Strength in Napa and World Whites
by Sara d’Amato, with notes from David Lawrason and John Szabo MS
Napa: the elite of the American wine world, the region that made zinfandel chic and cabernet king. This small but mighty wine region exploded onto the wine world in the mid 70s when the area wasn’t considered quite so elite. Its transformation since that time has been fraught with challenges and continuing hardships but with true western American gusto, it has persevered and triumphed.
Next week’s substantial VINTAGES release is ripe with the fruits of Napa and puts some of the region’s best results forward but also highlights what makes the region vulnerable and its style open to question. (John Szabo has also suggested several non-LCBO selections from agents with broad Californian portfolios below. )
So the questions I put forward are, what makes Napa great? Does it deserve the prestige is commands?
Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to visit this illustrious valley and discover for myself what makes it pulsate. For the most part, producers were frank, welcomed discussion and graciously answered when put to task on difficult and skeptical questioning. For that generosity I was sincerely grateful.
Let’s start with the basics. Napa is located just north of San Francisco and just inland of Sonoma. It is a great deal smaller in area than Sonoma, warmer but still benefits from the influence of the San Pablo Bay fog brought in by cool winds from the south. The fog created by these cool winds and inner warmth is most notably influential in the valley floor. In contrast, the diurnal temperature fluctuations due to altitude affect the hillside sites. Hillsides vs. valley floor make up the most dramatic differences in terroir that affect style and flavour in the wines.
The relatively small valley, about 50 km long and 8 km wide is dotted with impressive peaks that produce inspired wines with tension and impact. This “mountain fruit” from the hillsides is fresher with its own particular brand of “garrigue” – leafy and shrubby herbs such as laurel can be found on the hillsides as well as the idiosyncratic tarweed, which lend notes of jasmine and citrus to the aromatic profile of the wines. Much of this varied shrub growth is maintained and encouraged in order to prevent erosion of these poor soils. In contrast, Napa’s valley floor is able to produce distinguished wine of great power, concentration and longevity. Morning fog cover of the valley keeps the temperature low before it is hit by warming sunshine in the afternoon, allowing for definition in the wine.
Throughout our Napa Valley Vintners wine experience, my Canadian and UK colleagues and I got to experience Napa from all angles – from being put to work in wineries during harvest, to intimate dinners with winemakers, to chats with industry pioneers amongst the Redwoods. At one such “fireside chat” mediated by MS Matt Stamp, our preconceptions were disarmed.
Producers were asked to talk about the pursuit of balance that turned into a discussion of the “pursuit of acidity.” In Napa the element most challenging in the production of a balanced wine is certainly a lack of acidity. That acidity is hard to come by in warmer conditions and to hold on to it can be fraught with complex choices for winemakers. Vintage dependent, producers may have to take a hit on the phenolic ripeness of the grape in order to preserve enough natural acidity for perfect poise. Acidification can be a default position but it is not ideal, often resulting in unnatural flavours and textures. This balance is more easily achieved at higher elevations with a greater diurnal temperature shift.
However, Cathy Corison, a much admired and longstanding winemaker/owner of Corison Vineyards in the Valley, has the following to say about ripeness and alcohol being a representation of terroir in Napa: “In my opinion, the high alcohol, extracted style of Napa Cabernet is a stylistic choice and fashion comes and goes in wine styles. Grown right, cabernet can achieve phenolic ripeness at lower sugars. Balanced vines on well-drained soils where there is enough heat to ripen cabernet, have managed to get the right amount of air and light in to the fruit, yield ripe tannins.” In other words, Corison suggests that preserving acidity as well as phenolic ripeness in Napa is possible in most years but requires a thorough understanding of soils. Every wine region has its challenges, it is how winegrowers have evolved and adapted to their environment that dictates the potential for great wines.
When challenged to dispel the myth that Napa only creates big, “bombtastic” (i.e., explosions of a fantastic nature) wines, producers had mixed opinions. The most brazen owned up to the fact that “bombtastic” was part of their unique character, the very cultural definition of their wine that is a natural product of their terroir. Others agreed that because of the region’s almost effortless ability to produce bold wines, careful vigor management and site selection along with earlier harvest dates had to be controlled. The human element of terroir might just be the most complex component and the most variable. Thus, what we discovered in Napa was a range of wine with varied interpretations of Napa’s terroir.
