By W. Peter Hoyne
Along the southern divide, the sojourn begins at the cool fringes of San Pablo Bay and Los Carneros passing through the towns of Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena before ending in the warm northern edge of Calistoga. While each region has its own historic significance and distinctive appearance, most are allured by Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with its unique temperament and backbone of aristocratic charm. There are 24,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, which exceed that of all other varietals.
Vineyards were cultivated early on by missionaries for sacramental wine purposes prior to the arrival of George C. Yount in 1836. He was one of the first settlers to apply for a land grant from the Mexican government using it for the cultivation of grapes. Today, the town of Yountville bears his name. There was an abundance of influential pioneers in the late 1800’s: Charles Krug opened his winery in 1861, the next year Jacob Schram founded Schramsberg, the Beringer brothers released their first vintage in 1876 and Hamilton Crabb acquired what is known as the infamous To-Kalon vineyard. So many others followed in their footsteps, planting their roots in the valley. Fast forward to the 1970’s when Napa showed its true potential for crafting world-class Cabernet Sauvignon that could stand alongside the wines of Bordeaux, France during the “Judgment of Paris” tasting.
Currently, Napa Valley is subdivided into 16 AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) or designated grape growing regions. These areas of geographic pedigree are spread across the valley floor and mountainous hillside divides. The shifting of tectonic plates and volcanic activity 40 million years ago has made Napa Valley rich in growing material for Cabernet Sauvignon. It has given rise to a confluence of alluvial soils of silt, gravel, sand and volcanic rock with 100 different variations. The valley floor is layered with deeply fertile sediments washed down from the hillsides, along with marine deposits left behind from the receding waters of the San Pablo Bay. In their youth, valley floor Cabernet can be charismatic and accessible. What remains on the mountains are weathered rocky deposits producing smaller grapes that are deeply pigmented with more tannic structure and concentrated flavors. Typically, these Cabernets require more patience and aging in order to show their true potential.
The foundation to understanding Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a familiarity with the stylistic differences spread across the region. The diversity of soils and microclimates has a direct influence on the expression of Cabernet Sauvignon ranging from bright, red berry fruits and baking spices to powerful and densely textured, opaquely colored wines. Despite the distinct characteristics of the soil, you can’t discount the influence of the winemaker in perfecting the influence of Mother Nature and the dirt. Over time, you will discover the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon that best fit your personal taste.
On the western Mayacamas mountain range there are three recognized AVA’s: Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. Because of their high elevation, mountain wines all share in an extended growing season. Mount Veeder is relatively cool with large outcroppings of rock. Much of the area is undiscovered, but the low yielding vines produce firm, age-worthy wines. There are a modest number of vineyards on Spring Mountain as they are above the fog line with days that are cool and nights that are warm, producing wines that are all about complexity and savory notes. Schramsberg Vineyards was the first to arrive on Diamond Mountain, but it was the distinctive Cabernet Sauvignons from Diamond Creek Vineyards that established this site’s cherished reputation and deep-seated love affair. With varying elevations and reddish volcanic soils, these Cabernets exhibit deep floral aromatics, youthful cassis overtones and a backbone of minerality and sleek tannins.
On the eastern side of Highway 29 are the Vacas Mountains including Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain. The old volcanic, red tinged soils of Atlas Peak have a lower pH with wines that can have enhanced acidity with dark mineral and red plum notes. Howell Mountain is heavily forested and positioned above the fog line, allowing it to receive extended sunlight, warmer days and cooler nights. The resulting wines have thicker skins with a high tannin content. These Cabernets offer a firm, compact black fruit core with hints of mocha and licorice. Patience is a virtue when approaching wines from Howell Mountain.
Cabernet Sauvignon from the valley floor can offer an equally gratifying and existential experience. Coombsville is the newest AVA (2011) near the southeastern corner of the City of Napa. This cool region has a soil mixture of compressed volcanic ash and rock, giving the wines a rustic edge and earthy expression. Yountville with its southern proximity to the San Pablo Bay, benefits from morning fog and a cool maritime influence. Yountville has a small boutique-town feel and is the culinary mecca of the valley. The Cabernets have supple, red fruit dimensions with an elegant background and violet aromas.
Oakville has been referenced as the epicenter of Napa Valley as it is home to some of the most prestigious producers in Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi Winery and To-Kalon vineyard reside here. This AVA has an ideal growing season with moderately warm days and an adequate amount of morning and evening fog to balance the wines. Oakville wines can be a little riper, richer and more complex with enough balanced acidity and occasionally with a hint of mint or eucalyptus.
Rutherford lies on the Western Benchland with gravely loam, well-drained soils and warmer days. Rutherford’s wines are known for their distinctive “dusty” expression of earth with juicy red berry pie flavors along with fine ripe tannins.
Stag’s Leap District established its reputation during the “Judgement of Paris” tasting. A respected group of French panelists, gave top honors to Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon as it swept the French competition in taking top honors among red wines. This sub-appellation is a narrow AVA running parallel with the Silverado Trail and is one of Napa’s smallest. Cabernets from here are often described as graceful and velvety. They reveal beautifully perfumed aromatics with an elegant, luxurious mouth-feel reminiscent of a silk pillowcase wrapped around a core of orchard fruits.
In the end, it still remains a matter of price when purchasing Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. A straightforward Napa Valley designated wine, from grapes purchased throughout the county, will cost considerably less than those with a provenance from a specific area such as Oakville or Howell Mountain. Costs will be even higher for single-vineyard designations. Aging a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for five to ten years or even longer, will allow you to fully understand the secondary characteristics that evolve over time in these expressive wines. Now is the time to channel your enthusiasm and follow your instincts in exploring the diversity of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.