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

Real Chablis

Do you like chardonnay?  If you do, but have been frustrated by the move to big, buttery and woody styles then there is a wine for you that’s 100% chardonnay you need to try.  If you DO like that big chardonnay style that’s great… there’s room for all tastes in the world of wine.  But if you want to try something new, or prefer a more medium bodied and balanced approach to chardonnay then here’s one to put on the list.  It’s the wine of Chablis.

Chablis got a bad rap in the US because years ago lots of the jug wine producers plastered “Chablis” on the label of some pretty simple and often plain bad white wine, and still do.  You might see it on the shelves at the grocery store or in the cheap “jug” aisles at the liquor/wine store.  This is not the real Chablis.  The real Chablis only comes from that appellation in France and it is wonderful wine.  Chablis is the furthest northern wine region in France’s Burgundy region. (For an overview of Burgundy please see my post from September, Beginning Burgundy).

What makes Chablis a different kind of chardonnay?  The answer lies in the dirt and the weather.  In Chablis there is a soil that provides an exceptional blend of minerals and nutrients.  It’s called Kimmeridgian clay and it underlies the most favored vineyard sites – those that have south facing hillsides and more protection from the chill winds.  You see, it’s chilly up there in Chablis.  In fact, the very cool summers and cold winters make it tough to fully ripen the chardonnay.  So when you combine the climate with the soil you end up with wines that have a pretty unique flavor profile than what you are used to in chardonnay, especially from California or Australia, or even from the rest of Burgundy.

Here’s the taste you can expect:

  • a wine that offers higher acidity and more crispness than other chardonnay
  • usually a pronounced mineralty which people often describe as flinty or slate
  • more discernible citrusy flavors, like lemon and lime, or even Granny Smith apple when you sip
  • less oaky, however there is barrel aging so you might taste some vanilla, but most are fermented in stainless steel so there is less wood influence
  • usually lower alcohol so they will taste lighter to medium bodied, which makes them quite versatile with food
  • vintage variation, especially if you like some wine to hold a while since the climate plays such a strong role.  According to Hugh Johnson’s  Pocket Wine Book the best recent years have been 2010 and 2011.  2012 and 2013 had smaller crops and tougher weather conditions. Not bad wines and still some really goods to drink now and even hold a few years

Here’s what to look for when you shop.  If it has the producer name and just “Chablis” on the label then it is from most widely sourced area.  If it has either one of the 79 Premier Crus or is wine from one of the Grand Cru plots these will be more specifically noted.  The Premier Cru will have it stated on the label along with the specific vineyard name.  There is only one Grand Cru designated vineyard but within it are seven plots, or climats.  These will be the prominent name on the label.  They are: Blanchot, Bougros, Grenouilles, Les Clos, Les Preuses, Valmur and Vaudesir.  You’ll find a pretty broad range of prices, with the Grand Cru obviously more.  Some examples of the labels:

Chablis LabelChablis 1erChablis Grand Cru

Real Chablis is terrific chardonnay and just may be a tasty diversion from what you’re used to – and that’s what makes it much more fun and interesting that jug wine on the shelves.

Everyday Sip: A couple of good Chablis to get you started
2012 Agnes & Didier Dauvissat Chablis $20
2013 Domaine William Fevre Chablis Champs Royaux $20

Guest Sip:
2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Granny Smith with a squeeze of lemon.

Splurge Sip:
2013 Domaine Servin Chablis les Clos Grand Cru $60
“Pale, bright yellow-green. Subtle, pure aromas of lime, white peach, white pepper and white flowers, with the faintest exotic hint of tangy fresh apricot. Supple, silky and elegant, conveying an impression of elegance to its sweet lemon, lime and white peach flavors. Vibrant and energetic for 2013. Like the rest of Servin’s 2013 crus, this wine should be accessible early and give pleasure over the next decade or so.” – Stephen Tanzer. Tasting date: June 2015

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.

Beginning Burgundy

Burgundy is really complicated. But if you like great expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay it’s worth learning a bit about. There’s also the fact that Burgundy wines get pricey in a hurry, so the more you know, the smarter you can be about your buying choices. So let’s break down Burgundy and try to un-complicate it, at least a little!

