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Since George Yount planted the first Napa Valley vineyards in 1838, this small valley has grown to be considered one of the premier winegrowing regions in the world.
Though just 30 miles long and a few miles wide, Napa Valley and its famous sub-appellations: Atlas Peak, Chiles Valley, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Los Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Spring Mountain, Stags Leap, Yountville, Wild Horse Valley, Oak Knoll, and Calistoga has a rich wine-making history.
Napa Valley is home to diverse microclimates and soils uniquely suited to the cultivation of a variety of fine wine varietals. Vitis vinifera (wine grapes) that make good wine in other parts of the world outstanding wine in Napa Valley, and in specific locations within the Napa Valley, these very same grapes make exceptional wine.
Once within these superb locations, the discussion becomes not how good the wines are, but about the characteristics of the wines. Some locations favor certain grape varieties, and where a single grape will show distinctive aromas, flavors, color, texture, acidity and “personality”.
Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa is the best known, but this region also produces fine Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc.
You can’t talk about Napa without mentioning Robert Mondavi, a prime force behind wine education and winemaking in the Valley. He is credited with introducing Fumé Blanc, spearheading the Opus One venture and creating very good inexpensive generic table wines such as the Woodbridge label. Today, several generations later, Mondavi family members continue to carry on the family’s rich winemaking heritage. In addition to the wines Robert Mondavi founded, Michael Mondavi Family Estate is home to Oberon and several wine companies including M by Michael Mondavi, Isabel Mondavi I’M Wines, Medusa, Spellbound, Emblem and Hangtime labels.
I’M Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($17) is made at the Folio Winemakers’ Studio in Carneros, Napa Valley and bottled in a Bordeaux-shape bottle. Inspired by Michael Mondavi’s wife, Isabel Mondavi, this Chardonnay is designed to deliver a refined, well-balanced style. Not your typical Chardonnay, this light gold wine oozes elegance with just a slight hint of oak. The wine has ripe orchard fruit flavors and mineral characteristics, lending warmth and lushness. Delicious!
A third generation Mondavi, Rob Mondavi, Jr., learned wine making from his father Michael and grandfather Robert. As a child, he chased winemaker Tony Coltrin around Robert Mondavi Winery. Today, Rob and Tony their present-day partnership has created the wines of Oberon.
Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2008 ($22) is a deep-colored blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 3% Syrah, 1% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petite Verdot. There is a concentration of flavors: lush black fruits, dark berry and cassis with notes of vanilla and toffee from spending eighteen months in French Oak barrels. The wine’s rich cherry, dark berry and cassis flavors and provide a beautifully rounded mouth feel that pairs beautifully with steak, lamb and duck dishes, and flavorful cheeses.
Oberon Cabernet’s “Big Brother” Oberon Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2007, is another delicious blend (99% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Merlot) from Rutherford, Oakville, Atlas Peak and Pope Valley appellations, but be prepared to spend a bit more for this opulent and delicious wine as it commands a $79 price tag.
Also in Napa Valley is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, considered one of Napa Valley’s first-growths. The historic Stag Leap District estate vineyards are renowned for producing the most highly regarded and sought after Cabernet Sauvignons worldwide. Founded by the Warren Winiarski family in 1972, this winery brought international recognition to California winemaking and Napa Valley when the 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon won the “Judgment of Paris.” in 1976.
Karia 2008 , Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley ($28) is a graceful seamless integration of fresh-fruit aromas and flavors, crisp acidity and subtle oak spice. Bright, juicy apple and pear, minerality and citrus notes run rampant. A light touch of oak and malolactic fermentation accent the fruit without overwhelming it. Aromas of mineral, apple, pear and spice lead to complex, layered flavors of spiced golden apple, Meyer lemon and candied ginger, with just a hint of hazelnut and caramel. This medium-bodied wine sports balanced ripe fruit, understated spice, mouth-filling texture and refreshing acidity. Karia pairs perfectly with a wide range of dishes: crab and corn chowder, roast chicken or salmon.
The wine that made Napa famous, S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 ($100) remains true to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars house style of complex and balanced wines capable of long-term cellaring. In 1976, Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.) Cabernet Sauvignon, 1973 burst upon the scene and stunned the world when it bested top-flight Bordeaux and California Cabernet-based wines in the “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting.
It’s easy to see why the 2007 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon was rated 91 Points by Wine Advocate (December 2010), it has dark blackberry/black plum aromas and flavors, as well as notes of cassis, bramble, Chinese five-spice, caramel and vanilla. There is an elegant mineral quality on the nose and lingering finish. The tannins are like raw silk: slightly nubby, yet still smooth. Serve S.L.V. with filet mignon or, for non-carnivores, an earthy wild-mushroom risotto.
