Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

The Napa Valley in California, USA, is one of the most famous wine regions in the New World having built its reputation, in part, on premium Cabernet Sauvignon which often has the moniker of "king" in the region.

Napa Valley is a sub-region and AVA of Napa County which sits in the North Coast of California. Benefiting from a warm coastal climate, the valley is an ideal site for Cabernet Sauvignon whose origins lie in Bordeaux, southwestern France. Bordeaux also benefits from a distinctly maritime climate which gives some clue as to the grape's success in drier but similarly coastal California. As well as producing stunning single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, many Napa producers also use the variety as a component in world-class Bordeaux blends.

History

The famous Napa Valley welcome
The famous Napa Valley welcome
? AFP

Napa's success is, to a large degree, down to the global popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and the region's suitability for growing it. The fact that Napa is within an hour's drive of San Francisco has also undoubtedly contributed to the region's success.

George Yount, the first Euro-American settler in the Napa Valley, is believed to have established the region's first vineyard in 1838 at Rancho Caymus, a Mexican land grant given to him by Governor Nicolás Gutiérrez in 1836.

In 1858, John Patchett made the first recorded commercial sale of Napa Valley wine establishing the region's first winery. Patchett's first wine was made by Charles Krug who then founded his own winery near St. Helena in 1861.

The first Bordeaux-style wines were made by Gustave Niebaum who started Inglenook Winery near Rutherford in 1879, Niebaum's wines went on to win gold medals at the 1889 Paris World's Fair.

The To Kalon vineyard was initially planted by H. W. Crabb and by 1877, the vineyard had 130 acres (0.5 km2) under vine and was producing 50,000 gallons of wine a year. By the end of the 19th Century, viticulture was well established throughout the Napa Valley.

Around the start of the 20th Century, Napa Valley viticulture was struck three heavy blows. The phylloxera louse ravaged many of the valley's vineyards and the imposition of prohibition in 1920 caused the closure of many wineries. The remaining wineries survived mainly by producing sacramental wines with some growers selling their fruit to home winemakers. The Great Depression and the Second World War took a further toll on the wine industry.

André Tchelistcheff was hired by Beauileu Vineyard in 1938 and is generally credited with ushering in the modern era of Californian winemaking. He introduced several techniques and procedures to the region such as aging wine in small French oak barrels, cold fermentation, vineyard frost prevention, and malolactic fermentation.

In 1939, following the end of Prohibition, Beringer Vineyards invited attendees of the Golden Gate International Exposition to visit the winery using promotional maps printed with the phrase "All roads lead to Beringer". The winery also invited Hollywood stars including Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard to visit. These early promotions are considered to be the birth of wine-based tourism that is now a large part of the economy of Napa Valley today.

In 1965, Napa Valley icon Robert Mondavi broke away from his family's Charles Krug Estate to found his own winemaking operation in Oakville. It was the first new large-scale winery to be established in the valley since Prohibition and included the original To Kalon land. After this, the number of wineries in the valley grew rapidly, as did the region's reputation.

Mondavi then went on to collaborate with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux on the creation of the Opus One Winery who's inaugural 1979 vintage was released to the public in 1984. Opus One still ranks as one of the most sought after and expensive wines in Napa and since 1993, a second wine called Overture has been made.

However, despite wine being made in Napa since the 19th Century, the region really only gained recognition when the valley's wines won over Bordeaux and Burgundy in the 1976 Paris Judgment. Since then, Cabernet Sauvignon, alongside Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, has only gone up in the public's estimation and can now, depending on the producer, command some extraordinarily elevated prices.

Part of this increase in public awareness is down to the influence of American critic, Robert Parker and his magazine, the Wine Advocate. Using a system of 100-points to score wines, many of Parker's top-scoring 100-point wines were Napa Cabernets. Parker's lasting legacy on the wine world, and particularly Napa, was for the trend in full-bodied wines often described as "fruit bombs" that prioritized big, ripe flavors over strong acid structure.

Tasting notes

Green and Flinty white wines
Green and Flinty white wines

Napa Valley Cabernet exhibits flavors typical of a warmer climate unlike Cabernet Sauvignon from cooler Bordeaux which has a slightly greener profile. Generally, moderately high in alcohol, the wines tend to be dry, full-bodied with high acid and dense tannins. These characteristics coupled with the classic rich, ripe fruit often give the wines the capacity to cellar for many years which help develop complex tertiary flavors.

Napa Valley Cabernet exhibits flavors typical of a warmer climate unlike Cabernet Sauvignon from cooler Bordeaux which has a slightly greener profile. Generally, moderately high in alcohol, the wines tend to be dry, full-bodied with high acid and dense tannins. These characteristics coupled with the classic rich, ripe fruit often give the wines the capacity to cellar for many years which help develop complex tertiary flavors.