The Grapes
At the heart of Burgundy is Chardonnay, but it’s soul is Pinot Noir. Virtually all the quality wines that come from this region are 100% of each of those grapes. There are some minor others permitted such as Aligote and Gamay, but when you think of Burgundy , think Chard and Pinot.

The Chardonnay from the farthest northern sub-region, Chablis, are crisper with what is usually described as a flinty character due to the unique clay soils of that area. Those from the Cote d’Or, which is the long and narrow primary part of the region stretching about 35 miles, are more elegant and there is a high concentration of the best Chardonnay vineyards in the appellation known as the the Cote de Beaune. In the most southern sections of Burgundy, the Cote Chalonnaise and the Maconnais the Chards are quite good, but not as nuanced or age worthy – and certainly not as expensive.

The Cotes de Nuits is the northern half of the Cote d’Or and home to some of the world’s finest , and most expensive, Pinot Noir. Here are the wines that, to me, epitomize this grape. But, that said, it gets very confusing to sort through the innumerable choices of producers and the communes and vineyards named on the label. The best thing to do is get to tastings, rely on recommendations from wine merchants you trust, do some Googling and develop your own short list of favorite producers. But these Pinots are lovely and layered with some characteristic earthiness not usually found in those from other parts of the world.

The Hierarchy
The way to begin sorting through the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of Burgundy is by touring the vineyard hierarchy. (My recommendation is to do it live and in-person! When I first visited several years ago it was an amazing learning experience). It’s all about the land. Ownership of vineyards is very fragmented due to long ago inheritance rights, so many owners of some of the best vineyards don’t have enough grapes to be producers. Therefore, Burgundy has a rather unique winemaking and distribution system which relies on firms called negotiants to assemble, make and sell the wine. You may recognize some of the big names – like Drouhin, Jadot and Bouchard.  The plots of vineyards are known as climats and now it starts getting tricky.

Here is the Burgundy quality classification hierarchy from best to least:

Grand Cru: 33 named vineyards/2% of wines
Premier Cru or 1er Cru: 600 named vineyards/10% of wines
Village or Commune Wines; 44 named villages/40% of wines
Bourgogne and Regional: 23 named areas/50% of wines

This is the reason there are so many confusing names on the label, and there is even some name overlap between Villages and Grand Crus that is difficult to identify.  Here’s a picture of the full hierarchy using real wines that I have on hand. On the left is a Bourgogne, the most widely sourced and basic, priced around $34 (although you can find less expensive ones).  On the right is a Clos Vougeot Grand Cru that costs about $115.


Below is a list of the 33 Grand Crus that you will see on labels… these are the best of the best and an amazing way to begin your Burgundy experience – just bring your platinum card to the store with you!

Sipping fine Burgundy is a terrific wine experience, but study up on it.  There’s a lot of vinatge variation due to the unpredictability of Burgundy’s weather, and the fragmented nature of the region.

Grand Crus
• Bâtard-Montrachet
• Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet
• Bonnes-Mares
• Chablis Grand Cru
• Chambertin
• Chambertin-Clos de Bèze
• Chapelle-Chambertin
• Charlemagne
• Charmes-Chambertin
• Chevalier-Montrachet
• Clos de la Roche
• Clos de Tart
• Clos de Vougeot
• Clos des Lambrays
• Clos Saint Denis
• Corton
• Corton-Charlemagne
• Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet
• Échezeaux
• Grands Échezeaux
• Griotte-Chambertin
• La Grande Rue
• La Romanée
• La Tâche
• Latricières-Chambertin
• Mazis-Chambertin
• Mazoyères-Chambertin
• Montrachet
• Musigny
• Richebourg
• Romanée-Conti
• Romanée-Saint-Vivant
• Ruchottes-Chambertin

Everyday Sip
2012 Albert Bichot Bourgogne Vieilles Vignes de Pinot Noir $16
Lovely entry level Burgundy

Domaine Cedric & Patrice Martin Pouilly-Fuisse 2013 $24
A little pricey for everyday but had this with friends recently and loved its easy drinkability – especially with a selection of French cheeses.

