Many Napa Valleys

When it comes to defining wine in the US most people probably sort right away to Napa Valley.  It was the wines of Napa that really put the US on the world wine map, and Napa seems to serve as the shorthand for our wine in general, California wine more specifically, and all of the images and texture that conjure up “wine country.” And that’s all good for sure.  But there’s a lot more to Napa than those generalities capture.  In fact there are many Napa Valleys. No, not geographically, but within the confines of this amazingly special county there are clusters of growing regions that truly give it more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine.

These are called AVAs – American Viticultural Areas, and within the Napa Valley, which is an appellation all on its own,  there are sixteen sub-regions.  Each exists because there are some shared characteristics of earth and sky, a confluence of soil and climate that lend distinctiveness to the grapes and wines.  When it comes to getting deeper into the bottle and appreciating the magic of wine, the more you know about where and how its grown, and how its made, the more each Sip becomes more than just a taste.  So when you see an AVA on the label it’s your first clue about what’s in the bottle.

Here are the 16 Napa Valley AVAs along with a map from the Napa Valley Vintners.  And if you visit their site here there’s even more detail.  But I’d like hit a few of the highlights from my own, nontechnical perspective.

  • Atlas PeakNapaValley AVA Map
  • Calistoga
  • Chiles Valley
  • Coomsbville
  • Diamond Mountain
  • Howell Mountain
  • Los Carneros
  • Mount Veeder
  • Oak Knoll
  • Oakville
  • Rutherford
  • Spring Mountain
  • St. Helena
  • Stags Leap
  • Wild Horse Valley
  • Yountville

I don’t pick favorites (insert the smiley face emoji here!) – but I love

  • The Cabernets from Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap. To me these valley floor growing areas are what Napa Cab is all about – ripe and lush, structured and textured with layers of taste and tannin to drink now or park for a while.
  • That Los Carneros is unique and is a shared AVA with Sonoma – and its an area that greets us with the cooler and windy influences of San Pablo Bay, which means Pinot Noir with bright berry fruitiness and tingly acidity and Chardonnays that seem to mimic the mineralty of Chablis
  • The grapes from the mountain ridges where they grow above the fog line, ripening in the sunshine to robust flavors. From Spring Mountain to Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain to Diamond Mountain the Cabs are powerful and the Merlot are lip-smackers.
  • That the northern part of the valley up by Calistoga and St. Helena is the warmest. I like it for the big tastes of Zin and Syrah and for Cabs that are densely fruity. We paid a visit to Calistoga in an earlier post you can check out.  This is also where I get my favorite Cabernet Franc direct from the winery.

Napa Valley is many wines and many Sips and no single post can possibly capture them all.  But as you dive in a little deeper and choose some wines from the different AVAs you’ll find the diversity and nuance, as well as the variety and vitality, that make the many Napas the quintessential wine country.

Here are some Sips for you to explore – as well as some tips on paying a visit to Napa Valley.

Every Day Sip
2015 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc $12
Cameron Hughes Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $20
Martin Ray Chardonnay Los Carneros $20

Guest Sip
BV Rutherford Cabernet $28
Steltzner Cabernet Stags Leap District $35
Cuvaison Pinot Noir Carneros $35
Mondavi Oakville Cabernet $40
Ballentine 2014 Cabernet Franc Pocai Vineyard Calistoga $48
Terra Valentine Cabernet Spring Mountain $48
Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain, 2012 $50

Splurge Sip
Groth Cabernet Oakville $55
Chimney Rock Cabernet Stags Leap $70
2012 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $180

What is a “Single Vineyard” Wine?

There certainly is a lot of information on wine labels and you will frequently see the name of a specific vineyard.Nunes Vineyard on harvest day 2006 This means the wine is a single vineyard or vineyard designated wine and, along with featuring the name on the label, there are other considerations that go along with it. If there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard

To me that’s important because it means the grapes that make up the wine in the bottle have come from one clearly identifiable location.  And when it comes to wine this tells us that there has been more consistent soil, climate, vineyard management and all of the other things that go into growing grapes and producing good wine.  The French term this terroir – and for more about that you can read this previous post.

