As mentioned in our recent Notes from the Chocolatier’s Kitchen, we just returned from a relaxing visit to Napa Valley and Sonoma. Continuing the series to recap our trip, the focus in this blog is on the Napa Valley.
The Napa Valley is what is commonly referred to as an appellation. In the United States, the legal term is American Viticultural Area or AVA. Napa Valley was the first in California designated in 1981. Within the Napa Valley AVA, different regions have been recognized that possess distinct microclimates and terrain, imprinting recognizable characteristics on the grapes grown there. These are commonly referred to as sub- or nested-appellations.
Though the Napa Valley is just 30 miles long and five miles wide at its widest, there are 14 distinct appellations within the broader AVA. Contrary to typical climate patterns north of the equator, fog and wind from the Bay translate to cooler summers in the southern Napa Valley, with more intense heat in the north. It enjoys a dry Mediterranean climate which translates to great consistency vintage-to-vintage.
With over 400 wineries in the Napa Valley, there is a lot of territory to cover. Knowing which sub-region produces wines that best fit your tastes will help make your visit to the region more relaxing and enjoyable. Below is a description of each of the sub-appellation regions in Napa Valley, along with the characteristics of the wines produced in that region. We weren’t able to visit all of the wineries in the region (must leave something for the next trip), I highlight below some winery recommendations in each region. The ones with an astrick * next to it are ones that we visited and highly recommend.
Climate: Cool, with marine winds from the San Pablo Bay as well as the Petaluma Gap to the west; high temperatures rarely exceed 80º
Elevation: Sea level–700 feet
Principal varieties: Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay
Characteristics of the wine: Chardonnay is minerally pear-apple and spice flavors. Merlot is sinewy and lightly herbal, with fine tannins and sleek structure. Pinot Noir is ripe cherry-cinnamon spice flavors with earthy notes.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Domaine Carneros*, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyard*,
Climate: Temperate climate moderated by near-proximity to the San Pablo Bay and the influences of marine air
Elevation: Most vineyards are in the 100-500 foot zone, though a small portion tops 1000 feet
Principal varieties: Dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon on the hillsides with Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir in the lower, cooler sites
Characteristics of the wine: Beautifully balanced wines. The fruit produces red wines that are very dark and intense in color with flavors of blackberries, black plums, mulberries, dried herbs and black olives. The flavors coupled with the textural smoothness and fine-grained tannins produce an exquisite and elegant wine.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Le Chanceux, Rocca Family Vineyards, Farella Vineyards
WILD HORSE VALLEY
Climate: A warmer area well to the east, but still moderated by both altitude and prevailing winds coming o Suisun Bay to the southeast
Elevation: 600–1900 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Characteristics of the wine: Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are bright berry and cherry fruit, and more acidity than wines from Stags Leap District. Chardonnay is crisp, floral, aromatic, with distinctive pear-mineral flavors and bright acidity.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Heron Lake Winery, Tulocay Winery, Whitford Cellars
Climate: Cool to moderate, with most vineyards above the fog line, meaning warmer nights and cooler days than on the valley floor; typical summer highs are 85º
Elevation: 500–2,600 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay
Characteristics of the wine: Ageability is a hallmark of Mt. Veeder wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel are low yields that give red wines a firm, tannic structure with strong earth-berry aromas and rich, but powerful flavors. Chardonnay is minerally, appley, even citrus flavors with good acidity.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Hess Collection, Trinchero Napa Valley*, Field Family Wines, Godspeed Vineyards
OAK KNOLL DISTRICT OF NAPA VALLEY
Climate: Moderate to cool, with marine air and fog often remaining until late morning; afternoon breezes frequently occur, maintaining slightly cooler temperatures than up-valley; summer temperatures may reach 92º and drop to around 50º at night
Elevation: Sea level–800 feet
Principal varieties: Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling
Characteristics of the wine: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon benefit from a longer growing season with slightly cooler temperature, though crop size is typically less than in other AVAs. Elegant style is the common note with fruit flavors of cassis, tobacco and spice typical to Bordeaux-style reds. Chardonnay showcases flavors of crisp apple, mineral notes and tropical fruit with fine acidity.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Darioush Winery*, Monticello Vineyards*, Luna Vineyards, Black Stallion Winery
Climate: Moderate, with cool marine influence and fog contributing to cool summer mornings; the marine breeze keeps afternoons more comfortable than further up-valley; summer peak temperatures may reach 90º, with night time temperatures dropping into the mid-50sº
Elevation: 20–200 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
Characteristics of the wine: Wines are ripe, violety aromas and rich, but supple flavors and firm tannins.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Blackbird Vineyards, Chiarello Family Vineyards, Domaine Chandon*, Cosentino Winery, Cliff Lede Vineyards
STAGS LEAP DISTRICT
Climate: Moderately warm with afternoon marine winds cooling the warmer air radiating o the bare rocks of Stags Leap and the surrounding hillsides; summer temperatures can reach 100º, but more regularly are in mid-90sº
Elevation: Sea level–500 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
Characteristics of the wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese are distinguished by lush, velvety textures and fine perfumed cherry and red berry flavors, supported by soft tannins. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is round and ripe, yet retain excellent citrus and apple flavors.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Chimney Rock, Terlato, Clos Du Val, Robert Sinskey*
