Researching a story the other day, I discovered that more than half the 45,000 acres of grapes growing in Napa Valley (22,800) now are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.
What surprised me was that it wasn’t more.
For at least three decades, Napa Valley has been known as Cabernet country, so much so that in the mid-1980s, when the Cabernet total there was somewhere around 20 percent, I wrote a column saying I could envision a day not far off when most of Napa would be in Cabernet.
I saw a time when the name of the region would supplant the name of the varietal, making it unnecessary.
Almost forever, Red Bordeaux has by law been made entirely from the Cabernet family of grapes. At some point, a wine designated Napa will be the same, accepting that all such wines can have Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and others in the mix.
And Napa has a lot of those grapes as well. Nearly 80 percent of the valley is in red wine grapes.
I have long thought this was potentially harmful to Napa’s worldwide image as “wine country,” since it means that the region is losing its heritage of making a wide array of great wines, including whites, which continues to be an afterthought.
Thank goodness Robert Mondavi and others continue to make Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc.
Since I have been buying Napa wines since about 1970, I know Napa can do a lot more than big, chewy reds.
So I was one of the few people on earth who cheered in 2004 when the U.S. government finally approved the Oak Knoll District (OKD) application for appellation (AVA) status. It’s one of the valley’s most distinctive regions, which I validated again last week when I met with key members of the OKD board and tried more than a dozen wines.
But so little did the government know about OKD that its application for AVA status took 11 years before approval.
At a tasting of the wines the other day, Cabernet rarely came up.
Oak Knoll is a smallish area between the city of Napa and Yountville with 4,158 acres of grapes planted to 15 different varietal grapes. The diversity in this region could be seen clearly from several of the white wines the board served, starting with one of my all-time favorites, 2017 Trefethen Dry Riesling ($22).
This is a dramatic flowery wine with lime, faint hints of tropical fruit, and a wild spice note that in time will help develop secondary flavors. Even German Riesling lovers will appreciate this wine, which graphically illustrates how cool the district can be, setting it apart from many areas of the valley that rely on warmth to ripen red grapes.
Before we said our goodbyes, Janet Trefethen said the district was looking for a simple word to use to describe Oak Knoll. I suggested “diversity.” It’s still in limbo.
Another white wine we tried was one of grace and personality: John Skupny’s dry 2017 Lang & Reed Chenin Blanc ($27), with flavors and aromas of melon and herbal tea, and a complex finish.
The 2017 Fortunati Viognier ($35) is a distinctively styled wine that relies more on dried flowers (some Viogniers are more fresh-flower related) and has a sensational bone-dry mid-palate that’s quite complex.
One of the most interesting Sauvignon Blancs I have ever tasted from Napa was 2017 Clif Family ($38), which has a classic Pouilly-Fumé-ish aroma of green tea, hints of fresh green beans, and a flavor you almost never see in U.S. Sauvignon Blancs.
Other wines I liked greatly:
2015 Mathiason White ($40): 50 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 20 percent Semillon. Most complex and a purist’s delight; great acidity, should age well.
2017 Materra Chardonnay ($35): Fresh with tropical notes and excellent acidity to help it age.
2016 Robert Biale Zinfandel, Aldo’s Vineyard ($82): Raspberry jam, blackberry/loganberry and a wild spice note not unlike that found in young Gevrey-Chambertin!
2025 Trefethen Merlot ($40): Classic rendering with hints of olive, tea, blueberry and jam fruit, and a structure designed for five more years of aging.
Discoveries of the Week:
— 2015 Fortunati Malbec, Oak Knoll ($50): Unlike many of the one-dimensional Malbecs from Argentina, this one has an aroma of blackberries, basil stems (!) and a trace of blueberry, with great tartness in the finish. A simply sensational rendition of a grape that’s rarely this complex.
— 2014 Silenus Cabernet Franc, Oak Knoll ($50): A truly individualistic aroma of iron filings, green tea, flint, black olive, and hints of red cherry may not be for everyone, but it is an utterly fascinating, beguiling wine that should reward 5-7 more years of aging.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.
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