Also at the now-famous Paris Tasting was Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, 1973. It too, beat the best of France by coming in first. Shortly after that win, in 1977, wine maker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. coffee family founded Grgich Hills Estate in the heart of Napa Valley. Today, Grgich Hills is biodynamic using holistic farming practices and organic preparations without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or fungicides. One example of their fine wine is Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2008 Estate Grown, Napa Valley ($37). This elegant Chardonnay is alive with delicious acidity, aromas of ripe peach, mango and tropical flowers, plus a note of minerality. This aromatic Chardonnay did not undergo malolactic fermentation and it showcases fresh seafood, roasted chicken, grilled pork, or creamy cheeses very well.
The next winery of note is Conn Creek. Founded in 1973, Conn Creek quickly established itself as one of Napa Valley’s premier Cabernet houses with the release of its 1974 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Named for the winery’s location next to Conn Creek near the Rutherford Crossroad, Conn Creek has earned top scores by crafting a portfolio of limited production Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons — including Anthology, blended from the best appellation grapes of each vintage.
A good value is the Conn Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007 ($20). This 100% based Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of fruit from nine of the 15 Napa Valley sub-AVAs. It offers a complex mélange of aromas and flavors beginning with rich, dark fruit and subtle hints of chocolate and toasted oak. Dark, luscious cherry and plum flavors come alive on the palate and meld with notes of spice, chocolate and licorice leading to a rich finish. Pair it with hearty beef dishes or ripe cheeses.
A relative “newcomer”, Hall Wines Napa Valley is a premiere winery with estate vineyards that encompass more than five hundred acres of classic Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Owned by former U.S. Ambassador Kathryn Hall and her husband Craig, Hall employs organic small-vine viticulture, precision winemaking, native yeast fermentation and micro-block blending. Although they make elegant Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s worth taking a look at some of their other wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.
The richly layered and textured Hall Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 ($18) was rated 91 Points by Wine & Spirits Magazine, (June 2010). It’s a fresh and focused Sauvignon Blanc balanced with ripe fruit and bright acidity. The backbone of this fruit-forward blend delivers vibrant citrus flavors of pink grapefruit, Meyer lemon, minerality, tropical aromatics and opulence—all complemented by a lush cascade of guava and lychee on the palate carrying through to a crisp finish.
Hall Napa Valley Merlot, 2006 ($25) is a rich, intensely concentrated wine from two premier estate vineyards. Rated 93 Points by Wine News, (November 2009), this wine has great structure, backbone and elegant mid-palate. There’s an alluring nose of bing cherry, violets, cocoa and baking spice that seamlessly leads to generous red fruit and a velvety texture. The expressive flavors of dark cherry, toasted oak and blackberry jam will continue to evolve for the next 5-7 years.
With more than 400 wineries, mostly small family-owned operations, and numerous more brands. You’re sure to find something delicious that suits your fancy.
Or, a dozen of the 2010 Top Wines
Every year the Wine Spectator publishes their “Top 100” wines and folks go rushing to find these wines to try only to discover the vintage listed in the Spectator is long gone and the price listed is nowhere near the price on the store shelf. It’s a conundrum.
These poor wine drinkers sometimes think retailers are holding back or marking them up because of the great rating. In reality, the rating has created a larger demand for a finite supply of wine. What little remains of the highly rated vintage, becomes pricier and the new vintage can command the new higher price too.
Another issue the readers often complain about is that the price listed in the magazine isn’t the same as what they find on store shelves. If it doesn’t accurately reflect your region it’s because the price listed is an average of the price of the wine worldwide.
Many think that only high priced wines appear on the list. Not true. This year, five of the wines are over $100 and there is only one over $500 (Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Hommage à Jacques Perrin Grande Cuvée 2007). But 69 of the 2010 Top 100 are under $50 and of those, 45 are in the $10 – $28 range.
Happily, many of my favorites are listed. Since anyone can love an expensive wine, I decided to select some favorite reds from the list that are definitely affordable and always consistent from vintage to vintage. Not only do they taste great, they make great gift ideas. These reds definitely look sexy in a glass.
Here are a few particularly good buys offering consistency, so you don’t need to worry if you find the “correct vintag” on the shelf.
