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NAPA VALLEY – LAND OF PLENTY

When people ask me what’s my favorite wine region in the world it’s easy to answer. Napa Valley, hands down. It’s always exciting to land in San Francisco, drive across the bridge, and arrive in a valley filled with gorgeous vineyards and hundreds of wineries.

The warm climate, Spanish architecture, swaying palm trees, and the laid back character of the vintners is all part of the appeal. And that’s not to mention the stunning wines, which are among the very finest in the world. Of course, Cabernet Sauvignon is the signature of Napa. But they also produce outstanding Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay and, for me, the best sparkling wines outside of Champagne.

When you sing the praises of Napa Valley there’s usually someone who starts rolling their eyes. They sometimes criticize it for being pretentious, probably out of jealousy. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been a struggle for most wineries. It’s only in the last 30 years that they’ve really thrived and the owners that I’ve met couldn’t be more down to earth.

The history of Napa is fascinating because it’s a region that has shot to fame in a relatively short period. Winemaking started in the latter part of the 1800’s, during the boom times of the gold rush. Italian and German settlers were amongst the first to plant the vine, using their savoir faire gleaned from winemaking back in the old world.

But in the early 1900’s the First World War put the brakes on their success, only to be followed by Prohibition, which almost decimated the industry. Only a handful of producers survived, using their license to make wine for sacramental and medicinal purposes. In the early 1960’s there was less than 20 wineries, and very few tourists ventured up to Napa.
But in the 1960’s a handful of adventurous new producers opened their doors, led by one of the greatest figures in the history of wine, Robert Mondavi. And so the modern history of Napa began, and the most successful wine region in the New World started gathering momentum.

The infamous Paris tasting in 1976 catapulted the region to fame, when Stags Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena won in a blind tasting against the finest wines from France. Americans finally started to realize that truly great wine could be made in Napa. Sales skyrocketed, prices increased, and newcomers like Baron Philippe de Rothschild started ventures in the valley.

But during the boom times of the 1980’s Napa suffered another set-back. Phylloxera, the deadly vine louse, attacked and destroyed most of the vineyards. Some vintners packed up and left, but others persevered and replanted using the latest viticultural techniques, and focused on just a handful of classic grape varieties. In many respects, there was a silver lining to the phylloxera disaster. Up until then most vineyards were planted with a mishmash of lesser known varietals, sometimes even in the same row. Now, Napa started to build a brand around top quality Cabernet.

The hospitality industry developed alongside the rapid pace of the vintner’s success. Stunning hotels and resorts were built, and some of the best chefs in America created restaurants that became culinary temples. Limousines rolled up Highway 29, and cult wines became all the rage, with stratospheric prices to match.

In the 1990’s the Napa vintners stated to refine their understanding of the vastly different terroirs that you find in the valley. Whilst it only takes about 45 minutes to drive from Carneros in the south to Calistoga in the north, the climate varies dramatically. The fog that rolls in off the Bay, particularly in the summer, shrouds the vineyards in the southerly part of the valley, making it cooler and better suited to early ripening varieties like Pinot Noir. Yet up valley, around the quaint town of St.Helena, it is significantly warmer because the fog burns off faster, and sometimes doesn’t even reach that far north.

It also became clear that the soils varied dramatically. Over 33 different soil types have been identified from the heavier clays in Carneros, to the red soils of Oakville, and the shallow hard rocky soils found on the hillsides. Stylistic differences between the wines became obvious based on the different terroirs, and so Napa was carved up into dozens of AVA’s, resembling the French appellation model.

I’m a big fan of the hillside AVA’s, especially on Spring and Howell Mountains. The Cabernets tend to have more tannic structure and less overt sweet fruit. But there’s no denying that AVA’s like Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap produce stunning wines, which are rich and opulent, warm and generous, with blackcurrant, vanilla, chocolate and sometimes a minty character.

But it’s a mistake to think that Napa is just about Cabernet. Saintsbury and Cuvaison make some lovely Pinot Noirs in Carneros, and the sparkling Houses of Schramsberg, Chandon and Domaine Carneros make some excellent bubbly too.
Whilst Sonoma has a reputation for the finest Zinfandels in California there are some beauties made in Napa too. These are big, rich and ripe wines with some baked characters and a slight jammy style to the fruit. Caymus and Storybrook Mountain make some excellent Zins.

And Merlot can be fabulous too, even as a stand-alone varietal. Duckhorn led the charge back in the 1970’s and there’s no denying the wines are gorgeous.

It is actually possible to go to Napa valley for the day from San Francisco. It’s only about 60 minutes drive across the Golden Gate bridge to the vineyards of Carneros for a glass of bubbly, and then another half hour up to St Helena which is the winemaking HQ. So turn off the e-mail, close the computer, and discover the greatest wine region in North America.

Albert Bichot, Meursault, 2009

Chardonnay
Albert Bichot, Meursault, 2009
Burgundy, France

Albert Bichot was recently named amongst the “Top 100 wineries in the world” by Wine and Spirits magazine. When Bernard Bichot founded the house back in 1831 it’s doubtful that he would have imagined such success.

This wine comes the famous appellation of Meursault, which is synonymous with top quality white wines. Meursault typically produces the richest and most buttery wines of Burgundy’s prestige appellations. It’s located just south of the historic town of Beaune, the winemaking capital of Burgundy.