I know this gets a little geeky so why should it matter to you?  Well, the rule of thumb is that the more tightly defined and controlled the growing environment, the greater the opportunity to make the best wine from the grapes.  If you buy into the idea that great wine begins in the vineyard, which I do, then it’s something to know and care about as you get further into wine.

And it can make you a smart wine buyer.  Makes sense to me.

There are many single vineyard wines on the shelves – it’s become a common practice to isolate the source of the grapes in order to highlight greater potential quality. But some growers and winemakers go even further and designate down to the specific block of vines within the vineyard or even the specific clone of vine that is being used, and there are more of those appearing on the shelves too.

What does that mean in practice? It’s what Fred Nunes does with his Pinot Noir at St. Rose Winery and Nunes Vineyards in Sonoma.  Fred not only makes his wine under the St. Rose label, designated as “Nunes Vineyard” but further identifies “Ten Block” and “777” to show the Pinot Noir comes from a selection of the ten different blocks of Pinot vines within the vineyard or exclusively from the vines of the 777 clone of Pinot Noir.  nunes-10

Both are terrific and you can taste a difference.

His vineyard is also the source of high quality fruit for other winemakers, so it’s possible to find “Nunes Vineyard” wines not made by Fred – like the Matrix Pinot Noir pictured here.10_29681-36062_F

One final point: not all single vineyard wines are “Estate” wines. If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes. So, while all of the St. Rose wines are Estate wines, you don’t see the word “estate” on the Matrix label.

It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon of wine, but there are some basic things that will help you become a smarter buyer and add confidence to the wine selection decisions you make at the retailer or when you’re at the dinner table.  Knowing what’s behind the info on the label is one of those basic things.

Our thanks to Fred and Wendy at Nunes Vineyards and St. Rose Winery for providing the photo of Fred checking his Pinot Noir!

Napa Valley Visits

The first time I paid a wine tasting visit to Napa Vally I knew I was in trouble right away!  We drove up after some business meetings in San Fransisco and Cris and I spontaneously, and randomly, began stopping at wineries for tastings.  We had no plan. We didn’t know what we were doing. But before we even checked in to the Wine Country Inn the trunk was full of wine!  Napa still holds a special place in my personal wine world.

When you visit Napa it’s easy to get over-whelmed by the sheer number of wineries since there are about 400 or so with tasting opportunities.  As tempting as it is, don’t try to do then all in one visit!  There are lots of different tasting and touring experiences you can have, whether you are a first-timer, as I was those many years ago, or a veteran of the Silverado Trail.  But the main thing to remember is that it’s best not to over-schedule yourself.  Not only will your palate get worn out during the day, meaning your ability to really taste and enjoy the wines will decline, but you’ll end up consuming too much alcohol, even before you head out to dinner and bring that bottle of wine you just discovered with you.  It’s really easy to over-consume, even if you discipline yourself to spit your tastes into the dump bucket in the tasting room.  Unless you’re a wine pro odds are you aren’t there to spit, but to enjoy the full range of experiences that your wine country visit offers.  And then there’s driving. Getting a car and driver is best and it’s the safest way to fully embrace your winery visits.

Back to Napa.  Napa Valley is only about 30 miles long, and it’s narrow – just about 5 miles across at its widest.  This means that a few days will give you ample opportunity to wander it to your heart’s content.  I always suggest that first-timers do a blend of tours and tastings to include both large producers and small, stopping within the different AVA’s of Napa to get a sense of the diversity of wines and styles, and ending up with a fairly broad set of sipping experiences.  And don’t do more than four stops a day – frankly three is ideal since that gives you time to spend in each place, perhaps a nice picnic on the winery grounds, or even more selective tasting experiences.  And consider a booking a car and tour to jump start your time there one day.

