Since I first moved to Napa, I’d wanted to explore the different “neighborhoods” in the valley. In a previous article I had written about Napa, I compared it to different neighborhoods in Chicago. There are 15 “sub” American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Napa. I’ve decided to taste my way around them, compare notes, and report back (I know—what a terrible life I have!).
Yesterday I drove down the Silverado Trail, which is off main highway 29. If you look to the east, Silverado Trail is the road right before the Vaca Mountains start to rise up. While traveling down this path, you will spot wineries peppering both sides of the road that are known for their amazing wine quality. Wineries such as Clos du Val, Chimney Rock, Shafer…the list of historical wineries goes on and on. If you are planning a trip to the valley and want to visit some of these places, I suggest calling ahead. A lot of these wineries require appointments for visitors and are in the pricier range for tasting (but are worth the experience).
When grapes were first planted in the valley in the mid-1800’s, the focus was not on European varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay – basically all the wine we drink and know today). Missionaries from many different places settled here and planted their native grape varietals. Although it had been discovered that Napa’s volcanic soil was ideal for grape growing, global recognition of the valley as a top quality growing region for Cabernet and Chardonnay didn’t arrive until the 1960s and 1970s. The infamous 1976 Paris tasting (dramatized in the movie Bottle Shock) was a huge turning point: it brought California wider notice, and the Stags Leap district in particular. You may know the story: a snooty Englishman owned a snooty wine shop in Paris, and wanted to increase his sales of French wine, so he organized a blind tasting pitting the relatively new California wines against the best wines of France. In a surprising turn of events, the nine French judges awarded first place to the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon over first growth Bordeaux such as Mouton-Rothschild and Haut Brion. Ten years later the exact same wines were tasted and judged a second time. The winner was yet another wine from the Stags Leap District: the 1972 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon!
Tasting my way through this historical district I encountered mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The Cabernets, while all tasting different—each winemaker puts their own stamp on their product—were each very soft and elegant. I didn’t experience the harsh tannins that you might find when tasting in this price range (Stags Leap wines generally are sold at around the $75 price point). I primarily tasted the 2007 current releases, which is what you will find in the stores right now. The wines from Stags Leap seemed to have a lot of expression and were really enjoyable for such a young age. Although I’d recommend aging these wines for five years, you certainly don’t need to do that. I tasted generally dark fruit notes (plum and black berry) with mocha, tobacco, and some elegant spice. I tasted more French oak on these wines than traditional American oak, which is more subtle and not overpowering on the palate.
I especially loved the Chardonnays I tasted; again, the movement away from American oak is such a happy change for me. These are much more Burgundian in style (soft and dreamy). I am hoping people will revisit Napa Chardonnays. They are not what they used to be (at least in Stags Leap…I’ll update you about what else I find on my travels). When looking for wines in the stores from Stags Leap, go to the Napa Valley wines. Wines labeled Stags Leap will contain at least 85% of its grapes grown from that district. Happy drinking!
Wine writer Maggie Bernat Smith contributes to the Strongbox blog each Friday.