The nose shows classic yet youthful aromas of hazelnuts, peach and citrus. It beautifully dry, crisp and refreshing, and has a light toasty note to complement the minerality.

Food and wine pairing: The perfect complement to chicken dishes, richer fish and pasta in a cream sauce. It also drinks beautifully all by itself.

Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, 2001

Tempranillo & Garnacha
Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, 2001
Rioja, Spain

Lopez de Heredia is one of the most fascinating wine producers in the world. It is an icon amongst all wineries, known for their long ageing periods and natural winemaking.

They still ferment the wine in oak vats that were built over 100 years ago, using natural yeasts. Instead of using computers to control the fermentation temperature they simply open the cellar doors at night. They make their own barrels and mature the wine for longer than almost any winery in the world, which is often 8 years in barrel before release.

Tempranillo is the classic grape of Rioja and gives flavors of strawberry and notes of soft leather. Garnacha provides spice and body, and soft smooth tannins. This wine is a model of complexity, elegance and delicacy. We hope you enjoy the complex and unusual flavors.

Food and wine pairing: The classic match is lamb, but the wine also complements beef and hard cheeses.

Chateau Brane Cantenac, AC Margaux, 2nd growth, 2007

Meritage – Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot
Chateau Brane Cantenac, AC Margaux, 2nd growth, 2007
Bordeaux, France

Chateau Brane Cantenac was classified as one of the best wines of Bordeaux in 1855, ranked as a 2nd growth. In recent years the owner, Henri Lurton, has catapulted the quality to a new level, garnering significant attention from wine critics.

The beautiful chateau is tucked away in the Margaux appellation, a region known for wines of great elegance and finesse. The gravelly soils are well-drained and reflect heat back onto the vines, which is ideal for the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes are harvested by hand and then sorted using a state-of-the-art optical selection machine which only allows the finest grapes to be fermented.

Medium to deep ruby in color, the nose shows red and black cherry aromas, a hint of earth and soft leather, and the sweet aroma of vanilla. The palate is dry, medium to full bodied, with cassis and chocolate flavors.

Food and wine pairing: Perfect with lamb, beef, and a variety of red meats. It will also pair well with a selection of cheese.

Domaine Weinbach, Grand Cru Furstentum, Vendange Tardive 2008

Gewurztraminer
Domaine Weinbach, Grand Cru Furstentum, Vendange Tardive 2008
Alsace, France

This stunning wine is made by Domaine Weinbach in Alsace, considered to be one of the finest producers of Gewurztraminer in the world.

The grapes come from a single Grand Cru vineyard called Furstentum. They are picked late in the season, when they have high levels of sugar in the berry and tropical fruit flavors have developed. This results in a sweet dessert wine, but one that is exceptionally well-balanced by the lively acidity.

The aromas are intense, perfumed, and laden with tropical fruits and honey. The palate is sweet, full bodied, with concentrated flavors of pineapple, spice and butterscotch. The length lingers for minutes, which is the sign of a top quality wine.

The winemaker, Catherine Faller, believes in a non-interventionist approach to creating fine wines. The secret is to harvest at the perfect moment from a top vineyard site.

Food and wine pairing: The sweet character of the wine will best suit foie gras, or sweet desserts and fresh fruit plates.

Laurent Perrier, Brut, 2002

Champagne
Laurent Perrier, Brut, 2002
France

Laurent Perrier is a House that uses a significant proportion of Chardonnay in their best wines. Michel Fauconnet, the winemaker for the last 27 years, prefers wines of elegance, freshness, lightness and complexity. These are the characteristics that Chardonnay brings to the final blend.

Produced only in outstanding vintages, this 2002 vintage Champagne is the epitome of the Laurent Perrier style. Fine, tiny bubbles stream to the surface, highlighting the lemon gold hue. The nose shows a range of ripe apple, citrus and toasty characteristics. The palate is dry, medium bodied, with multi-dimensional flavors of mineral, toast, nuts, and lemon.

This wine has spent almost 10 years maturing in bottle in the labyrinth of cellars that weave beneath this historic Champagne House. Michel at Laurent Perrier also produces “Salon”, one of the most iconic and rare Champagnes.

Food and wine pairing: The ultimate aperitif, and a perfect complement to caviar, smoked salmon, lobster and a variety of seafood.

Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, 2001

Tempranillo & Garnacha
Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, 2001
Rioja, Spain

Lopez de Heredia is one of the most fascinating wine producers in the world. To say they do things traditionally is an understatement. It is an icon amongst all wineries in the world, known for their long ageing periods and natural winemaking.

They still ferment the wine in oak vats that were built over 100 years ago, using natural yeasts. Instead of using computers to control the fermentation temperature they simply open the cellar doors at night. They make their own barrels and mature the wine for longer than almost any winery in the world, which is often 8 years in barrel before release. The wine is then given substantial bottle ageing before being shipped.

Tempranillo is the classic grape of Rioja and gives flavors of strawberry and notes of soft leather. Garnacha provides spice and body, and soft smooth tannins. This wine is a model of complexity, elegance and delicacy. It is the opposite of a modern fruit driven wine. We hope you enjoy the complex and unusual flavors that are appreciated by wine lovers.

Food and wine pairing: The classic match is lamb, but the wine also complements beef and hard cheeses.