The Basic: Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir lovers will find Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2008 fragrant with ripe raspberry and holiday spice. At 94 points, this ruby-hued pinot noir is ranked 6th and it’s bursting with Russian River Valley character. It’s firmly structured, silky and hosts a plethora of Bing cherry and blackberry flavors spiked with hints of Darjeeling tea and cardamom. There is a subtle earthiness and balanced acidity that punctuates a lengthy finish. (About $45)
At nearly half the price of Paul Hobbs, and ranking 75th, A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 2008 is a deeply colored ruby with aromas of minerals, red and black cherries, and spice. Rated 90 points, this wine shows rich, red cherry and blue berried fruits, dark spice and dusty tannins. (About $22)
Merlot may have gotten a bad rap in that “Sideways” movie, but many still name this varietal as their favorite. We offer two from the great Northwest that you should definitely consider for holiday drinking. The first is number 43, Columbia Crest Merlot from Horse Heaven Hills H3 2007. This 91-point Merlot blend ( 92% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Cabernet Franc) entices the nose with aromas of blueberry, cassis, hints of tobacco and spice aromas. The silky and sweet mid-palate has a slightly dusty, earthy component compounded by rich berry notes cumulating in a long and delicious finish. (About $15)
Following closely behind at number 46 and 92 points, is the Waterbrook Merlot Columbia Valley Reserve 2007. Here you will find aromas of brandied black cherries, mint, tar and charcoal on the nose. Smoky and dusty notes are followed by black walnut with a hint of molasses and lingering oak on the finish. (About $22)
Que Syrah, Shiraz
Bigger, bolder and more intense, this next wine is California Syrah at it’s best. Ranked 17th, the 95-point Tensley Syrah Santa Barbara County Colson Canyon Vineyard 2008 has bright raspberry nuances. We love the pepper, smoke, coffee, chocolate, and sweet vanilla flavors that bring us to the fabulous finish. This is a BIG, balanced, approachable Syrah that will age gracefully over the next 8 to 10 years. (About $38)
At around $15, number 92 is De Martino Syrah Choapa Valley Legado Reserva 2007. This South American gem offers up fresh aromas of red fruit with hints of chocolate and a rich, velvety mouth-feel. The velvety texture is balanced with hints of pepper and persistent mineral notes. This 90-pointer makes for a great food wine accompanying everything from burgers and pizza to steak and lasagna.
When in Doubt, Go with a Red Blend
Whenever you’re in doubt about your gift recipient’s favorite varietal, go with a blend. Blends are great, there is usually at least one grape your “giftee” will love. My first find is a Portuguese wine ranked in 9th place: CARM Douro Reserva 2007. CARM stands for Casa Agrícola Roboredo Madeira. A blend of a few indigenous grapes (50% Touriga Nacional, 25% Tinta Roriz, and 25% Touriga Franca), this is an elegant and powerful red, with intense aromas and flavors of red berry, smoke, raspberry and spice leading to a rich finish of crushed red fruits an fig. It seems very Burgundian in style with its structured well-integrated tannins. This 94-point wine should cellar well through 2017. (About $25)
Number 77 is a 90-point red from Australia: Peter Lehmann’s Clancy’s Barossa 2007. This red begins with Shiraz blended to it is 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. This robust full-bodied wine shows delicious velvet fruits of dark plum and berry. Licorice, smoke and herb flavors follow through to the lingering finish. It reminds me of a black forest chocolate cake. It is a soft, approachable and enjoyable wine. (About $16)
Our third red blend is ranked 63 and is d’Arenberg The Stump Jump Red South Australia 2008. The name ‘Stump Jump’ refers to the Stump Jump plough, a South Australian invention with the ability to ride over stumps and gnarled roots. Like the plough, this light and fragrant 90-point Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvèdre blend just jumps with flavor. There are ripe juicy fresh red berries, mulberry, fresh plum mixed with dark cherry, rhubarb, and a hint of pomegranate. Then there is the subtle layer of spice—cardamon, star anise, and cinnamon—adding complexity and interest. There are refined tannins and a nice lingering finish. This wine retails for about $11 yet we’ve seen this as low as $7.99. It’s definitely a great buy!
The Foodies: Italian Wines
Italian wine lovers will love number 25. The 96-point Ruffino Toscana Modus 2007 from the Chianti hills blends Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to the Sangiovese base. This is a solidly structured wine with typical cherry and red berry aromas. Complex and smooth, the wine is enriched by delicate notes of mint and small black berry fruits from the Merlot; the austerity, herbaceousness and elegance comes from the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon. Delicious with meals it makes an excellent gift. (About $35)
One of my all-time favorites and consistently rated above 90 points every year, is number 65: Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Chianti Rufina Castello di Nipozzano Riserva 2007. This clean and racy mouthful shows the bright fruit flavors of sweet blueberry, cherry, and hints of violet and lilac, all supported by a firm minerality. This is a full-bodied wine with fine tannins and vanilla in the lingering finish. (About $24).
A Go-to Wine
Number 44 is a great go-to wine, Bodegas LAN Rioja Crianza 2006 from the heart of Spain. This bright, zesty Tempranillo is a brilliant cherry red sporting scents of crushed rose petals and frisky cherry tomato. The tannins are light, with a gravelly feel. This is a versatile red perfect for drinking by the glass or pairing with practically anything. This wine is consistently rated around 90 points and makes and excellent hostess gift. (About $12)
The twelve reds for Christmas, all perfect for gift giving and drinking. Happy Holidays!