Beth Novak Milliken, CEO of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery had the following to say regarding challenging preconceptions of Napa Valley wine: “ . . . we want to make sure that Napa Valley is not somehow defined as a region that produces only ripe, oaky, full-throttle cabernets that cost a great deal. . . . there are many great wines made here that, thankfully, do not fit that monolithic stylistic profile. This needs to be communicated.”
The most ardent difference is felt in the wines of the weirdly wet and cooler 2011 vintage. These wines are characteristically earthy, herbal and refreshingly lean. Some, in fact, were too lean and others showed remarkable elegance and a transparency that was welcome. These best examples, often from the hillsides with better drainage, were like portals, a quick, rare and intimate peek into the inner workings of the complex structure and character of Napa wine. This is not a vintage that has been critically lauded; it is atypical with mixed reviews but also compellingly unusual. When botrytis on cabernet sauvignon makes an appearance you can be sure that Napa producers were shaken up in a refreshingly topsy-turvy way (most enjoyed the challenge!) What came of this vintage is that elegance, transparence and freshness is now on the radar. For some, this may even influence future growing and winemaking decisions but only time will tell.
Different but still unusual, the 2015 vintage has been rife with irregular fruit set, “coulure” and uneven ripening. Producers will likely see a shortfall in quantity and varied quality. Good quality wines will demonstrate very good concentration and a dark, inky colour. There are a multitude of reasons why 2015 has been such a difficult vintage to manage but some of it has to do with irregular temperatures as well as the long drought faced by Napa.
An unending drought, a looming risk of the incurable Pierce’s disease and continued strain with transitioning old, non-Phylloxera resistant rootstocks does not make Napa safe under the sunshine and forces it to be innovative and non-complacent. From this, Napa producers draw strength, forced to find new and creative ways to adapt to changing realities.
That being said, Napa is not a place to look for value. Given our economic climate and the dollar giving us close to 15% less than it did at this time last year, the price reflects that increase and we can feel that increase in this release. Further to this, value is not part of the equation in Napa. It is a premier region with such a reputation that the value of the name Napa on the label guarantees a higher return. Almost everything that is produced is “haut de gamme” from small wineries. Although California produces 90% of US wine, only 4% comes from Napa. It is a place, however, to look for wines of impressive crescendos that deliver broad, bold strokes. If managed properly and all conditions favorable, Napa wines can take us to great heights and blow off their international competition as it has done in the past.
Although fashion, fad and trends have floated Napa wine to the top, its international emergence had nothing to do with trend. In fact, the very opposite, California wine was the dark horse. The judgment of Paris in 1976 that slotted California’s few and finest against much more highly lauded wines France had a transformative effect on the region. No longer were American wines the underdogs, they, in a spectacular showing due to a convalescence of favorable factors; made an even stronger showing than their prestigious French counterparts. In this regard, Napa is a true American dream story with great cultural resonance.
So whether it be empathy for the underdog, a desire for bold flavours, an attraction to the prestige or a simply a love for these expressive wines with potential for development over decades, Napa can hook you, if you can afford it. Certainly look outside of the shelves of the LCBO for a greater selection of these wines that can deliver surprising freshness, balance and restraint. Now enough from me and on to the top picks from our thirsty critics.
(John Szabo has also suggested several non-LCBO selections from agents with broad Californian portfolios below . )
Buyers’ Guide to Oct 17th: Napa Valley
Chateau Montelena 2013 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($62.95)
John Szabo – For fans of more reserved and composed Napa chardonnay, crafted in the traditional Montelena style. This gives little on the nose for now, but compelling depth and structure on the palate, so tuck it away for another couple of years at least. But the bottle shows depth and poise, already well-integrated wood and bright, sharp acids. Best 2017-2025.
