Napa Valley Cabernet: If You Think It's All Alike, Think Again

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Since the Judgement of Paris in 1976, if not before, Napa Valley has been recognized for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, it’s clearly the most famous wine region in America and one of the most popular tourist destinations in California, seeing over 3.3 million annual visitors as of 2014.

Yet the success of the region, in both winemaking and branding, has led to a broad perception that Napa Valley's most famous commodity, Cabernet Sauvignon, is homogeneous and predictable.

In reality, Napa Valley is one of the world’s most diverse, small wine-growing areas. Yes, small. The entire region is just 10 miles wide and 30 miles long, with 45,000 acres under vine. That’s about one-seventh the planted acres of Bordeaux.

Yet, within Napa Valley’s boundaries is an amazing wealth of diversity.

  • Vineyard altitudes range from sea level to 2,600 feet.
  • Rainfall averages as little as 23 inches per year in the south, and up to 65 in the north.
  • There are more than 100 soil variations.
  • Vineyards can be found on flat land, gentle slopes and steep hillsides.
  • Vine rows face every direction of the compass.
  • Some Cabernet Sauvignon vines are young, others more than 40 years old.
  • There are dry-farmed vineyards, organic vineyards and biodynamic ones too.

Many people associate Napa Valley wineries solely with potent, boldly fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon, thick with robust tannins. And there are scores of delicious wines just like that. But there are also savory Napa Valley Cabs, wines that lead with flavors of dark mineral and tobacco. Some Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is loaded with plush tannins, some have a firm, grainy mouthfeel, and others are light and supple. There are even terrific Napa Cabs with alcohol levels below 13.5%. You can find wines to drink now and wines to age for 20 years, Cabernet for a grilled rib-eye, and others perfect for roast chicken.

Napa Valley terroir is too varied for a quick or simple explanation, but there are some rules of thumb:

  • Average daily temperature and ripeness increase steadily from south to north, due to diminishing fog and cooling from San Pablo Bay. The Carneros AVA, nearest the bay, is generally too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon, though there are exceptions. The Oak Knoll District and Coombsville AVAs, both around the town of Napa, have long, moderate growing seasons. Up north in St. Helena and Calistoga, temperatures are generally the warmest and grapes are ripe.
  • Greater ripeness is achieved on the valley floor than at the base of the mountains (benchland). That’s because the valley floor has sun exposure all day. West-facing benchland is the next sunniest, because afternoon sun is more intense than morning sun. Vineyards on east-facing bench sees the gentlest sun.
  • Mountain vineyards’ sun exposure varies depending on their facing, but they are above the fog and many get daylong sunshine. That promotes ripening but the altitude also brings lower daytime temperatures, cooling breezes and cold nights.
  • Young vines tend to yield very fruit-forward wines with gentle tannins and lighter color. Old vines create small berries with a greater ratio of skin to juice. That means deeper color, stronger tannins, more complexity and savory flavors.
  • The riper the Cabernet Sauvignon, the more the wine will show black fruit (black currant, blackberry and black cherry) as opposed to blueberry or red fruit (red currant and red cherries). Greater ripeness also gives the fruit jammy, baked or dried flavors. Alcohol, tannins and body increase with ripeness. Acidity goes down, texture gets softer.

Here are some examples of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley wineries which are each classic yet very different from the each other:

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon is a prime example of Cabernet Sauvignon from the valley floor in northern half of the AVA. It is very aromatic, full-bodied and unctuously fruity in the mouth. Tannins are rich and soft, acidity low. The jammy black fruit is rich enough to support a lot of flavorful, new oak.

Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Altagracia comes from west-facing benchland, much of it from old vines. The aromas and flavors are of black fruit, but there is also shiitake mushroom, dark flowers and earth. The wine is full-bodied with firm tannins and mouthwatering acidity.

Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon shows off the elevation of its vineyards. The long, sunny days result in aromas and flavors of blackberry plus fine, soft tannins. However, the Mount Veeder AVA’s altitude and southerly location keep it on the cool side. So there are also savory flavors and the fruit resembles fresh berries rather than compote.

Macauley Cabernet Sauvignon comes in part from the east-facing benchland in Oakville, toward the middle of the valley. Grapes achieve excellent ripeness in Oakville and leans heavily toward dark fruit flavors. However, being shaded from afternoon sun these grapes also show savory complexity.

J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District gets ripeness from being at the northern end of the valley, but that is moderated by altitude and a variety of facings. The fruit flavors are dark, but still show some red. Tannins are firm and promise aging potential, common in both the Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain AVAs.

Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon lies on east-facing bench in southern St. Helena, a very warm spot with gentle sun. The dry-farmed vines date back to at least the early 1970’s. Structured and eminently age-worthy with a distinctly savory personality, these wines—new or mature—are easily mistaken for the finest St. Julien of Bordeaux.

Visit JJ Buckley's Napa Valley wines page to shop for these and more terrific Cabernet and Bordeaux-styled blends.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.