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Smitten by Napa

by Joe Marchant (Director, BI USA)

Whisper it; I think I’m a little bit smitten by the Napa Valley. Even the journey in is magic – over the Golden Gate bridge out of San Francisco and up into the rolling hills of Sonoma before cresting the Mayacamas ridge and descending through the tangle of steeply sloping vineyards and forest that cascade down towards the valley floor.

Stretching out northwest like a crooked finger up the 29 Highway, the valley runs from the town of Napa, through Yountville and Rutherford and on up to Calistoga where Mount St Helena provides an abrupt visual (and vinous) full stop. On the west side of the valley, the deeply wooded Mayacamas shelter the vines from fiercest of the afternoon sun while in the east the arid, volcanic Vaca range runs from Howell Mountain down to the famous Stag’s Leap. All the way up the 25-odd miles, small hills form innumerable micro-climates - evidence of the region’s volcanic past - that create opportunities and challenges for over 300 resident wineries.

With the history of competition and, of course, the preponderance of Bordeaux varietals, the tendency in the past has been to compare Napa to the great properties of the Medoc. In truth, there is little similarity between the two – topographically at least, Napa is more reminiscent of Burgundy: however the mix of volcanic, alluvial and maritime soils is unique and gives birth to a patchwork quilt of interlocking terroirs that can seem almost overwhelming in variety. At present, 16 different sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Area) exist in the valley with individual niches continually being carved out. Given that it took a thousand-odd years to decide on the 25 Grand Crus of the Cotes de Nuits, this is remarkable progress for a mere 3 decades in the Northern California sun….

In a sense what is most exciting is that so much of area is still a work in progress. An atmosphere of humble endeavour pervades even the greatest properties in the valley - there's a feeling that despite already producing some of the greatest and most distinctive fine wines in the world, the best work is still to come. Given how many exciting wines we discovered in just a few short days, it would be bold money that bets against them.

I explored a number of wineries and over the next three days I’ll share my best experiences with you, starting with Aubert Wines.

Aubert is ‘the ringer in the pack’. Despite being located in sleepy Calistoga at the northernmost tip of Napa valley, Aubert make Sonoma wines. In common with many visits during the week, the winery is much more reminiscent of Burgundy than Bordeaux; an elegant, simple tasting room, leading to an immaculately clean and thoroughly modern Chai. Mark Aubert set up on his own just over a decade ago after making wines for some of the most celebrated estates in the valley (including both Peter Michael and Colgin.) Mark’s approach to making Sonoma Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is a perfectionist one: great emphasis is placed on individual vine sites and clonal selection, with the location of individual pockets often a closely guarded secret. The wines are stunning - the two whites I tasted as different in character as Meursault and Puligny. Coming from a batch of 30+ yr old Wente clones, predominantly from Meursault, the 2011 Ritchie is one of the finest whites I've tasted in a long time. At once imposing in scale with explosive, creamy lemon fruits, it’s fat and rich with tremendous minerality and perfectly balanced acidity. It has that harmonius thing going on that I typically identify with only the most exceptional fruit and deftness of winemaking flourishes. If you happen across any on your travels, snatch it up!

I confess to a degree of nerves before tasting the reds as I'd been informed that Aubert had no interest in making weedy, under-ripe pinots....Gratifyingly, any fears I had of discovering alcoholic, candied, fruit monsters were profoundly misplaced as the subtle equilibrium which characterised the whites continued front, left and centre. While undoubtedly bold wines, balance is the watch word - the UV-SL being my pick on the day, with its cascade of red cherry and darker fruits set against a background of sobering Vosne-like spice. This is made from fruit from a mix of Calera clones, including some rumoured to be propagated from a rather legendary Vosne-Romanee vineyard... My thanks to all at Aubert, particularly Philip Gift for a terrific start to the visit... and again in advance for the many that will necessarily follow to procure an allocation!

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