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Napa: the simple, euphonious, universally pronounceable name makes a happy start. Vines, since they were first rooted in the valley in the late 1830s or early 1840s, have thrived here, as they do in many Californian locations. The fact, though, that Napa’s 17,637 hectares of vineyard earn $13bn a year for Napa County (more than $700,000 of economic activity per hectare) is exceptional. It makes Napa the most valuable wine name outside Europe. The release price of the valley’s most sought-after wines, like Harlan or Screaming Eagle, was higher in 2009 and 2010 than top Bordeaux second growths. When the valley’s annual charity auction, part of a four-day celebration of the whole region, was held in June this year, around 2,000 people came – and it raised $16.9m, vaporising the previous record of $10.5m set in 2005.
What sort of a place is it? Those who visit Australia’s Barossa Valley, Napa’s runner-up in terms of wine-name recognition beyond Europe, are sometimes nonplussed by its topographical somnolence. Not so, geologically youthful Napa, whose landforms have a muscular energy. The valley is framed by two clear sides: the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Range to the east. A river runs down it: 89km from source to sea. It boasts a punctuating head, above Calistoga: Mount St Helena.
You might assume that the Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) equates to the river’s watershed. In fact some vineyards outside the watershed to the east were included when the AVA was created in 1981. The great vineyards, however – such as To Kalon, Martha’s and Fay – all lie within tourist gaze.
After those initial simplicities, the picture grows intriguingly complex – and even that plays into Napa’s hands. There is nothing wine enthusiasts relish more than the prospect of nuance, and with good reason: Europe’s great wines have taught the world that there can be a sensorial print to even slight changes in elevation, air current, solar gaze and soil pack. Napa now has no fewer than 16 “nested” AVAs: separate appellations lying within the main AVA. Any doubts about the logic of these can be resolved by a short walk on each side of the valley. Look around you in the shady Mayacamas: you will see woodland ferns swaying in the dappled light beneath Douglas firs and redwoods. Cross to the Vaca, and you’ll find open trails through scrub typical of the chaparral, California’s version of France’s garrigue. A calculation called median growing degree days (GDD) is the fundamental way of measuring vineyard warmth. Cool Carneros, Napa’s Chardonnay and Pinot zone closest to the coast, has a GDD total of just 1,637 – a little cooler than the Northern Rhône. That of the Stag’s Leap District, mid-valley, reaches 1,971 – warmer than much of Languedoc.
Because the valley has vineyards close to sea level and others which lie above 800 metres, the customary division of its different AVAs is into “mountain” and “valley floor”. Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak on the Vaca range, and Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder on the Mayacamas form the valley’s classic mountain cohort, while St Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville and Stag’s Leap are the big beasts below. You’d anticipate a clear contrast: wealth and opulence of flavour from lower in the valley, for example, with vivacity, freshness and brisk incision from the higher sites.
You won’t necessarily find it. Napa is more complex still – and for two main reasons. One is the plethora of intermediate terrains called benchlands: often hilly alluvial fans spilled on to the sides of the valley by the streams which run off the mountain land. These are arguably the finest sites of all. You could see them as spoonfuls of mountain sprinkled above the valley floor. “Napa Valley is defined by Cabernet growing in the benchlands,” says Christopher Howell of Spring Mountain’s Cain vineyard. “These are the wines which captured the attention of the world – great Cabernet which was also friendly, approachable, charming.”
The other reason is Napa’s celebrated fog, the banks of low-level marine stratus which tongue their way up the valley overnight, before burning off during the course of the morning. They are the antidote to altitude, in that they cool the lower-lying vineyards by shrouding them in vapour during the morning hours, while leaving the higher-lying vineyards exposed to warming sunlight from daybreak.
In pure terroir terms, then, Napa may possess even more complex mechanisms than either Bordeaux or Burgundy. In contrast to them, though, Napa is not at any kind of climate limit for its principal variety (Cabernet Sauvignon here): ripeness is usually assured. That leeway means that Napa producers can make the kind of wine they want with more freedom than can Burgundy or even Bordeaux producers; they don’t depend on every last degree of heat the site and the season can give them. The mosaic of difference is real – but optional.
The price of Napa’s finest wines often puts them out of reach for drinkers in other markets; the big names may be famous, but are not widely tasted. When I arrived in the valley earlier this year, I was almost scandalously inexperienced, hence mildly sceptical. Within five days, that scepticism was gone, and my pantheon rearranged. I cannot remember any non-European red wines I have enjoyed more than Cathy Corison’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and her 2008 Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (the latter from St Helena); than the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages of Shafer’s Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (from Stag’s Leap District); or than the 2009 Dominus (from Yountville, labelled as Napa). The style of each is different, yet what they all have in common is aromatic finesse, innate wealth of flavour and overwhelming sensual appeal. Their natural articulation gives them great drinkability. Their levels of detail and nuance are astonishing. Are any of the world’s fine wines easier to like than these? I doubt it. The great difficulty is paying for them.
2009 Shafer Hillside Select
Subtle scents of summer forest and citrus peel, with deep, gratifying flavours in which sumptuous black fruits are bonded to commanding tannins. Statuesque yet gracious wine for the long term.
Andrew’s picks: Napa wine estates
● Robert Craig
● Derenoncourt California
● Lagier Meredith
● Seven Stones
For stockists, consult www.wine-searcher.com
Andrew Jefford’s weekly blog ‘Jefford on Monday’ appears every Monday on www.decanter.com