Winemakers often talk of terroir; they also say, “wine is made in the vineyard.” If they aren’t presented with quality grapes, they can’t make truly distinctive wines.
While terroir encompasses the totality of the climate influences, soil, as the medium in which grapes grow, reflects the influence of all those elements while supplying its own — the components of the dirt.
Consider Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. While there is a generally recognized “Napa style” — pronounced fruit, lavish oak, richness, concentration, firm but supple texture — there are different expressions attributable to Napa’s different appellations.
Generally, Napa appellations can be understood by distinguishing between the valley floor and the hills and mountains. Those mountains are the Vaca Range to the east and the Mayacamas to the west. Then we can differentiate among the 16 official sub-appellations.
This column explores seven sub-appellations, from north to south, with recommended wines.
Valley floor vineyards feature mostly sediments washed from the mountains, producing fertile, nutrient-rich soils. Valley floor wines tend to upfront fruit with good structure but a more broad, lush mouthfeel and graceful tannins.
• Calistoga, at the northern end of the valley, is the warmest region. Its mostly volcanic soils yield sturdy Cabernets. The Duckhorn “Three Palms Vineyard” (2016, $100), from spare loam and volcanic soils, is large-scaled, deeply flavored, powerful and complex.
• St. Helena boasts mostly fertile volcanic soils (and riper, more graceful wines) in the north and east and less fertile sedimentary soils (and powerful, earthy wines) in the south and west. J. Lohr Carol’s Vineyard (2016, $60), along Silverado Trail, with gravelly and sandy loam, is fairly concentrated with dark berries plus notes of mocha, tobacco and earth.
• Rutherford is fairly fertile and mostly sedimentary, with gravelly and sandy soils on the west side and more fertile volcanic soils on the east side. In general, the wines are rich and supple with fine-grained tannins. The 2016 Duckhorn ($100) offers intense fruit, dusty tannins, earthy notes and a flinty character.
• Coombsville, located east of the city of Napa, is mostly rocky volcanic and alluvial deposits from the Vaca Range. The wines are well-structured with rich earth notes. The 2017 Mi Sueño “Mama Ester” ($95) offers bold dark fruits, mocha and a tight, structured palate.
For hillside and mountainside vineyards, higher altitudes generally mean thinner, less fertile and rocky, dry soils. This stresses the vines, producing intense, firmly structured wines with bright fruit and powerful, sometimes unruly, tannins ripe for resolution with aging.
• Howell Mountain, located in the northern Vaca Range, has rocky volcanic and gravelly clay soils that are thin and nutrient-poor. This generally produces large-scaled wines with wild fruit character, tobacco and age-worthy tannins. The 2016 Duckhorn ($100) balances power and structure with poise and grace.
• Atlas Peak, in the southern Vaca Range, has mostly volcanic and basalt soils, making for wines of bright red fruits, earth tones, density and firm tannins. The 2017 Chappellet “Signature” ($70) is concentrated, delightfully spirited and earthy.
• Mount Veeder, at the southern end of the Mayacamas, features mostly shallow soils of sandstone or sandy loam from a former seabed. Hallmarks include dark fruits, earth and bright structure. The 2017 Mi Sueño “Lynn’s Vineyard” ($95) shows jammy character with nicely incorporated oak and tobacco plus a sleek texture.