When aged, tertiary flavors of mocha, coffee, leather and tobacco can also develop alongside aromas of mushroom and forest floor.

Food pairings include:

Food pairings
? Fotolia

Napa Cabernet's solid, sophisticated structure and deep black fruit flavors compliment rich meaty and earthy flavors. Red meats and game like beef, venison and lamb all serve as ideal partners and vegetarian alternatives like portobello mushrooms stuffed with goats' cheese and pesto also work well. Some good examples include:

  • Fillet Steak with Foie Gras and Truffles
  • Beef Wellington with Honey Roasted Carrots
  • Korean-style Beef stir fried in Garlic, Soy and Sesame

Popular Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Brands

Notable Napa producers of Cabernet Sauvignon include Screaming Eagle, Caymus Vineyards, Robert Mondavi, Beringer Vineyards, Stag's Leap and Chateau Montelena. Although the above are important, there are over 400 cellar doors in Napa with many worthy of a mention.

Napa Valley wine regions (AVAs)

Theoretically the Napa Valley should be too warm to produce quality wines however its unique geography modifies the climate, creating numerous different mesoclimates within the valley. The open southern end of the valley is cooled due to its proximity to San Pablo Bay which funnels sea breezes and morning fogs up the valley.

The Northern end of the valley tends to be much warmer but is cooled by evening breezes drawn from the Pacific through a gap in the Mayacamas mountains at Chalk Hill. Growing temperatures vary according to site's respective altitudes with "mountain Cabernets" providing structure and freshness and valley floor wines giving greater opulence and richness. Rainfall varies with the eastern side of the valley being more arid as winter storms tend to drop far more precipitation on the mountains to the west.

Although Napa Valley is the main subregion of Napa County, there are many subregions to Napa Valley. These are broken down into the following 16 AVAs.

Calistoga AVA

A Calistoga vineyard
A Calistoga vineyard

In the furthest north is the Calistoga AVA which is one of the warmest areas in the valley. Home to Chateau Montelena of 1976 Judgment of Paris fame (immortalized in the film Bottle Shock), Calistoga tends to produce warmer climate Cabernet Sauvignon with notes of baked fruit, cassis and cedar.

Howell Mountain

East of Calistoga, Howell Mountain produces big, powerful Cabernet Sauvignon with plenty of tannin. Despite being a warm region, wide diurnal variation allows the grapes to cool down at night preventing overcooked notes and giving the wines strong acidity and structure.

Chiles Valley District

Diamond Mountain vineyards with fog visible below
Diamond Mountain vineyards with fog visible below
? Napa Valley Vintners

To the east of Howell Mountain is the Chiles Valley District which is less developed, but still produces comparatively small amounts of high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon. The district's higher elevation creates wine with lush cherry-blackberry flavors, firm tannins and balanced acidity.

Diamond Mountain

South of Calistoga is the Diamond Mountain District which typically produces bold wines with good structure and the capacity to age. Although warm like Calistoga and St. Helena, coastal fogs can roll in helping to cool the vineyards so it never quite reaches the same temperatures as neighboring AVAs.

Spring Mountain and St. Helena

A bright foggy afternoon in a Rutherford vineyard
A bright foggy afternoon in a Rutherford vineyard

Spring Mountain and St. Helena lie to the south of Diamond Mountain District. Spring Mountain District is a small region at the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains that tends to produce fruity Cabernet Sauvignon with soft tannins. In contrast to Spring Mountain's modest reputation, neighboring St. Helena is well-known for producing balanced, ripe and well-structured Cabernet and is home to over 30 wineries including Beringer, Joseph Phelps and Duckhorn Vineyards.

Rutherford

Bordering St. Helena is Rutherford, one of the valley's highest regarded AVAs. Often thought of as the "Pauillac of California", around 1417ha of the AVA has been planted to Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest to other Bordeaux varieties. Rutherford sits on the valley floor at the base of the Mayacama Mountains and fully benefits from the warm sunshine and the fog that sometimes rolls in and helps cool the grapes.

Vineyards in Oakville
Vineyards in Oakville
? Napa Valley Vintners

These conditions lead to some of the longest lived of Napa Cabernet with earthy, ripe characters and notes of eucalyptus and menthol. These are often balanced with smooth, integrated tannins. Famous Rutherford producers include Scarecrow, Freemark Abbey, Inglenook and Beaulieu.

Oakville

Next door to Rutherford is the equally well-regarded Oakville. Since the 1960s, Oakville has been the source of some of the world's best Cabernet and a jewel in Napa's crown. Although unlikely to be as long-lived as Rutherford Cabernet, it has the concentrated fruit Napa is famous for. The region enjoys a slight maritime influence from the southern San Pablo Bay and gravelly well-draining soils courtesy of the Mayacamas Mountains.

