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Napa Valley

Not only the most famous wine area in California, but also in the United States of America, Napa Valley is famous for its wines produced with international grapes and with the local Zinfandel

 Napa Valley is the most famous wine area in California and surely of all the United States of America. The fame of this area is such that frequently Napa Valley is considered as synonym of American wine, as to shade other interesting areas, not only those in California. Strongly based on the production of wine with the most famous “international” grapes, Napa Valley is appreciated in the world for the “international” style of its wines, from white ones to red ones, as well as sparkling wines produced with classic method system. Maybe, it is the lack of ancient traditions - just like in other wine areas with recent history - which allows Napa Valley to make use of the most modern technologies and methods of production, also supported in this by the American quality system - AVA (American Viticultural Area) - giving more chances to the enterprise of the wineries without following to traditional principles.

 Anyway, in this “international” and modern scenery it is possible to find an ancient grape, now considered as an autochthonous grape of the United States of America: Zinfandel. Although it is not so clear how and when Zinfandel arrived in the United States of America, different theories were proposed, and it is believed there is a strong connection with Primitivo - typical in Apulia, Italy - and with Plavac Mali, typical in Dalmatia. Two similar grapes coming from Zagarese, a grape variety from the Balkans. What it is possible to say for sure is that Zinfandel has been introduced from Europe and was known in the United States of America since nineteenth century and the grape was already used for wine production. Whatever the origins and causes which brought this grape to the other part of the Atlantic ocean, today Zinfandel is considered as an autochthonous grape of the United States of America.


Napa Valley
Napa Valley

 History of California - according to a wine production point of view - began earlier than nineteenth century. Some Franciscan monks introduced - after the half of 1700's - vine in the lands of California. In the beginning was introduced mission grape, followed by other European grape varieties with which, while viticulturists of the eastern coast did not know about this and tried hard for the same goal, they succeeded in making wine for the first time in the United States of America by using European varieties. The history of viticulture and of enology in Napa Valley area began later, exactly in 1838, when George C. Yount planted his first vineyard with Mission grape. The first results came in 1840, when the first wines were produced with the grapes from these vineyards. George C. Yount's production was intended for personal use and it will take a little more than twenty years to see the birth of the first commercial winery.

 In 1861, was established the first winery in Napa Valley thanks to Charles Krug, followed by Schramsberg in 1862, Beringer in 1876, Inglenook in 1879 and Beaulieu Vineyards in 1900. The development of enology in Napa Valley was - at those times - pretty quick and solid: in the course of just twenty years, it was possible to count in this area more than 160 companies focused on viticulture and wine production. The quality of wines at those times was not certainly comparable to those produced in Napa Valley today, although wine production began to play an important role. The strong expansion was stopped in the 1880's - just like in Europe - with the arrive of phylloxera, which devastated Napa Valley vineyards. It was then canceled the patient selection work made by Napa Valley viticulturists on the potentialities of European varieties in different areas.


 

 Phylloxera was not the only factor which stopped Napa Valley viticulture and wine production. When the first signs of a reprise were noticed, another determinant event affected the development of enology, not only of Napa Valley, but of all the United States of America. This time the responsibility was not because of natural events, but to the intervention of man and to his laws. From 1920 to 1933, viticulture and wine production, as well as the production of any alcoholic beverage, was severely limited and reduced by the institution of prohibitionism, which forbade the production, transport and sale of any alcoholic beverage. During this period, only the production of sacramental wine was allowed, or anyway wines having therapeutic properties. Prohibitionism, which determined the end of many wineries, did not however determine the decline of consumptions - which in facts increased in that period - while boosting home made and clandestine production.

 Only few wineries survived the effects of Phylloxera and prohibitionism. The few ones which succeeded were involved in the production of sacramental wines and to the sale of grapes for home wine making. The effects of these two events will be evident until the 1950's, when in Napa Valley existed a little more than a dozen of wineries. Tangible signs of reprise will occur in the 1960's, when Joe Heitz established - in 1961 - “Heitz Wine Cellars”, in 1966 Davies family resumed Schramsberg's activity, and in the same year Robert Mondavi left the family company Charles Krug Winery, establishing his own winery. In the following years, many wineries were established in Napa Valley, and today there are about 200 companies producing wine with grapes coming from the vineyards cultivated on an area of more than 13.700 hectares (about 33,800 acres). Today, Napa Valley is considered one of the most important wine production areas, both for quality and for the enological model strongly based on modern and advanced criteria, in a perfect “international” style.