If you’ve been wine tasting and winery touring before then you know the drill, so plan ahead with reservations at places that are must visits for you.  Over time I’ve enjoyed deep dives into the Napa AVAs, concentrating on particular subregions and varietals.  There are any number of special experiences you can participate in, including things like vertical or library tastings, winemaking seminars, component tastings, cooking classes, even getting your hands dirty during the harvest.  Here are a couple of really good websites to help you plan your time:

And here is our favorite “insider” tip… wherever you visit and taste be sure to ask the person doing the pouring where they like to go – what are their own favorite smaller producers or off the beaten track wineries. It’s a great way to discover some gems.

There are lots of ways to fully experience Napa Valley and all it has to offer in wining, dining and simply soaking up the whole ambiance. From the city of Napa itself to the mud baths of Calistoga, from the quiet of the Silverado Trail to the winding roads above St. Helena, from savoring some local cheese with a lovely Napa Chard in a wooded glen to the relative buzz at the Rutherford Grill and all of those wonderful wineries to give you sips, Napa is ready whenever you are.

I think I need another visit real soon!

Twelve Wines for Holiday Times

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring… except me – the wine cellar mouse! Yes it’s that time of year and I thought I’d share some thoughts for a Christmas case of wine with some rhyme. So here is my own version of the twelve days of Christmas!

Try one from the Left Bank meant to rest and to age (1)
and one from the West with notes of berry and sage (2).

Then pick a wine from new lands (3)
and one from the boot of old (4);
While making another choice from the hands of Oz (5)
and a bright green bottle from out of the cold (6).

Now you need some sparkle that glints, shines and dances in the light (7)
and a glass filled with ruby red to savor late into the night (8).

No holiday is complete unless there is fame (9) and a jaunty sipper to enjoy with the game (10).
And we’ll end with a bottle of artful delight (11) and one to celebrate the gift of this night (12).

This is a case for all to enjoy any day of the year
but especially now at this time of friends and good cheer!

Merry Christmas to all and Happy Hanukkah too – these are my sips of best wishes for you!
And if you’re still following here are some wines to fill your wishes too.

1 – 2010 Chateau d’Issan Margaux $80 “A complete, medium to full-bodied, exquisite Margaux from this medieval, moat-encircled, compellingly beautiful estate in the southern Medoc, D’Issan’s 2010 is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot – a dense, purple-colored wine with beautiful aromatics of spring flowers, blueberries and black raspberries as well as hints of cassis, tar and charcoal. The wine is gorgeously pure, well-balanced, and soft enough to be approached in 4-5 years or cellared for 25-30.” -Robert Parker Reviewed by: The Wine Advocate – 95 pts

2 – 2012 Chateau Ste Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Canoe Ridge $28 “This wine is aromatically reserved with notes of milk chocolate, char, berry, barrel spices and high-toned herbs. It’s silky and polished in feel, with richness and elegance to the coffee flavors.” – Sean Sullivan, 11/1/2015  Reviewed by: The Wine Enthusiast – 90 pts

3 – 2012 Norton Malbec Reserva $16 “Offers a fruity aroma, with red and dark fruit flavors that are complex and woven together with fine tannins. Minerally midpalate, presenting some inviting peppery notes. Finishes with a flush of spice and brambly details. Drink now through 2018.” – Kim Marcus, Dec 31, 2014 Reviewed by: Wine Spectator – 90 pts

4 – 2012 San Felice Chianti Classico Riserva il Grigio $22 “A cool, sleek style of Il Grigio with mint, lavender and black-cherry aromas and flavors. Sweet tobacco as well. Full body with firm, fine tannins and a long, fresh finish. A wine with lovely texture and tension. Drink now.” – October 29th, 2015 Reviewed by: James Suckling – 92 pts

5 – 2014 Two Hands Shiraz Angel’s Share $30 “While there are no half measures with the weight or shape of this wine, it has a touch of elegance running alongside its blackberry, blood plum and dark chocolate fruit; the tannins wait until the last moment to join forces with the oak to speak clearly of the long future ahead. Great value.” -James Halliday – 94 pts

6 – 2012 J J Prum Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett $28 “Prum wines are among the most exciting and delicious Rieslings of the middle Mosel. Slow-to-develop and long-lived, these wines are full of pure stone fruits with a slate-mineral driven finish.”