Mountains surrounding Stags Leap
Mountains surrounding Stags Leap
? Napa Valley Vintners

The hotly contested To Kalon vineyard is within Oakville, and is responsible for some of Napa's top wines with Robert Mondavi, Schrader Cellars and Paul Hobbs all sourcing grapes from the area. Other Oakville juggernauts include Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate who are now so sought after, their wines are by allocation only.

Yountville

Directly south of Oakville is the equally regarded Yountville AVA which was named after George C. Yount. Stars of the AVA include Dominus Estate and Domaine Chandon, here Cabernet takes advantage of slightly cooler conditions producing elegant wines with enough fruit and tannins to comfortably cellar.

Stags Leap District

Vines lining the valley floor, Oak Knoll District
Vines lining the valley floor, Oak Knoll District
? Napa Valley Vintners

Sitting inland, next to Yountville, is the Stags Leap District, one of Napa Valley's most instantly recognizable AVAs. Small and narrow, the AVA has become particularly famed for Cabernet Sauvignon, a reputation that was formed in 1976 when Stag's Leap Wine Cellars debuted their Cabernet in Paris. Stags Leap Cabernet wines tend to have very distinct aromas of violets, cherry and delicate tannins which give the wines an elegant freshness.

A large part of the AVA's success is down to the loose, free-draining volcanic soil which encourages low yields of high-quality fruit. Notable wineries include Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Stag's leap Winery.

Atlas peak

Elevated vineyards in Atlas Peak
Elevated vineyards in Atlas Peak
? Napa Valley Vintners

Atlas Peak is an elevated AVA which lies some way off to the east of Stag's Leap. Situated between various mountains including Mount Vaca and Sugarloaf, this AVA is known for producing classic, well-made Cabernet that tends to be more delicate than the more robust Cabernet typical of Napa.

Mount Veeder

Mount Veeder runs down the western side of Yountville and is currently attracting considerable attention from investors for its ideal Cabernet growing conditions. Oak Knoll District lies on the eastern border of Mount Veeder and is more known for its Bordeaux blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.

Coombsville

Vineyards in Coombsville
Vineyards in Coombsville
? Napa Valley Vintners

To the east of Carneros sits Coombsville, a region producing Cabernet Sauvignon that is typically more delicate than other Napa Cabernets as sea breezes create a cooler climate.

Los Carneros and Wild Horse Valley

Maritime influence at the south of the valley makes Los Carneros and Wild Horse Valley the coolest AVAs, they are therefore better known for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay than for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Stats

In 2016, it was reported that 90,782 acres of California was planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and 20,759 of those were in Napa Valley, by the far most out of any of the Californian appellations. 2016 also saw Napa welcome 3.5 million visitors which all helps promote and maintain Napa's formidable reputation.

Future

The future of Napa Valley Cabernet could significantly change with the influence of climate change, excess heat and water shortages could create problems. There could also be a shortage of land viable for viticulture as more wineries and businesses want in, highly contested proposals like Measure C have been drawn up, and subsequently rejected, to manage this.

Drinking window

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is generally ready to drink but will often benefit from 5-10 years cellaring. Some producer's wines can cellar for even longer, sometimes even 20 years.

Serving temperature

Best served at room temperature to accentuate the wine's warm, fruit character (17°C or 6F).




Frequently Asked Questions

 Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be a medium-bodied to full-bodied wine with medium tannins and moderate alcohol. As a result, the wine should be served neither too warm or too cold.

The ideal serving temperature generally lies between 59-64 Fahrenheit or 15 to 18 degrees Celsius. It can sometimes be worth decanting the wine for an hour or so before drinking it, especially if it is an older wine which may have some sediment.

The best way to store Cabernet Sauvignon is in a cool, dark space. A temperature-controlled cellar is ideal but if that is not possible, a cupboard or closet away from harsh sunlight and excess humidity, or even under a bed can be a great alternative. A cool, consistent temperature is key.

For Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, great food pairings include roasted, grilled and barbecued meats, along with casseroles, hot-pots and other meaty stews. Excellent vegetable pairings include mushrooms and beefsteak tomatoes, as well as rich, tomato-based pasta dishes.

Cheese can also provide a fantastic match, particularly strong hard cheeses like gouda, vintage cheddar and some strong blue cheeses like gorgonzola.

For someone who is unfamiliar with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and unsure about paying high prices for a wine they are not sure they will like, it is advisable to start with a good entry or mid-level brand.

Good quality brands that offer high-quality Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at reasonable prices include Robert Mondavi, Chateau Montelena, Beringer Vineyards and Duckhorn Vineyards.

Critic-rated Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for under $30 include Beringer Vineyards Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Robert Mondavi Winery Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon and Duckhorn Vineyards 'Greenwing' Cabernet Sauvignon.

Most Popular Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Wine

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