Tuesday, 25 June 2013

the oaks of napa...

When conducting classes about the world of wine, California always stands out as a teaching tool to show how oak impacts the flavour of a given wine. First, there is the Chardonnay showing. A Chablis (the classic expression of unoaked Chardonnay), delicate with subtle flavours of mineral and green apple, is completely overshadowed by the toasty banana-cream pie with vanilla whip cream flavours of a full-bodied Napa Chardonnay. For the reds, I compare the complex relation of cedar, baking spice, coffee and graphite of an aged Left Bank Bordeaux to its bold Napa brother that is big on fruit, vanilla, and coconut.

Those examples, however, are merely used to showcase extreme ends of the flavour spectrum. Oaky expressions of big butter and vanilla fruit bombs may be a trend among Napa producers, but they are by no means the standard by which all producers make their wines here. Still, the use of oak does play an important role in California winemaking. American and/or French barrels may be used to impart bold or subtle flavours, a balance of new and/or old barrels will impact intensity, and the choice of fermenting in barrels may also create more integrated oaky flavours.

These, however, are questions faced by any winemaker in the world and not just by Californians. Why, then, does oak seem to play such a dominant role in the Napa-style of wine? Sure, the North American palate generally prefers the bolder flavours of a strong oak programme, but I on the other hand think that psychosomatics may have a hand. When two of your major AVAs have the word “Oak” in them, you can’t help but wonder if the acorn is subliminally planted in the minds of the winemaker.

Oakville and Oak Knoll are the AVAs of which I speak, and straddle the valley floor as and form the cookie shell that surrounds the creamy middle that is Yountville and Stag’s Leap AVAs. Both Oaks are diverse in their terroir, and each are home to many wineries that produce a wide style of wines. Here are a list of discoveries I made amid the Oaks of Napa.

Gentle Slopes and flats of Oak Knoll
Oak Knoll
The southernmost AVA entirely in Napa County, Oak Knoll benefits more from the cool breezes and fogs from San Pablo Bay. This makes for wines that are generally a little lighter in body bodied and slightly higher acidity wines. As Oak Knoll also happens to be the AVA closest to where I am staying, I’ve already introduced you to Luna, Razi, William Hill, and Del Dotto, but wait! There’s more!:

 Darioush (www.Darioush.com) -  While many big-name wineries are surprisingly hard to find, there is no missing Darioush. The big and bold style of the winery reflect the weight and passion in the wines that are as well balanced as they are big. The full-bodied, floral and savoury Viognier is among the best in the Valley, and the Cabernet programme top-notch; look for the Caravan label for high-quality Napa wine at a reasonable price.

 Signorello (www.signorelloestate.com) -  On the very northern edge of Oak Knoll, Signorello may have an Italian name but the wines are a blend of Napa terroir and French winemaking. Very good quality wines of classic Napa varietals Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are not the overt oaky-styles you’d expect, but the very Rhone-esque Syrah is arguably the best I’ve had in California thus far; a little more fruit than the French, but savoury and refreshing acidity show this varietal can succeed here.

 Trefethen (www.trefethen.com) – Another of my favourite Cabernets, Trefethen has a large Oak Knoll estate from which to choose their grapes. With hints of baking spice at a youthful age, the Napa Cab is not a big fruit bomb, and their XXXX vineyard shows potential for prolonged aging. A neat addition to their programme is their dry-Riesling; lime and petrol would have you in Clare Valley in a blind tasting.

For any fellow former (or current) Torontonian, the Napa Oakville is not the sandwiched suburban sprawl sand but instead a vast spread of vineyards and wineries around a town so small you’d blink to miss it. Generally flat and right in the middle of Napa Valley, the wines of Oakville tend to be full-bodied and rich in fruit flavour, and the best wineries are able to produce wines of elegance and longevity in this warm climate:

Silver Oak (www.silveroak.com) – The name says it all for the theme of this email. Located halfway between the Silverado Trail and Oakville itself (hence the name), Silver Oak has earned international reputation based on premium Cabernet Sauvignon aged 24 months in French barrels. Grapes are sourced from both the Alexander Valley (in Sonoma) and Napa, offering a relatively lighter, food friendly style and a more robust, needs-a-steak style. Look for their Twomey labels for more youthful styles of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.

Miner (www.minerwines.com) – The Wild Yeast Chardonnay Miner is a go-to instruction tool when showcasing how an oaky Chardonnay can have more complexity than just butter and vanilla. Perched on slopes surrounded by vineyards, the tasting room offers a beautiful view of the Oakville AVA. A fun discovery here was their Sangiovese and Sangiovese Rose; a nice touch of Italy for a Mediteranean-meets California dinner.

Paraduxx (www.paraduxx.com) - A duckling in the St.Helena-based Duckhorn family of wines, Paraduxx is a label that specialises in Zinfandel. Their most popular label, "Z" (zee down here, zed back home), is roughly two-thirds Zinfandel with the balance filled up by Cabernet Sauvignon. Z's brother, "C," is its mirror opposite, but both letter labels showcase varietal expression with the supporting grape adding a bit more. Single Vineyard expressions of Z are found in their Howell Mountain and the fuller-bodied, all Oak Knoll-sourced Rector Creek.
Next on the agenda: a day leaping through the Stag's Leap wineries!

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