Terroir and the Napa Valley: Cabernet Sauvignon

What is ‘terroir’? Does it exist? And if so, does it matter? Often ill defined and poorly understood, ‘terroir’ generally translates as soil or earth. In a wine it is usually taken to mean that the wine somehow expresses a sense of place. While there are many skeptics on the subject I put my hand up as a believer. And not just in the old world, but everywhere. So, let us look at the Napa Valley in California, and one of its signature grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Relatively speaking the Napa Valley is a very small winemaking region. It is just 30 miles long by 5 miles wide, producing only 4% of California’s total wine production. To put it further into context the Champagne region in France is twice the size of the Napa Valley and, Bordeaux eight times.

However, despite its modest size the Napa Valley is a region of enormous soil and topographical diversity, which manifests itself in the wines produced.

Of the twelve major soil series in the world, six can be found in the Napa Valley, within which there are more than 100 different soil variations. Nestled between the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vacas to the east the picturesque Napa Valley stretches from the warmer Calistoga area in the north to the cooler Carneros in the south. Vineyards are planted on the fertile valley floor, on the benchlands above the river, and on the thinner poor soils of the mountainsides.

The other critical aspect to the terroir diversity of Napa is the effect of the ocean. As the Napa Valley is a warm, sunny region, the cooling fog that the hot Central Valley pulls in from the cold Pacific waters creates many different microclimates and is fundamental to moderating the warm temperatures.

Cabernet Sauvignon is grown throughout the Napa Valley (and indeed California). Cabernet Sauvignon wines from different sub-areas in Napa are often blended to create finished wines that carry the over-arching Napa Valley appellation, or indeed, if blended with Cabernet wines from outside the Napa Valley, to make wines with the more generic Californian appellation.

To really experience the diversity of terroir of Napa it is best to seek out wines specific to the different sub-appellations (called AVA’s in The United States) within the Napa Valley – and there are fourteen of these. Given the diversity of soils and microclimates even vineyards side by side can make very different wines.

In general I tend to divide the styles into two main groupings – valley floor or benchland wines, and mountain wines. Benchland vineyards tend to be more fertile, producing broader and more powerful wines packed with ripe black fruit and silky tannins. Rutherford, Oakville and Stag’s Leap are examples of benchland AVA’s. Mountain vineyards, on the other hand, with their thinner soils tend more toward wines with greater purity of fruit expression. Wines that are tighter, fresher and often more perfumed. Howell, Spring and Diamond Mountain AVA’s are particularly exciting areas for this style of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Over the past seven years I have had the privilege to visit the Napa Valley at least two to three times a year. I have come to love the area (especially in February, as I live in New York!) its people, and appreciate the complexity and diversity of its wines. Some of the wines and people that have particularly impressed me include:

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• 2005 Viader, Napa Valley – crafted by the wonderful Delia Viader. 100% Biodynamic, cultivated on the volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Sophisticated, elegant with firm ripe tannins. Minerally, with aromas and flavors of blackcurrant and mocha. $90

• 2004 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon – Made by energetic winemaker Janet Myers. Vineyards located at 1000 to 1600 feet above sea level. Lots of Blackberry fruit with aromas of cocoa, spice and leather. Rich, round with a long, supple finish. $40

• 2005 Rutherford Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon – organically grown grapes. Made by the very tenacious owner/winemaker Julie Johnson. A classic wine, powerful with exuberant ripe fruit, dark chocolate and toasty oak. $64

These are just three of many exciting and unique wines to be found, in sub-appellations of the Napa Valley. It really is worth exploring what a little ‘terroir’ difference can make. Most wineries have wine clubs, and ship throughout the country.

However, as you will have noted these wines are on the expensive side. The extremely high cost of vineyard land and stringent environmental restrictions in the Napa Valley, particularly for hillside sites contribute to the high production costs. An alternative option (but also delicious) is to try some of the wines that carry the more general Napa Valley appellation. Here are a few excellent examples under $30:

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• 2004 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley $30

• 2005 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley $27

• 2004 Conn Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley for $25

And yes, these are all still above $25. It's important to note that for less than $20 you really are looking at a different grape variety and/or a less expensive appellation - or just generic California (which will be made from grapes sourced more cheaply, from less prestigious vineyards).

Napa Cabernet wines are big, full-bodied wines. They are often blended with up to 15% Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot. While they can be drunk when released, most, especially the high-end wines, do benefit from additional cellaring to round out the tannins (so it's no harm picking up an older vintage).

They also benefit from being decanted, or at least being opened a few hours in advance of drinking. They are especially good with rich meat and earthy dishes. Particular favorites of mine are a juicy rib roast with all the trimmings, Osso Buco with polenta, beef and bitter chocolate stew, slow roasted spiced shoulder of lamb, marinated flank steak or even aged cow’s milk cheeses.

Stores that carry a good selection of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines include

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PA)
Astor Wines (Manhattan, NY)
Morrell Wine Company (Manhattan)
Le Dû Wines (Manhattan)
San Francisco Wine Trading Company (San Francisco, CA)
Total Wine & More (various cities, FL)
Flickinger Wines (Chicago, IL)
Sam’s Wine & Spirits (Chicago, IL)
Grapes of Norwalk (Norwalk, CT)
56 Degree Wine (Bernardsville, NJ)

So until next week, look out for some interesting Napa Cabs!

-- Mary

State Shipping Laws:
Each week we cover a different state.

Florida - Effective February 16, 2006 wineries from other states may legally ship wine to consumers in Florida. Adult signatures are required on receipt. There are no quantity limits. However, there are five dry counties in Florida where direct wine shipments are prohibited. These are Lafayette, Liberty, Madison, Suwannee and Washington.

For more information on wine shipping in Florida go to www.myflorida.com/dbpr/abt/index.html and for more information on direct shipping of wine throughout the United States visit Wine Institute, Free the Grapes or Ship Compliant.

(Image: Napa Valley Vintners)

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.

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