7 – 2012 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs $35 “The 2012 Blanc de Noirs expresses generous aromas of yellow peach, fresh orange zest, cantaloupe, and citrus blossom, which gradually layers with fragrances of warm apple dumpling and creme anglaise. Lush flavors coat the palate with tangerine, Santa Rosa plum, candied ginger and a hint of French flan. This sparkling wine delivers a clean, lingering finish with crisp mouthwatering.”

8 – 2009 Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port $24 “This is a smooth and rich wine, with generous fruit alongside spice and ripe, black plum fruit accents. Ready to drink, it shows surprising balance between a perfumed character and an unctuous palate.” – Roger Voss, 8/1/2015  Reviewed by: The Wine Enthusiast – 90 pts

9 – 2012 Opus One $235 “Glorious purity of fruit here with black currants, blueberries, dark chocolate, fresh herbs and forest floor. Hints of mint too, plus hazelnut and chocolate. Full body with seamless tannins and balance. Tight and compacted tannins with beautiful fruit and great length. Goes on for minutes. One of the best Opus’ in years. Hard not to drink now but better in 2018. October 2015 release. This is 79% cabernet sauvignon, 7% cabernet franc, 6% merlot, 6% petit verdot and 2% malbec.” – July 28th, 2015  Reviewed by: James Suckling – 97 pts

10 – 2013 Klinker Brick Zinfandel Old Vine $16 “2013 Old Vine Zinfandel is a blend of 16 different vineyard blocks of old vine zinfandel vineyards with an average age of 85 years. With berries and spice on the nose, dark, sweet fruit fills the palate with just a hint of black pepper. This wine has a long, lingering finish.”

11 – 2012 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon $50 “With 20% Malbec, this wine is layered in refined complexity, swaying from juicy blueberry to herbaceous cherry and currant. Restrained in oak, with the slightest notion of vanilla on the palate, it finishes in mouthwatering dark chocolate, the tannins firm and structured.” – Virginie Boone, 9/1/2015  Reviewed by: The Wine Enthusiast – 93 pts

12 – 2014 St. Rose Pinot Noir Nunes Vineyard 777 $48 “Perfumed aromatics of youthful cherry and dusty tannins mingle with traces of lavender and white  floral notes. A bright entry offers a blend of red fruit— raspberry, cranberry, dark cherry and rhubarb—that is integrated with softening tannins and hints of oak. A ripe blackberry and vanilla essence appears near the  finish, adding another dimension as the  flavors linger on the palate.

It’s Time for Sauvignon Blanc

When the days are warm and the menu lightens up for summer it’s prime time for Sauvignon Blanc.  I think its just about the perfect summer sipper any time, yet it is the versatile way Sauvignon Blanc embraces food that really turns me on.  One of the special way it pairs up with food is that it evokes the place it calls home.  I love letting go of my imagination when I sip, and Sauvignon Blanc takes me on a journey. This wine gives me a sense of place and experiences because of the stylistic differences offered from each of the main wine growing regions which produce it.  Allow me to generalize a bit:

  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc sipped with steamed mussels is an invitation to visit the Marlborough wine country on the South Island. It gives me the travel bug!  I find the Sauvignon Blanc of New Zealand to have an aroma of new mown hay and I can’t help but taste kiwi – the fruit, not the bird!
  • A chilled Sancerre from France’s Loire Valley puts me in a village on a hill, sitting at an outdoor table for a mid-afternoon respite from wandering the magnificent chateaus of the region. When I sip I think of stone fruit like white peach and often there are aromas of fresh cut flowers.
  • A citrusy and tropical Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc transports me to a shady grove in a winery picnic area as we share olives and cheese along with a salad of just picked greens and heirloom tomatoes. The Californians are riper tasting with grapefruit or even pineapple accents along with fresh melon.