Guest Sip
2009 Louis Jadot Vosne Romanee $50
Awesome village wine from the heart of the Cotes du Nuits

2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Shows what Chablis is about – leaner fruitiness and minerality

Splurge Sip
2010 Domaine Mugnier Nuits St. George, Clos de la Marechale, Premier Cru $100 (pictured).  A highly rated and bold Pinot with lots of oomph. Decant a couple of hours if you plan to drink it with dinner.

Sipping More Chardonnay Lately

I’ve been sipping more Chardonnay lately.  It wasn’t like I was boycotting it or anything like that, but my taste buds were wandering into different varietals.  True, there seemed to be too much “typical” Chardonnay being made – you know, the rounded, buttery and oaky style that was dominating those from California and Australia.  There were also delightfully more acidic and less woody ones too, especially from France.  But Chardonnay just fell off of my radar.  Since I was actually missing it I’ve set about to remedy that!

I’m delighted that the trend has been away from the big style and back to capturing more nuance.  And I am becoming particularly fond of the “unoaked” styles.  Unoaked Chardonnay are fermented and aged in either older, neutral oak barrels that don’t impart any of the woodiness or in stainless steel.  The reason I’m fond of these is that I think they are more versatile with food.  Unless the food has a lot of butter or cream, or is a richly flavored seafood like lobster or scallops, the unoaked Chardonnay are an easier complement to chicken or fish for me – typically they are higher in acid and have not undergone malolactic fermentation.

Wine Geek Alert: Malolactic fermentation is a secondary process where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.  It’s a common practice for red wines but Chardonnay is usually the only white treated this way.  This results in the “buttery” taste description.  It gives it that big, more full bodied feel in your mouth.

Back to oak – don’t get me wrong, I don’t think oak barrel aging is bad for Chardonnay.  To me it’s just a question of degree.  The amount of flavor added by oak can vary greatly depending on the type of oak, the toast of the barrel and its age.  So winemakers have lots of room to play.  Oak generally adds flavors of vanilla, caramel or a toasty, woody quality.  Newer barrels add more; older less.  French oak is finer grained and adds less than American or Eastern European barrels.  But let’s get back to sipping.

In general there is often a noticeable flavor of peach or pear common to Chardonnay. However, Chardonnay from the warmer growing areas in the US, like   Sonoma and Napa Valley appellations  such as Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga, Dry Creek and others, as well as Australia, tend to be more tropical fruit forward – think pineapple and melon.  Those from cooler areas like Monterey and Carneros, the Sonoma Coast and France tend more to apple or citrusy flavors and are usually more acidic.

There are magnificent Chardonnay’s from Burgundy – arguably the best in the world.  These are nuanced and many are age-worthy and will increase in complexity over time.  Chablis, which is the northern-most  area of Burgundy, brings us terrific Chardonnay which also have a flinty minerality to them due to the very cool growing conditions and the unique clay soil of the vineyards there.

Chardonnay is one of the most popular wines in the world and can suit every taste.  I’m making it a point to sample and sip my way through as many as possible!  Why don’t you join me?

Everyday Sip
Talbot 2013 Kali Hart Chardonnay, Estate Grown $16
Medium bodied and lively with melon. A little bit of oak.

2013 Yalumba Series Y South Australia Unwooded Chardonnay $10
Fresh and peachy. Simple and easy to drink.

2012 Mer Soliel Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands Monterey $20
Chablis-like with crispiness and minerality.

Guest Sip
2012 Miner Chardonnay Napa Valley $30
Yum.  Great balance between weight, fruit and oak.

2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Apple and citrus with classic Chablis minerality.

Splurge Sip
2011 Domaine Louis Latour Meursault Charmes $55
Lovely white peach. I’ve loved Meursault since visiting ages ago and enjoying this wine with garlicy frogs legs!

2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa $65
Tropical and intense.  A mouthful that has many layers.