Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Napa's Terrior

In a discussion with a friend -- an admitted Francophile when it comes to wines -- the topic of terroir came up.  The argument my friend made is that French wines are superior to Californian, because they express the terroir of their home region better.  I argue that there is, in fact, distinct terroir to Californian wines, and will use Napa valley to illustrate the point.  Note that I'm not arguing the superiority of Californian or French wine, just trying to disabuse the notion that Californian wines are soul-less and lack terroir (only some of them fit into that category... and the same could be said of mass-market French, or Italian, or Australian, or Chilean wine.  Anywhere that you produce wine as an industrial product, you'll have soul-less wine with no terroir!).

So, perhaps an explanation of what, exactly, "terroir" is would be in line here, as it's a French term that has no direct equivalent in English.  Basically, the idea of terroir is that the dirt (and climate, and drainage, and level of shade) here is different from the dirt (and climate, and drainage, and level of shade) there, and therefore wine made from the same grapes here will be different from the wine made there.  Ideally, a wine expressing terroir makes someone who tastes it blind immediately go "this is from only one spot on this green Earth, right there."  The idea of terroir explains why, for example, Petrus commands such a high price -- it's grown in a specific point in Pomerol, and there's no place exactly like it anywhere else, and that place happens to grow terrific grapes that express terroir well.

We'll be talking about Cabernet -- it's the grape that made Napa famous, and it's the red varietal that is most arguably the best expression of what a "good" wine from the region is.  Napa Cabernet runs from $10 to "hey, how much do you want to spend?" to "it's completely unavailable unless you're on the mailing list," and that's just for the new releases.  It's the crown jewel grape of Napa.

So, let's look at the AVAs within Napa.  Broadly speaking, they divide into mountainside AVA's (Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain near the west, Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak on the east, and the Chiles Valley), and valley floor (everywhere else).  The wines from the mountainsides tend to be a bit less fruit-forward than the valley floor wines, and have more acidity.  The valley floor wines tend to be a bit rounder and more intensely flavored.

Additionally, different AVAs have their own distinct characteristics; Diamond Mountain tends to show off cocoa and espresso, while Mt. Veeder is much more earthy.  Oakville wines tend towards intense, richly textured wines with a hint of mint, while Stag's Leap District is best described as an "iron fist in a velvet glove," with beautiful, velvety tannins.

So what does that mean for someone drinking a bottle of Napa Valley's best?  Simple; if you want big fruit, go to the valley floors.  For wine with more ageability, look to the mountains.  If you find a winery makes a wine from an AVA that has a style you like... you'll likely enjoy the wines from their neighbors!

And, the best argument for Napa having terrior?  Why do you think the cult (and would-be cult) wines concentrate themselves in Oakville -- Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Ghost Block, and Nickel & Nickel all source from there...  The rich, ripe fruit, subtle tannins, and moderate acidity have a lot to do with it.  

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