All Sauvignon Blanc do share one key characteristic – they’re sassy.  Yep, sassy because of the acidity.  It’s this sassy factor that makes them so drinkable with so many foods.  They are terrific with salads and veggies, a great match for richer seafoods like scallops or prawns, perky enough to handle spicy offerings like gazpacho, dry and tart to accent the briny flavor of fresh oysters, and they’re nibble friendly too – pick a couple of cheeses and set out the olives!  Risotto with peas, chicken with lemon and capers, grilled sea bass – that’s versatility.  And what’s not to love about a white wine like that?  In a lot of ways Sauvignon Blanc is the anti-Chardonnay – it’s not oaky, lower in alcohol, crisper, lighter bodied, refreshing and easy to kick start a gathering or a dinner as a crowd pleaser.

Whether you’re packing the cooler for a summer concert on the lawn, hanging on the patio with friends, having a casual summer supper for two or you just want a glass of white to sip, make sure to chill the Sauvignon Blanc.

Let’s sip!

Every Day Sip
2014 Ferrari Carano Fume Blanc $14

2014 Groth Sauvignon Blanc $18

2015 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc $14

2014 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc $12

Guest Sip
2014 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre $23

2014 Hall Sauvignon Blanc $25

2015 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc $25

2014 Chateau Montelena Sauvignon Blanc $30

A Sip to Discover Viognier

Last week I wrote that Viognier was an overlooked Thanksgiving dinner wine.  Let’s expand on that.  I believe Viognier is an overlooked wine, period.  Many of you may not be very familiar with it, but it has been the premier white wine of the Rhone in France for ages, there is some terrific Viognier now being grown in the US, and the Australians have discovered its versatility as a tasty addition to some other varietals.  Viognier has actually become an important grape to the winemaking in Virginia.

Viognier has been held back hitting the mainstream largely because it’s a bit of a fussy grape.  It likes a long and dry growing season, but not too hot.  The vines are relatively lower yielding than say, chardonnay, so devoting time, energy and land to it is a significant economic decision.  And, a lot like Pinot Noir, it can be a bit finicky during the winemaking, requiring some extra care as well as a deft touch by the winemaker.  But it’s beginning to come into its own so that’s why I hope you try some.

Let’s start with the taste.  The classic profile of Viognier is stone fruit with lusty aromatics.  And I usually find a dollop of honeysuckle aroma as well.  The stone fruits – apricot, peaches and pear –  are most predominant.  I have often heard it described as a “pretty” wine and I think that’s because it doesn’t bowl you over with big oaky or buttery influences like a lot of chardonnay.  It’s pretty because you get this wonderful sniff of fruitiness followed by a full bodied yet subtle texture in your mouth and pleasingly dry taste overall.

The undisputed pinnacle of Viognier are the vineyards of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet in the northern Rhone of France (pictured above).  Here the wines have been sought after for years and they are 100% Viognier, no other grapes are permitted to be blended in.

condrieu-guigal
Condrieu

Viognier is, however, sometimes used with Syrah in the northern Rhone red wines to add additional flavor and texture and it is this technique that the Australians have fully embraced as well.

You will find stand alone Viognier offerings from Australia, particularly from the Eden Valley but much of the production is added into Shiraz or other varieties.  Yes, white grapes and red grapes can play nice together… remember, the purple/red color comes from contact with the skins, the grape juice is basically clear.

In the US Viognier is mostly from California, but you’ll find some from Washington too (and Virginia as mentioned above).  California has ideal growing areas and the Viognier from Napa and the Central Coast lead the way.  What I am most excited about is that there is now Viognier priced for everyday in addition to more expensive offerings.

And there is a lot to love about Viognier and food.  I think it pairs up exceptionally well with richer seafoods and fish dishes, but it is equally terrific with veal or a roasted chicken (and we already covered the opportunity as a Thanksgiving addition).  And I think Viognier and lobster salad are amazing together. But just consider what you like to match up with Chardonnay and you won’t be disappointed.

Here’s a key point – don’t serve it ice cold.  Serve it lightly chilled to really bring out the aromatics and the lush texture.  If you have a wine fridge, great, but if you don’t then just put it in you regular fridge for 20 minutes before you serve it.  Once it’s out I don’t put it in an ice bucket either but just leave it on the table – heck, it doesn’t last that long anyway!