Sara d’Amato – Characteristically elegant, this chardonnay does not disappoint offering finely integrated French oak, lemon and crisp green apple. Richly textured but a touch austere at present. Let this one develop for another 2-3 years.
Stonehedge 2013 Reserve Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($22.95)
Sara d’Amato – One of the better values in this release, I love how the fruit take center stage here, how the oak plays a supportive role and that a beautiful floral element is expressed. Elegant but not without the distinctive concentration of Napa Valley.
Joseph Phelps 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena, Napa Valley ($51.95)
John Szabo – Admittedly Napa sauvignon rarely excites – it’s simply too warm to make wine of genuine interest, and the prices are astronomical, but here’s the exception that proves the rule. Although from a warm area – the Spring Valley Home Ranch in St. Helena, in a warm vintage, this manages to stay sharp and finely detailed. It’s ripe to be sure – fruit is comfortably in the gently tropical and ripe orchard categories, and wood is noted but well rounded and integrated, but acids are seamless. Best 2015-2021.
David Lawrason – This is a gorgeous, well structured, Bordeaux-like barreled sauvignon. Sauvignon does not produce intense NZ style wines well in Napa, but every Napa winery achieved this level of quality, it could replace chardonnay as the white of choice. Terrific wine; only at Flagship LCBO stores.
Black Stallion 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($32.95)
John Szabo – The best value Napa cabernet in the release, rich, ripe and generously proportioned, black fruit-dominated, ready to drink or hold short term. Best 2015-2020.
David Lawrason – Black Stallion is hoeing a difficult row in trying to make high quality, value oriented Napa cabernet, which is now almost by definition one of the world’s priciest wines. This does a decent in a quite gentle, elegant if not deep style. I like the sense of restraint, dryness and attention to detail. Best yet from Black Stallion. Tasted Oct 2015
Heitz Cellar 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($89.95)
John Szabo – The classiest cabernet in the release comes from the aristocratic Heitz winery, a notably lively and even lightly herbal 2010, in a positive sense, with fine balance and genuine zestiness. This should age well, too. Best 2015-2025.
David Lawrason – Compared to many other iconic Napa cabs that command well over $100, this is a bargain. It is such a refined, tense and deep young cabernet, with the benefit of having some bottle age. Lovely texture and vibrancy.
Paul Hobbs 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($99.95)
John Szabo – Paul Hobbs has crafted the most opulent and voluptuous cabernet in the release, with impressive density, weight, and depth, yet still nicely defined. This is a complete and appealing package within the bold Napa genre. Best 2015-2026.
Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley ($39.95)
David Lawrason – Freemark Abbey has just sort of been hanging around in Napa, rarely rising to great heights. But this textbook merlot at a decent price. Nice complexity, well structured, firm and hitting very good to excellent length.
Sara d’Amato – A wine with old world sensitivities, both compelling and charming. Dried leaf and cigar box compliment the gracefully maturing fruit on the palate. There is a great deal to love here at a relatively reasonable price.
Beringer 2012 Quantum, Napa Valley ($69.95)
Sara d’Amato – A bolder, more muscular style, this cabernet blend delivers a great deal of impact and opulent flavours. Beringer’s Quantum is a blend of small parcels intended to deliver a complex result with vintage variation.
Atalon 2012 Pauline’s Cuvée, Napa Valley ($36.95)
David Lawrason – This is 63% merlot, 31% cab franc and 6% cabernet sauvignon – with the cab franc component adding great lift to the aromas. This is very pretty, medium weight, elegant, racy and smooth with good energy. Decent value to boot.
Sara d’Amato – A largely merlot blend with gorgeous aromas and tannins that have yielded enough for immediate drinking pleasure. There is a complex, feminine character to this wine that draws on right bank Bordeaux for inspiration.
Buyers’ Guide to Oct 17th: World Whites
Jané Ventura 2010 Reserva de la Musica Brut Nature, Cava, Penedès, Spain ($17.95)
John Szabo – Terrific cava for the money, bone dry, sharp, toasty, tight and riveting. Aperitif hour calls.
