Grapes have been grown in California since the late 18th-century Catholic missions established there were required to produce wine for sacramental purposes. However, California grape growers and winemakers often lacked experience and knowledge of their craft, and the disheartening results have long tarnished the area's reputation in Europe. But respect for California wine has grown in Europe, even beyond the ranks of those experts who know that wines from Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars — both in California's Napa Valley — beat the leading Bordeaux wines at a wine fair in Paris in 1976.
Napa Vallet is located between two ridges that converge from south to north. The Santa Helena Highway and the Silverado Trail both run 45 kilometers to the north where the Mayacamas Mountains ridges to the west and the Vaca Range to the east. come together at Calistoga. In the south, this wine valley is about eight kilometers wide. The Napa River of the same name caused these two mountain ridges to split, creating the Napa Valley.
The Napa Valley accounts for just 5 percent of annual U.S. wine production. And while it's probably America's best-known wine region, it wasn't the first AVA (American Viticultural Area) to be established: The first is Augusta, Missouri, dating back to 1980. The Napa Valley is located in central California around the river of the same name, north from San Pablo Bay.
Because of its narrowness and proximity to mountains, the Napa Valley has a highly variable climate and an abundance of microclimates, but what makes the wines unpredictable (unless you know the winery already) is the geology. The bottom is made of marine sediments, volcanic rock, river deposits, silt, limestone, and sandstone, depending on where you are. Volcanic soils in the north of the region are great for growing Cabernet, while calcareous soils in the south yield excellent Pinot Noir. This variety of soils and climates made the Napa Valley a dream place to grow just about any vine variety, although the crops over the years have been limited to those that show the best, in a sort of Darwinian selection.
As with many wine regions, the Napa Valley has its sub-regions. From north to south they are:
- Howell Mountain, where the most common varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, and Zinfandel.
- Calistoga, which mainly produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel
- Diamond Mountain District, whose main varieties are Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Spring Mountain District, where they mainly produce Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Zinfandel.
- St. Helena, of which the most representative vine varieties are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, and Zinfandel
- Chiles Valley District, which mainly produces Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
- Rutherford, home of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel.
- Oakville, where Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc are made.
- Atlas Peak, focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
- Stag's Leap District, where the most commonly grown varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Yountville, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are produced.
- Mount Veeder, which produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Zinfandel.
- Oak Knoll District, where the most commonly grown varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Coombsville, where Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are the most common grape varieties.
- Wild Horse, which mainly produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
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