September is California Wine Month!
September is California Wine Month, and we’re celebrating by talking about some of our favorite wine regions in the golden state. We’re starting off with the pinnacle of California wines: Napa’s magical Cabernet Sauvignons.
Napa Valley is a Wonderful Place for Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley is considered an esteemed vineyard region in Northern California, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon. But why? Like many other regions, the wines are good to exceptional based on many vineyard and winemaking factors. But, the underlying climate and growing conditions of Napa Valley are what makes this viticultural regional truly magical for Cabernet Sauvignon.
Let’s start off by talking about the grape called “Cabernet Sauvignon”. It’s one of the planet’s most iconic grape varieties because of its relative ease of cultivation (hardy, low yielding and resistant to rot and insects). Cabernet Sauvignon’s thick skins give its wines structure and complexity, and the grapes have a naturally high level of acidity and tannin, which makes wine made from it potentially capable of aging. The grape thrives in moderate-to-warm climates and almost every country that grows grapes has some Cabernet Sauvignon in its vineyards, somewhere. It’s the second most planted premium red grape variety worldwide with over 842,611 acres planted. It is a classic example of what is called an “International Grape Variety”.
Did you know? Cabernet Sauvignon is the result of a chance crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc in Southwest France and its existence only dates back to the 17th century.
Because Cabernet Sauvignon has high levels of pyrazines (from its Sauvignon Blanc ancestry) when it is not fully ripe or exposed to enough sunlight, it has a red-fruit character with hints of grass, mint and bell peppers. These are not flaws, just aromatics that are a result of its nature and the climate of the place where it is grown. As it ripens and is exposed to warmth and sunlight, those pyrazines breakdown and the red fruit turns to blackberry and black currant.
To make truly high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, winemakers try to find places that prolong the ripening process to maximize the flavor and complexity development in the grapes before harvest. At the same time, they try to ripen fruit (increase sugars but not so much that the wines are overly alcoholic), ripen tannins (lignification) and diminish acidity (but still have balance). And all of this should happen slowly and simultaneously late in the season… what are the chances of finding a place like that?
Napa Valley is exceptional at doing just that. It’s basically a narrow valley between the Inner Coastal Ranges (Mayacams Mountains) and the Eastern Coastal Ranges (Vaca Mountains), just north of a large body of cold ocean water. As the heat of the day beats down on the air in this valley, the air naturally rises and is replaced by the colder, denser ocean-cooled air over the San Pablo Bay. A fog will creep up the valley from south to north starting in the afternoon and lay over the valley at night until the sunlight of the next day burns it back to the bay. As the day heats up, the process starts all over.
This fog is essential for growing quality Cabernet Sauvignon on the Napa Valley floor. Without it, the sugars in the grapes would rise too quickly, the acids would drop too quickly, and the grapes would need to be picked before full flavor development could be achieved. The fog essentially slows down or stops the grapes from ripening any further when it is present and delays ripening until full flavor development can be achieved.
If the vineyards in Napa Valley are higher than 1,000 feet elevation, they are above the fog line and not influenced by it. Rather, they are influenced by the much cooler air that exists at that elevation, as well as the very meager top soils that are left on the mountains after thousands of years of rain. Grapes from vineyards like these ripen much more slowly than valley floor fruit, and it’s easier to achieve true ripeness late in the season. In addition to true flavor ripeness, there’s a concentration of flavor in mountain vineyards not present in valley floor vineyards. The thin topsoil and limited nutrients stress the vines and grapes become much smaller in overall size. Grape skins remain the same thickness, but the pulp inside each grape is reduced. The wines made from smaller grapes are much more concentrated, because their overall skin to juice ratios are higher. More skins produce wines of deeper color, more aromatic intensity, and greater tannin structure. Think of it like making tea with less water… you get stronger tea.
So, Napa Valley has almost ideal conditions for growing world class Cabernet Sauvignon, whether from vineyards on the valley floor or from its high elevation AVAs. Please try some of the following selections of premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and see what the fuss is all about!
Interested in picking up a Napa Cab? Here are a few of Chris’ favorites:Â
– Spring Mountain Vineyard, Estate, Napa Valley, CA 2013: This Cabernet Sauvignon is from the cooler and shaded Spring Mountain. It shows elegant raspberry and cassis aromas along with tea, sage brush and black licorice. Amazing structure and acidity make this a wine to age.
– Caymus, Napa Valley, CA 2017: Caymus has a signature style that is dark in color, with rich fruit and ripe velvety tannins as approachable in youth as in maturity. This Cabernet Sauvignon offers layered, lush aromas, including cocoa, cassis and ripe dark berries.
– Martin Ray, Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley, CA 2016: “The profile of Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon from Constant Vineyard-Diamond Mountain is fruit driven, cassis, black currant with dried lavender with slightly herbal tones” -Winemaker Keith Emerson
– Hess Collection, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, CA 2014: “The fingerprint of Mt. Veeder on this wine is its intense black fruit with good acid retention, making this wine have excellent age ability.”
Christopher Coon is an Advanced Sommelier (certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Specialist of Wine (certified by the Society of Wine Educators) and a French Wine Scholar (certified by the Wine Scholar Guild). Currently, he is the Senior Director, Wine Training and Education at Young’s Market Company for California, where he creates and teaches programs to onboard new sales associates. He also supports and mentors sales associates seeking the Society of Wine Educators (SWE) credentials of Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS). Chris is also the Examinations Officer for Young’s in the administration of all Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) classes and examinations. A New England native, some of Chris’ fondest memories about his family all take place around a noisy restaurant dinner table covered with food and wine. He has a deep respect for food and wine because of their ability to bring people together. Chris loves teaching and talking to people about wine, traveling to wine producing regions, and time with his family.