Now that we are heading into the festive season put Viognier on your shopping list.  It’s a really good entertaining wine for a couple of reasons: first, it’s not that expected pour of Chardonnay and, second, your guests will likely be having a new kind of Sip experience.

Let’s Sip.

Everyday Sip:
2014 McManis California Viognier $10.  A simpler expression but a surprisingly tasty bottle at a great price.

Miner Viognier, Simpson Vineyard, Napa Valley $20
My personal ‘go to” is consistently yummy.  It bridges everyday and more.

Guest Sip:
2013 Alban Estates Viognier, Edna Valley $28
Lush and flavorful.  Has a full mouthfeel.

2013 Tablas Creek Viognier, Paso Robles $30
From their estate vines, Tablas Creek is a California Viognier pioneer and it shows. If you see it, try it.

Splurge Sip:
2012 Guigal Condrieu $60
Lovely. Classic.  Richly satisfying from one of the best Rhone producers.

If you really want to Splurge chase down some Chateau Grillet Condrieu but be prepared to spend a bunch – $100 per bottle or more – and let me know what time to show up!

Something About Sonoma

There’s just something special about Sonoma.  Every time I have been there I felt it.  Maybe it’s that drive over the Golden Gate that begins to fire me up. Or it’s making the turn out of Marin County and into the flats bordering San Pablo Bay and the low rolling hills that mark the beginning of the Los Carneros area.  But each time I cross that county line it’s like I’ve arrived at a place that I am meant to be.  Don’t get me wrong, I adore the Napa Valley, positively savor the Central Coast, but there’s just something special about Sonoma.  I think it’s the diversity of the experience and the wine.

Sonoma is a collection of (GEEK ALERT) mesoclimates. Mesoclimate refers to the climate in a pretty small area, like a vineyard.  By the way, climate is what happens over time, weather is what basically is happening now.  It might be surprising to you that there can be significant climate variation in parcels of vineyard land that are even right next to each other. It’s not unique to Sonoma that mesoclimates influence the grapes and the wine.  But Sonoma has a very wide variety of these mesoclimates due to its geology and the configuration of the hills, streams, mountains and, most importantly, the influences of the bordering Pacific Ocean to the west and the cooling winds of San Pablo Bay to the south.  So all of these mesoclimates are a big reason there are terrific Cabernet Sauvignon in the Alexander Valley, stylish Pinot Noir from the Russian River, juicy Zinfandel from Dry Creek, delightful Chardonnay from just about everywhere, Syrah coming into its own on the Sonoma Coast and world class bubbly from Green Valley – get the picture?  There are fifteen subregions in Sonoma County and each one seems to put its own stamp on the wine.

The other magical thing about Sonoma County is that its a great place to get back in touch with yourself, whether you’re sitting in a lovely restaurant on the square in the old mission city of Sonoma or in the quaint charm of Healdsburg, hiking through Jack London State Park in Kenwood or floating on a tube down the Russian River under the bridge at Guerneville.  Hey, we even went skydiving over the vineyards near Cloverdale! (Really).

Whatever you do, and wherever you do it in Sonoma, there’s all that wonderful wine to sip along the way.  Here’s a handy link to the Sonoma County Vintners Association for lots of info and for an interactive map

Since you may not be in Sonoma anytime soon, here’s a Sonoma six pack to give you a virtual visit.

2010 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut $40
Traditional method sparkler that will light up your taste buds.  Zippy and flavorful with a supple finish. From the Green Valley AVA.

2012 Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley $26
Blackberry and spice from the heart of Dry Creek. Organically and biodynamically farmed estate grapes.

2013 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay $25
Medium bodied and delightful Sonoma County chard. Citrus and stone fruit.

2012 St. Francis Merlot, Sonoma Valley $20
Drinkable and versatile… tastes like a chocolate covered cherry.

2012 Matrix Estate Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley $38
Juicy plum and berry with great balance.

2013 Rodney Strong Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley $20
Tasty everyday Cabernet that’s full and ripe. One of my midweek Cabs.