While Napa Valley is the engine that drives this region’s world-renowned wine train, there’s a wealth of microclimates and sub-appellations that are assuredly along for more than the ride.
Within the all-encompassing Napa Valley American Viticultural Area, there are 16 sub-appellations or AVAs stretching from Calistoga to Carneros, Wild Horse Valley to Diamond Mountain.
Those who love Napa Valley wines are well aware that cabernet sauvignon is king here. Mother Nature smiles on cabernet and, in turn, area winemakers provide consumers with cabs that are exceptional, ranging in style from silky claret to brooding blockbuster.
But there’s more in Napa Valley’s wine cellar than cabernet sauvignon. A wide range of grape varieties is planted in all 16 AVAs, from those that were here prior to the 1970s winery boom — think chenin blanc — to the ever-growing acres of voluptuous Rhone varietals.
One of those grapes that’s been around for decades is petite sirah, a nearly extinct French vine variety that played an important role in the Italian-American enclaves of Northern California. While petite sirah provides backbone for some everyday red blends, it stands well on its own.
Take the petite sirah from the Tip Top vineyard in Chiles Valley belonging to Jay Heminway. There’s only two acres of petite sirah planted in iron-rich, rocky soils at the 1,800-feet elevation. Heminway turns them into a dark, well balanced, sturdily tannic red wine with lovely blueberry and blackberry aromas and flavors — a great wine for just about anything cooked on the outdoor grill.
In recent years, growers have added fashionable French syrah to the area’s vineyard mix. It seems to do well in a number of microclimates, from cooler regions like Carneros and Coombsville to the sun-splashed hillsides of Atlas Peak.
The rocky hillsides of Stagecoach Vineyards, rising beyond the 1,800-foot level of Atlas Peak, are where the Krupp Brothers harvest the fruit for their Black Bart syrah. It’s an inky, enormous wine with a tannic core. Just about every vintage offers aromas of smoked meats and violets with a hint of pepper, while black cherries and blueberries are the primary flavors that coat the palate and continue on and on for the long finish.
One of the valley’s outstanding cool climate syrahs comes from Porter Family Vineyards, located on the rolling hillsides of Coombsville. It’s a classic meaty syrah with figs and plums on the nose and mouth-filling blackberries and a hint of mint on the finish.
While the plum and black cherry flavors of Truchard Vineyard’s offering also come to mind when we’re talking syrah, it’s another Rhone grape variety we crave when raiding this exceptional Carneros cellar.
Owing its name to the russet color of its skin, roussanne is an important grape in the northern Rhone where it is often blended with the other wine variety planted there, marsanne. Vintner Tony Truchard dedicated three acres to the not-so-common roussanne.
At the moment, he plans on adding even more roussanne vines to the volcanic rock and ash soils of the gently sloping terrain where it thrives in warm sun and cool Carneros breezes.
Truchard roussanne has a haunting aroma of stone fruit, pineapple and pears and the creamy textured mouth tastes of apricots, honeydew melon and pears with bright citrus/mineral acidity on the finish.
And let’s not forget this is an area where zinfandel flourishes. Take the Lamborn Family Vineyard up on Howell Mountain, where vines thrive at the 2,200 foot elevation. It’s a family operation producing around 1,000 cases of both zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.
The power-packed ripe zinfandels made by Heidi Peterson Barrett every harvest are snapped up by fans across the country. These zins are never aggressive but always display great structure. There’s spice and black currants on the nose with raspberries, currants, toast and pepper lingering on the palate. Lamborn is always remarkable zin.
But cabernet sauvignon is the valley’s bread-and-butter wine. It’s planted everywhere, save for a few spots where ripening might be a problem. If you want to hook into current winemaking trends, swirl, sniff and taste some of the newest bottlings from producers up on Pritchard Hill. Pop a cork on a cab made by the Buoncristiani brothers or from Shirley Roy’s Soda Canyon estate. Check on what Luc Morlet and Frederic Delivert have been up to of late. But don’t forget those who helped bring Napa Valley to the attention of worldwide consumers — Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Freemark Abbey, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Grgich and Heitz, just to name a few. Cheers to them all.