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Wine Exploration: Discovering Napa Valley

by BI Wines & Spirits

The greatest wines in the world are true expressions of place. There is only so much you can learn from books and maps; with wine, perhaps more than anything, you have to GO and stand in the vineyards to really understand how all the various factors influence the eventual outcome in the glass. There are certain wines – for me Leoville Las Cases in Bordeaux is the prime example – where you put your nose in the glass and if you shut your eyes you could be right there in the vines. So prior to my first trip to the Napa Valley I was more than curious about what I would experience on the ground.

Being classically trained in fine wine, and given the specificity of our proximity to France, hopefully I could be forgiven for looking to our nearest wine-producing neighbours for templates. However, nowhere have I found French comparisons to be more unhelpful. Sure, they have a lot of Cabernet here; but far from being a marginal climate like Bordeaux, where the greatest challenge is achieving full ripeness, Napa has masses of sunshine – so although the average temperatures are not much higher than Bordeaux, ripe fruit is rarely a problem. Indeed it is retaining freshness in the form of acidity that is the primary challenge. And whilst the scale of estates and production is closer to Burgundy than Bordeaux, the system of vineyard ownership – not to mention the style of the wines – is clearly very different. There’s no significant river influence, like the Rhone, and most of the planting – including most of the biggest names – is not at any great altitude. So what’s it all about?


There’s a lot of talk about the fog. For the uninitiated, the situation is thus: every morning the pacific delivers a great wedge of icy cold fog up from San Pablo Bay, just to the north of San Francisco, up past Carneros (the point where the Mayacamas mountains start, the separation line between the Napa and Sonoma Valleys) and into the southern end of the Napa Valley. Unlike Sonoma, which is much wider and flatter, the Napa Valley is a channel bordered by mountains on either side; only 25 miles long and never more than 5 miles wide, it narrows towards the north creating a perfect environment for the fog to settle on the ground. This fog helps to retain the cool – no, cold – night time temperatures low until well into the morning; it can take until 10-11am before the fog burns off and the vineyards heat up – and that beautiful sunshine gets through to work its magic.

Of course, not all the vineyards are on the valley floor; many are found tumbling down the sides of the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains, with Spring Mountain and Howell Mountain being the most famous, but with many other beautiful spots like Pritchard Hill to the East and Tychson Hill to the West providing incredible fruit for legendary wines. A good deal of these vineyards are planted above the fog line and as a result do not see quite the same temperature variation – even with the benefit of altitude.


What this creates is a very odd concept – in viticulture at least – in that the higher you go, from the valley floor up the sides of the mountains (up to a point) the warmer you get. I discovered this for myself on an early morning run from St Helena in the heart of the valley up Howell Mountain, above Conn Creek Road. As the morning was wearing on and I was of course warming up I figured the pleasant increase in temperature was a result of these factors; but as a retraced my steps back down the hill, sure enough, that cold air and fog influence kicked in and it got seriously, noticeably colder the closer I got to home.


The mountains have the advantage of having seriously complex soils, a result of the creation of the ranges which occurred when the Pacific Plate crashed into the American Plate. The Mayacamas, on the Western side, was formed from the crumpled, scraped up sea bed under the Pacific Ocean and contains lots of saline, marine deposits; the Vaca was formed more due to volcanic activity and thus contains more iron-rich and basaltic soils. The vineyards found on these two mountains certainly reflect these basic soil types, with the slightly more ‘wild’ character of Howell Mountain being contrasted with the austere freshness of the Lokoya and Mayacamas wines.

Many of Napa’s best reds are blends as a result of taking the different ingredients from these varied vineyard sites and creating something which is representative of the Valley as a whole – this also allows for a commercial volume to be created. But as with almost everywhere in the world, the most sought-after wines are single-estate, proprietary wines which reflect a single piece of land, preferably contigious; if this goes over multiple soil types, so much the better as to express to complexity of one single owner’s plot – a la the great wines of Europe.


Of these ‘single sites’, arguably the best plots are where the mountain deposits have tumbled down over the years to the edge of the valley, allowing for similarly complex soils to those found on the mountain but with the benefit of the fog influence. Thus, on the western side in the shadow of the Mayacamas you have Harlan Estate, Inglenook, Spottswoode etc – and on the eastern side in the foothills of the Vaca you have Shafer, Rudd, Screaming Eagle and many others.


This is a most basic attempt to outline how varied and exciting – and relatively unexplored – much of the Napa Valley’s top wines are. They are also only loosely packaged into AVAs, or the American version of appellations, no thanks to the classically legal-first approach to what has become an established (albeit without much science) set of borders; what would be the response if one of the biggest names was now deemed to be outside the border of the most sought after region? Imagine if Latour was suddenly deemed St Julien instead of Pauillac!?!

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the top wines of Napa comes in the form of tasting. Due to the totally different structure of the wines, their development does not follow the same linear pattern as many of those from classical regions of Europe. Take Bordeaux for example: when tasting from barrel, the tannins and oak characters are overwhelming, and one has to taste through these (hopefully temporary) barriers to find the fruit and vineyard expression. Over time one hopes that the wines ‘put on flesh’ both in barrel and bottle – and after a period of say 10-15 years, the harmony finally appears and the fruit, structure and sense of place all sit in perfect balance. With Napa reds, you start with an abundance of fruit and the tannins, acids and vineyard identity can be the hardest things to find. This often causes people to assume that the fruit is all the wines will ever deliver and that they are thus somehow less intellectual than European wines. This simply isn’t true – one just has to taste in reverse, ignoring the fruit and looking for the depths of structure and minerality. Over time the ‘puppy fat’ of fruit falls away and the vineyard character comes singing through, and as with the Bordeaux, everything falls into line. As with everything great, give it time!


We have enjoyed developing the Napa element of our business and sense there is very, very much more to come. So watch this space.


Discover our American range including some of the best Napa Valley wines HERE

Having followed COVID-19 Government advice, we have temporarily closed our London office until further notice, we are however operating as normal. Click here to read more