Tawse 2014 Sketches of Niagara Riesling, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($17.95)
John Szabo – A perennial value favourite that delivers yet again in 2014: crisp and pure, barely off-dry and appley, nicely representative of Niagara.
Zolo 2013 Torrontés, Mendoza, Argentina ($13.95)
Sara d’Amato – Torrontés is most often good value but the best examples show restraint and elegance with brightness on the palate to balance what can be cloying sweetness. This example is on the dry side of the spectrum with discreet floral notes and upbeat fruit on the palate. Easy-drinking, pretty and pleasant.
Bischöfliche Weingüter Trier Scharzhofberger 2012 Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany ($22.95)
David Lawrason – It’s almost the complete opposite of the stolid Trimbach riesling above. This is light, pristine and tender off-dry riesling with classic, quite ripe aromas of MacIntosh apple/peach, white flowers and honey.
John Szabo – An absolutely cracking, riveting, off-dry, fleshy, flavourful, genuinely concentrated Saar riesling at a giveaway price. Would be hard to imagine stuffing more flavour onto an 8.5% alcohol frame. Best 2015-2025.
Louis Moreau 2013 Vaulignot Chablis 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($34.95)
John Szabo – Beautifully detailed, lean, bright, sharp and minerally, with textbook nutty notes. This delivers all one could want from the region, with real depth, drive and power, and capacity to age a decade. Stock up on the 2013s while they’re around – 2014 was much more challenging – and while Chablis remains the best value in white Burgundy. Best 2015-2023.
Trimbach 2012 Riesling, Alsace, France ($21.95)
David Lawrason – Another classic, solid performance in a dry riesling designed to age. It gathers all of aromatic and structural attributes into one very focused and complete wine. A clinic on Alsatian styling that should fabulous with roast pork and richer fish dishes, now through 2019ish.
Beyra 2014 Vinhos de Altitude, Beiras, Portugal ($12.95)
Sara d’Amato – We seem to still have a few nice days left for sipping on light, fresh and fabulous whites. This lovely value hails from the Beiras region of interior of Portugal – an area whose wines have little representation in Ontario but are worthy of attention.
Domaine Jaeger-Defaix Rabourcé 2012 Rully 1er Cru, Burgundy, France ($35.95)
David Lawrason – I am paying a lot of attention to chardonnays coming from the Chalonnaise villages of Rully. Montagny and Mercurey. The value quotient is very high. They may lack the sheer power and depth of Meursault and co. but nor do I also want power. This is poised and stylish with lovely complexity.
From VINTAGES October 17, 2015
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
And More Napa
by John Szabo, MS
There’s a much deeper selection of Napa wines available in Ontario then what’s on shelves at the LCBO. I spent a week in Napa earlier this year researching my upcoming book on volcanic wines and have added another 50 top wine reviews to the WineAlign site. Set your filter to California and search away (just make sure the maximum price bar is set high). Here is a handful of producers to search for in particular, with their Ontario agents listed, who also have some of the richest Napa wine portfolios in the province. Visit their respective sites to view their full selections.
– Cliff Lede (Halpern Enterprises)
– Corison (Kylix)
– Diamond Creek Vineyards (Lifford)
– Grgich Cellars (Rogers & Co.)
– J. Davies (The Vine – Rob Groh)
– Michael Mondavi Family Estate (Mark Anthony Brands)
– Peter Franus (Profile Wine Group)
– Storybook Mountain (The Vine – Rob Groh)
– Viader (Small Winemakers)
One Night in Napa Valley: VINTAGES Around Tasting, Toronto, October 26th, 2015
Those who like to taste before buying (a smart strategy when the stakes are high) will want to mark October 26th on the calendar. You’ll taste 70 wines from over 30 Napa producers under one roof. I’ll be there to lead a sit-down tasting beforehand (sorry, sold out), but stop by to say hello after and get some insiders tips on what to try. Participating wineries include Araujo Estate, Cakebread Cellars, Cliff Lede Vineyards, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Duckhorn Vineyards, Far Niente, Heitz Cellars, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Pahlmeyer, Paul Hobbs Winery, Shafer Vineyards, Spottswoode Winery and more. See more at: www.vintages.com/events