Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Small, Medium and Large in Napa Valley

Look no further than the Napa Valley if you want to see an example of wine tourism at its finest. This corner of California is a well-oiled machine of tasting rooms, tourist accommodation and world-class restaurants. The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s temple of fine dining, is located here, as are cult wineries Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle. But you should discard any notion you may have of an intimate tête-à-tête with folksy winemakers. Throngs of people pack the tasting rooms, and even though I was there on a weekday there was still a fair bit of traffic along the main thoroughfare, Highway 29. The Silverado Trail, a smaller road that runs parallel to Highway 29, was similarly congested, if not more so. The winery tours are well-managed however, with generous pourings and a relaxed vibe.

California is known for making bold, high-alcohol wines with lots of fruit, due to long sunshine hours which help to ripen the grapes. Napa Valley is sandwiched between the Mayacamas Mountains on the west and the Vaca Range to the east. Cool winds from the San Pablo Bay are funnelled through the valley, meaning that the further north you go in the Napa Valley the hotter the microclimate becomes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the two most popular and widely grown varieties here. Sauvignon Blanc (sometimes oaked) and Merlot are also widely available. I think the climate is a bit too hot for Sauvignon Blanc though, and many of the examples I have tasted from Napa lack freshness and a sense of identity.

How to select between the hundreds of wineries in the Valley? Firstly, have a budget, as each winery charges USD25 and upwards for tastings. The Twilight Tour I took at Robert Mondavi, for example, cost USD55 but was well-worth it as it was the only tour offered after 5pm and a good choice for those looking to maximise their time in the valley. Most wineries offer an online reservation system through CellarPass. Curiously, I didn’t hear any European or Asian accents during my visit. It could have been just a coincidence, or perhaps the Trump slump caused by stricter travel policies is having an effect on international visitors. In any case, it is unlikely that the Napa Valley will suffer much, as there are plenty of Americans to take up the slack.

The size of the winery makes a difference to the experience you will receive. While the guides at large wineries such as Robert Mondavi and Beaulieu Vineyard are knowledgeable and make an effort to answer questions, the wines tend to play it a little safe, especially at the entry-level. Wines a little higher up the quality ladder, such Beaulieu Vineyard’s Tapestry Reserve show much more interest and structure, as you might expect from a wine retailing at USD65. Then you have the super-premium wines such as Robert Mondavi’s Reserve To Kalon Vineyard Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, a sumptuous tribute to Napa Cabernet brimming with energy and varietal definition. This wine retails at USD165. It’s a different world from 1976 – the year where the Paris Tasting shocked the wine community by showing that Californian wines could go head to head with the best of France. With many wines going above USD50, finding a good value wine in California is now quite challenging.

One winery that manages to do so (within the context of Napa Valley at least) is Trefethen Vineyards. This medium-sized estate is family-owned, an increasing rarity in a world of buyouts, and their love for their work shines through in the care they have taken in the restoration of the main building which was damaged in a 2014 earthquake. An old oak tree which once fronted the winery had to be cut down, but was given a new lease of life in the form of a stately long table in the main tasting room. The tour here manages to convey a personal touch through the use of storytelling, such as the outrage of Beaune winemaker Robert Drouhin, who demanded a rematch when Trefethen’s Chardonnay took the top spot in the Gault & Millau Wine Olympics. It is indeed a very balanced and nuanced wine which shows a more European sensibility. A steal at USD36 for the 2015 vintage. Also impressive is the Dry Riesling (USD26) a lengthy exposition of grapefruit, lime and green apple notes, more Alsatian then German in style. The achievement is even more notable considering that the climate of Napa Valley is far too warm for this grape.

If you want to see the unbridled might of Napa Valley you should make a trip to Venge Vineyards, located right up north in Calistoga which is the warmest part of the valley. Winemaker Kirk Venge makes wines that are unabashedly Californian, displaying audacious fruit and ripeness. It’s a small operation that accepts visits by appointments only, so expect plenty of interaction with the staff and keep a lookout for Kirk himself – it’s hard to miss this two metre tall giant. The winery is noted for its Silencieux and Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons, the latter which is a heady mix of blackberry jam and licorice, but their Atlas Peak Sangiovese is also incredibly captivating. It has a lot of extract, due to Kirk’s use of the ripasso method whereby dried grape skins are added to the fermenting Sangiovese to deepen colour and flavour. There’s an exotic cola note to this wine, which walks a tightrope balance between freshness and a generous bounty of plum and black cherry compote.

Food has always been my secondary priority when visiting wine regions, but worthy mention should be given to Gott’s Roadside Burgers, dishing up delicious patties at the Oxbow Public Market. Also at the same location is an outlet of Anette’s Chocolates featuring sweet, crunchy brittles. The Firey Beer Brittle, a concoction of blended peppers and hops, is positively addictive.

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