 

Classification of Napa Valley

 Napa Valley is in California, North-East from San Francisco, and the wine production area is recognized by the American quality system as Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area). AVA quality system was introduced in 1983 with the aim of identifying American wines, by following the models used in Europe, like the French AOC system (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, Appellation of Controlled Origin). Contrary to most of the European quality systems, the criteria regulating AVA system are pretty permissive. While in European quality systems, such as the French one, are defined more strict and precise criteria and parameters, such as grape varieties permitted in a specific area, the maximum yield per hectare and the minimum alcohol by volume of wines, AVA system is essentially based on the geographic definition of viticultural areas.

 According to the American quality system, the only requirement for a wine mentioning in the label a specific AVA, is that at least 85% of the grapes come from that recognized production area. The recognition of a new area is determined by the proposal of viticulturists. The decision is taken according to the existence of specific characteristics of the area, topographic conditions, such as soil and - in certain cases - historical precedents. In many cases inside a specific AVA can also be defined other production areas, and this is the case of Napa Valley. The whole Napa Valley area is recognized as AVA, and inside its territory are also defined the following viticultural areas: Atlas Peak, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, Oakville, Rutherford, Chiles Valley, Spring Mountain District, Diamond Mountain District, St. Helena, Howell Mountain, Stag's Leap District, Mount Veeder, Wild Horse Valley and Yountville.

 

Production Areas

 The viticultural area of Napa Valley covers the territory of Napa County, with the exception of a small part located in the North-East area of Lake Berryessa. Napa Valley is located North-East from San Francisco, beginning from the southern part of San Pablo Bay which borders San Francisco Bay. The southern part of Napa Valley - according to the climatic regions of California - belongs to the cool region I, whereas the northern part belongs to the warmer region III. Moreover, in Napa Valley is defined part of the territory of Carneros AVA - with the remaining part being in Sonoma area - whose wines do not mention Napa Valley AVA in their label, as opposed to the other AVA sub areas defined in the county which must mention it instead.

 With the exception of Zinfandel, the viticulture of Napa Valley is entirely based on international grape varieties of French origin. Among white grape varieties, 65% of vineyards in the area are cultivated with Chardonnay. Moreover, among white grape varieties, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sémillon and Gewürztraminer are cultivated as well. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most cultivated red grape variety in Napa Valley, representing more than 50%. The other typical red berried grapes of Napa Valley include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah, a grape having no connection with the renowned Syrah typical in Rhône Valley, France. It is believed - although there are some doubts about this theory - Petite Sirah is the Durif grape, a crossing between Peloursin and Syrah grapes, invented in France in the 1880's by doctor Durif, now disappeared from French vineyards.

 Although Napa Valley is the most famous viticultural area in California, here it is produced only the 4% of the total wine produced in the state. In fact, the area is pretty small and covers - from north to south - a distance of 50 kilometers (about 30 miles), and a variable width between 1.5 and 8 kilometers (1 and 4 miles). The volcanic eruptions of ancient times were responsible for the diversity of soils found in Napa Valley, belonging to eight of the twelve known geologic classifications. A geologic diversity like this allows the production of totally different wines even within few kilometers, also because of the different weather conditions of the valley, cooler in the south, near San Pablo Bay, warmer in the north. Although the geologic richness and the climatic diversity can make everyone believe in Napa Valley it is possible to obtain excellent results with any kind of grape, indeed the best wines are undoubtedly those produced with Cabernet Sauvignon, characterized by a full body and complexity, although in many cases, in these wines are added Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec as well.

 Among the most important AVA sub areas defined in Napa Valley are mentioned Atlas Peak, Stag's Leap District, Spring Mountain District, Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville. Stag's Leap District area - located in the southern part of Napa Valley - is characterized by its vineyards at the feet of rocky mountains and with which are produced its famous Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Other famous areas for Cabernet Sauvignon wines are Rutherford and Oakville. Among white wines, Chardonnay is certainly the most common grape variety and the best areas are Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and St. Helena. Other interesting wines are produced with Pinot Noir grapes - especially in the cooler southern area - and with Zinfandel, especially in the warmer areas of the north. Defining the style of Napa Valley is pretty hard as the geologic diversity of the area and the climatic differences represent pretty variable factors, in which every area is characterized by its own, most of the cases completely different from all the other ones.

 




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  ABC Wine Issue 40, April 2006   
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