Climate: Cool-mountain influenced with temperatures about 10–15º cooler than the valley floor in summer; above the fog line, there is low day-to-night temperature range, with summer rarely rising above 90º
Elevation: 760–2600 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay
Characteristics of the wine: Cabs are bright berry and cherry fruit, and more acidity than wines from Stags Leap District. Chardonnay are crisp, floral, aromatic, with distinctive pear-mineral flavors and bright acidity.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Alpha Omega*, Cobblestone Vineyards, Krupp Brothers Estates/Stagecoach Vineyards, Rivera Vineyards, Vin Roc Wine Caves
Climate: Moderately warm, with temperatures commonly in the mid-90sº in summer, but aected by night and early morning fog; the east side receives more warm afternoon sun
Elevation: Sea level–500 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc
Characteristics of the wine: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are Ripe currant and mint flavors, rich texture and full, firm structure tempered by rich fruit. Sauvignon Blanc is full, steely, yet very fleshy.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Cardinale, Far Niente, Miner Family Winery*, Napa Cellars*, Nickle & Nickle, Opus One*, Robert Mondavi*, Tusk Estates, Joseph Phelps*, Silver Oak*
Climate: Moderately warm, still marginally influenced by early morning fog; the western bench area is cooler, with less late afternoon sun, tempered by afternoon marine winds; usual summer peak temperatures are mid-90sº with a distinct day-to-night temperature fluctuation
Elevation: Sea level–600 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel
Characteristics of the wine: Wines are quite intense cherry and mineral, almost earthy aromas. Flavors are full, ripe, and notably currant with firm, but supple tannins for extended aging.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Peju, ZD Wines, Grgich Hills Estate*, Beaulieu Vineyard*, Hall Rutherford, Mumm Napa*, Honig Vineyard & Winery*
Climate: Warm, due to greater protection from western hills, with less fog and wind; the narrowing of the valley floor provides more heat reflection on the hillsides; summer temperatures often peak in the mid-to-high 90sº range
Elevation: 100–700 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Viognier
Characteristics of the wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot are deep, ripe, often jammy flavors, with firm tannins for structure and acid for long cellaring. Appealing aromas of currant and black fruit. Syrah and Viognier are fleshy, supple and slightly earthy. Zinfandel is blackberry-like, well-structured. Sauvignon Blanc is fresh and forward, passion fruit and lemon, crisp and fresh, not “grassy”.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Trinchero Napa Valley*, Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards*, Louis M. Martini Winery, Pride Mountain Vineyards*, V. Sattui Winery*
SPRING MOUNTAIN DISTRICT
Climate: Cool weather prevails, with a lower day-to-night fluctuation in temperatures
Elevation: 600–2600 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Zinfandel
Characteristics of the wine: Similar characteristics to wines from the Mt. Veneer AVA. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel are powerful, firm, blackberry-currant flavors and often richly tannic, with excellent acidity for aging. Chardonnay and Viognier are Sinewy, firm and not as fruity as those of the valley floor, revealing more citrus and stone fruit flavors.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Cain Vineyard & Winery, Fantesca Estate & Winery, Newton Vineyard, Paloma Vineyard, Sherwin Family Vineyards, Spring Mountain Vineyard
CHILES VALLEY DISTRICT
Climate: Summer temperatures peak in the mid-80sº (30ºC), but due to higher elevation and evening fog, drop to below 50º
Elevation: 600–1200 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc
Characteristics of the wine: Cabernets usually reveal a lush yet firm texture with good acidity, firm tannin and distinctive cherry-blackberry flavors. Merlot typically has vibrant black cherry flavors mixed with a touch of cocoa.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Brown Estate Winery, Catacula Lake Winery, Jessup Cellars, Stonegate Winery
Climate: Slightly warmer and drier overall due to strong afternoon sun influence
Elevation: 600–2600 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Viognier
Characteristics of the wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel are powerful, firm, blackberry-currant flavors and often richly tannic, with excellent acidity for aging. Chardonnay, Viognier are sinewy, firm and not as fruity as those of the valley floor, revealing more citrus and stone fruit flavors.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Arkenstone, Blue Hall Vineyard, Cakebread Cellars, Robert Foley Vineyards, Rocky Ridge Vineyards, Rutherford Grove
DIAMOND MOUNTAIN DISTRICT
Climate: Moderately warm temperatures with less fluctuation than the north Napa Valley floor; temperatures in the summer range from 50–90°
Elevation: 400–2200 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc
Characteristics of the wine: Cabernets are firmly structured, rich and fairly tannic when young, with strong blackcurrant, mineral, and cedary flavors. Less supple and fleshy than valley or benchland wines, with good aging potential. Chardonnay: Full-bodied, yet revealing mineral, green apple-peach aromas with fairly firm acidity; less richly textured than valley floor wines.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Castello di Amorosa Winery, Schramsberg Vineyards, Von Strasser Winery
Climate: Daytime summer temperatures may peak above 100º and fall to low 40sº at night, due to cool marine air drawn into the valley from the northwestern hills; cool afternoon and evening breezes continue the process, and on clear nights are assisted by cold air sliding down the mountainsides to the valley floor
Elevation: 300–1200 feet
Principal varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah
Characteristics of the wine: Wines from this region experience a drastic temperature range throughout the day. The hot days provide color and flavor in the wines, while the cool nights help to maintain acidity and structure.
Winery & Vineyard Recommendations: Chateau Montelena*, Bennett Lane Winery, Clos Pegase Winery, Larkmead Vineyards, Schramsberg Vineyards, Twomey Cellars