People have been planting vines in California for a long time, though the emergence of Napa as a wine region really begins with Robert Mondavi in 1966. Mondavi was convinced – and rightly so – that premium wines to rival those of Europe could be made California, setting in motion Napa’s culture of innovation, quality and pride of place.
In 1976, the famous wine tasting known as the Judgement of Paris, organized by wine expert and former merchant Steven Spurrier (a Briton), pitted California’s premium wines against some of the finest French wines. Nine judges blind-tasted Napa chardonnays and white Burgundies, Napa cabernets and classed-growth Bordeaux. In the end, somewhat controversially, Stags’ Leap 1973 cabernet sauvignon and Chateau Montelena 1973 chardonnay (both from the Napa Valley) came out on top. Like it or not, Napa’s wines were emerging on a world stage that had long been dominated by France, and the quality of the wines, not to mention bottle prices, would continue to rise.
The Napa Valley is about 100 kilometres north of San Francisco. The Mediterranean-like climate is well-suited for growing grapes, with hot, dry summers and cooler, wetter winters. Flanked by mountain ranges, the valley’s proximity to the San Pablo Bay causes the famous nightly fogs, cooling the grapes before the next day’s heat.
The wine appellation is only about 45,000 acres, accounting for approximately four per cent of California’s wine production. The American Viticultural Area (AVA) of the Napa Valley is split further into 16 sub-appellations, each with slightly different soils, aspects and advantages for the more than 30 different grapes planted there.
When they do appear (rarely) on the real-estate market, vineyards command six-figure prices per acre. Given numbers like those, winemaking in the Napa Valley is rarely undertaken by the hobby farmer, but rather by well-heeled owners who focus on making world-class wines, rather than inexpensive weeknight bottles.
The story of wine in the Napa Valley is essentially a story about cabernet sauvignon. Approximately 47 per cent of vineyard acreage is devoted to growing the grapes and the resulting wines are some of the best in the world. Chardonnay and merlot are also well represented with sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and zinfandel rounding out the top six. (If I could offer a criticism of American wine, it’s that for a U.S. wine to name a single grape on the label – a significant marketing advantage – it only needs to contain 75 per cent of that varietal, while most other wine countries require 85 per cent of the primary grape to list a single varietal on the label.)
Given the premium nature of the region’s wines and the desire to protect their long-term viability, the Napa Valley has an impressive commitment to sustainability. Napa Green, coupled with the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve (which protects approximately 90 per cent of the valley set aside for agriculture) sets goals for reducing carbon footprints, environmental compliance and waterways protection and shows continual improvement and environmental stewardship, year after year.
Though wines from the Napa Valley are rarely inexpensive, there is no doubting their quality. It’s a whole new world.
Six wines you should try
Blackbird 2014 Arise, Napa Valley
A Bordeaux-style blend of mostly merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this is the right way to do a fruit-driven, full-bodied wine that tastes good now. It’s smooth, with black fruits, black licorice, spices and a bit of earthy, rooty depth. Bring on the steaks! (Medium-rare of course.) $70
BonAnno 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
A classically styled, new-world cabernet sauvignon with rich, ripe fruits of cherry and cassis and soft touches of olive, bell pepper and blueberry preserves. Tight, grippy tannins, just softening up, make this a solid partner for meaty, saucy dishes or a beef tenderloin. $49
Robert Biale 2015 “Black Chicken” Zinfandel, Napa Valley
This zin kicks ass. Brambly, spicy fruits of wild berries, blueberry and a little raspberry with pepper spice and a touch of earth on the nose, it’s mouth-filling and tasty, no doubt. But the best part? All that acid balancing it out. Think barbecue, duck or even a great pepperoni pizza when it comes time to plan your dinner match. $62
Sequoia Grove 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Intense and almost smoky on the nose, the Sequoia Grove cabernet is packed with graphite, cassis, bell peppers and sweet licorice root. Black fruits dominate the palate with plenty of acidity and tannin for balance. Looking for a classic cab? This is it. $59
St. Supery 2014 Virtu White Meritage, Napa Valley
A blend of semillon (51 per cent) and sauvignon blanc, it’s mostly barrel fermented, bringing rich, buttery and vanilla bean-like characteristics to the guava, peach and pear flavours. Don’t serve too cold, or you’ll mute the flavours. Try matching with roasted poultry or even lobster. $32
Trefethen 2016 Dry Riesling, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley
One of my favourite whites from a recent trip to Napa, this stylish and mineral-laden riesling is quite dry, with flavours of pressed lime, apple, quince and slate. It’s so delicious and, with a bare kiss of sweetness, an extremely refreshing bottle. Grilled seafood, Thai or Vietnamese cuisine would work very well here. $31
Try these food and wine pairings at local restaurants
JOEY (Chinook) – Cabernet Sauvignon and Burgers
Sure, you could enjoy a beer with Joey’s hand-pressed burger, but it is also an excellent pairing with the Edge cabernet sauvignon ($74). The smooth, classic cab brings the fruit and pepper to your burger party.
Starbelly – Syrah and Striploin
Any resident of Calgary’s southern communities knows about Starbelly. Match up the lush and flavourful Truchard syrah ($65) with an expertly cooked 10-ounce striploin or the rich mushroom risotto.
Murrieta’s Bar and Grill – Viognier and Appetizers
Popping downtown to catch a show or do a little shopping? Try matching one of the great, underappreciated grapes with appetizers for the table. Stags’ Leap Viognier ($64) is almost over the top with peach, spice and mineral, and pairs well with crab cakes, mussels or even Murrieta’s duck rillettes.