences. The usual suspects – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – are widely planted but Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Zinfandel and Viognier are also grown. With Highway 29 running the course of these towns, several big names including SPOTTSWOODE in St. Helena are easy to find yet lesser-known producers including TRESPASS , ROCCA and YOUNT RIDGE are scattered along the way.

The Tofanelli Family Vineyard
in Calistoga at winter.

Calistoga is the most northern AVA in Napa. Lodged into the Mayacamas Mountain Range, it is hot and has become recognized for its big, rich red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Syrah. TOFANELLI, which was founded in Calistoga in 1929, makes classic, powerful Zinfandel from organically grown fruit.  Another crowd-pleaser is KELLY FLEMING, known for her big Cabernet and elegant Sauvignon Blanc

The Diamond Mountain District is south of Calistoga. It has a density of volcanic matter, giving the wines a penetrating sense of minerality. Cabernet Sauvignon is king but there is a lot of Cabernet Franc and some Merlot as well, both of which are usually added as blending grapes. A new producer (older vineyard) is SUMMITVINE making an amazing, limited production from this estate.

Spring Mountain hovers over St. Helena. At its peak, it is 2600 feet, more than 2000 feet higher than the top aspect of Diamond Mountain. The most coveted land is at the higher altitudes above the fog line that create full-bodied, tannic red wines, amazing Merlot, PALOMA and fruity Sauvignon Blanc.

Betty O’Shaughnessy Woolls,
founder and matriarch of Mt. Veeder’s
O’Shaughnessy winery.

Mount Veeder, which is south of Spring Mountain, is Napa’s largest AVA other than the Napa AVA (which, by the way, was granted in 1981) itself. It is as high as Spring Mountain and has a similar microclimate.  Other than Sauvignon Blanc, the same grapes are grown. LONGTABLE makes a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) that offers a delicious mouthful of packed fruit that is pretty representative of the appellation. THOMAS-HSI is a new-comer with a stellar Cabernet and of course O’SHAUGHNESSY cannot be forgotten as one of the best Cabernet producers in Napa.

Napa shares Los Carneros with Sonoma. This is the coolest AVA in Napa, getting a double whammy of wind from the San Pablo Bay to the south and Petaluma Gap to the west. It is extremely well-known for Pinot Noir and vivacious Chardonnay such as the wine we carry from COHO and HUDSON.  Many winemakers, ARIETTA just to name one, also like its cooler renditions of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are not as fruit driven as their counterparts from other parts of Napa.

One thing to keep in mind is that while the most popular grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay – still reign throughout most of Napa, a host of Italian varieties as well as Semillon and others have taken root and the results are promising. Napa Valley is constantly evolving but we have a pretty good idea which grapes work in different spots and how they are vary from place to place. This keeps it exciting for wine drinkers and reminds us, and the rest of the wine drinking world that Napa is far from a homogenous region but one that has focus and at the same time, diversity.