Napa's warm climate lends itself to blockbuster wines, but is this stereotype set in stone? SUSAN KEEVIL heads to California in search of wines that strive for real elegance

Napa’s warm climate lends itself to blockbuster wines, but is this stereotype set in stone? SUSAN KEEVIL heads to California in search of wines that strive for real elegance

I guess that’s the terroir we’re faced with,’ sighs Mark Beringer of Duckhorn Wine Company. ‘It’s hot here. The sugars are high. Big wines just happen.’ Softening things up to get gentler, more food-friendly wines is difficult. ‘We can try to avoid high sugars by taxing the vine, by letting it load up with fruit, and then dropping a lot of it at veraison. We can also put in cover crops. We do these things so the vine hurries up and gets things ripe before 28 Brix (sugar levels),’ he explains. But mostly these tricks simply don’t work. ‘Low-yield vines find it too easy to ripen in Napa – you can’t tax them enough’.

Nobody’s going to stand over the vines and force them to struggle (the maxim is ‘great wines come from vines that strive’). Beringer and his co-winemaker Anthony Biagi are young and savvy enough to realise there’s a strong market for what comes naturally: big, ripe ‘blockbuster’ wines. But they also know that complexity is of key importance.

‘We’ve got into a rut thinking by numbers in California, so we’ve decided to go out in the vineyard at Duckhorn and do something different. We’ve spent too long picking by Brix. Now we pick when things “feel” ready, when the seeds turn brown, the leaves start yellowing and the wood starts hardening. This way the wines are a little more soft, a
little more expressive of the terroir.’Duckhorn wines have the classic Napa profile – big and bold – and though Tony and Mark don’t particularly want them to get too burly, they’re not going to lose any sleep over them. With strong, structured Cabernets full of ripe, appealing blueberry and blackcurrant fruit, their wines stack up right next in line to the high-scoring California Cults, and fetch prices accordingly. They’re lovely big wines, so why should they do anything differently? Further down the Valley, Robert Sinskey has an opinion. ‘I can’t stand testosterone wines,’ he says. ‘Wine should take you on a journey. What you’ll see across the board with all our wines is subtlety. If a wine has given itself up on first taste, it’s done – boring. You should learn, as on a first date, more and more about the person or wine with each experience.’

Like his wines perhaps, Sinskey is earnest and less flamboyant than other Napa growers. His is the kind of brooding, insistent passion of someone who knows he’s in the minority. For him, balance in a wine revolves around mineral acidity, and while the acidity comes forward, alcohol and tannin are sent back. ‘The heat of alcohol exacerbates tannins,’ says Sinskey. ‘There used to be a feeling that you needed tannin, but if you’re surly when you’re young, you’re surly when you’re old as far as I can see. It doesn’t necessarily soften.’ To keep acidity to the fore, he sources his fruit from the cooler, more southerly Stags Leap district of Napa – much of his fruit is sourced in Carneros, too. He and his wife Maria have a real consciousness about food (she is a chef of some standing in the Valley), which has led them both to see what they feel is a real flaw in traditional American winemaking. ‘People have gone too far with lower and lower acidity until the wine starts to resemble milkshake. Our benchmark is a sort of Burgundian minerality, with the complexity of Bordeaux – not a dollop of cherry but more stone fruit character and more good acidity!’

Sinskey’s Stags Leap wines epitomise what he is trying to do. For a start they’re less threatening on the eye: cool purple in the glass and not the brooding black of most Napa Cabs. 1996 has wonderful elegance, black fruits with a rounded raspberry edge and an enticing crispness; 1997 has more mushroomy minerality – a bit of spice too.

Sinskey is beginning to see the fire of this argument burning stronger. America’s TV ‘foodies’ are starting to draw attention to lower oak, higher acid wines, encouraging their increasingly knowledgeable viewers to think about these things too. He’s also quietly jubilant that the Mondavis have taken up the cause. Few Napa estates have more weight in these matters. ‘When the Mondavis campaign for higher acidity and less oak, then others are going to follow.’With vineyards in cooler Carneros, Sinsky might have a bit of an advantage in the elegance stakes. Surely it’s impossible to make ‘more restrained’ wines further north, in the hot heartland of Napa? At Frog’s Leap, owner John Williams disagrees. Suppleness, harmony and drinkability are the aim at Williams’ red barn in Rutherford (not the frog farm, which was the estate’s previous venue). ‘I don’t want to say wines should be “restrained” – perhaps that’s a bit negative in Napa – but we’re looking for more elegance. Less Jennifer Lopez and more Coco Chanel.’ explains Williams’ winemaker Paula Siroky. ‘Oaky wine is not what we do either.’
‘Oaky wine is like the Gap, it’s always the same,’ adds Mindy Kearney, Frog’s Leap’s sales ambassadress. ‘It’s recipe winemaking.’

The guys at Duckhorn would disagree. For them, oak is a condiment: ‘We use a mix of tonnelleries (cooperages). It’s like a spice rack when you’re cooking. Sairy is the favourite tonnellerie for Merlot, then there’s Séguin-Moreau. We have many grape varieties and many barrel types,’ says Biagi. This trick might work with weightier wines, but growers like Williams want less vanilla from new oak – French or American – as it tends to make an elegant wine too sweet. Another Napa winemaking strategy is to gain a layer of glycerol richness by keeping some unfermented ‘residual sugar’ in the wine. The immediate effect this treatment gives is palate-pleasing, ripe almost-sweetness, but this layer tends to smother the tantalising tannin/fruit/acid balance of a fully dry wine. Frog’s Leap wines don’t have condiments or icing, and when you taste the first wine on the list, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, you realise that light elegance is possible in Napa. Get into the reds and what Williams refers to as ‘dynamic tension’ expresses itself even more. The Zinfandel is firmer, with sharper corners (thick tannin and crisp acidity) than many; the Cabernets are fruity and focused, with a core of concentration but with plenty of complexity and expression too.

‘We’re trying to make wines with a sense of place,’ explains Siroky. ‘We pick our fruit for flavour, not just sugar and ripeness – and it’s organic. In the winery we give it a gentle rack and return rather than an aggressive pump over, plus, we often press really early because we’re not using inoculated yeasts, and with natural ones the colour comes off sooner. Also, I’m not sure about macerating for 30 days. There are wonderful wines made this way, but I’m not sure it’s necessary.’ Therein lies the key, perhaps, to the Napa non-blockbuster.Mike Grgich, at Grgich Hills Cellar, also goes for less post-fermentation maceration. ‘Zinfandel gets a week; Cabernet two, maybe three. But it’s not a thing we do by calendar. Every winemaker must be able to remember how their fruit and oak marry.’ Grgich has notched up 43 winemaking years in Napa and his twinkling eyes reflect a mass of experience in dealing with the grapes and the people around him. He makes wines he wants to drink, without the slightest interest in ‘fashion’. He’s also after more complexity, more of an Old World feel, but given his Croatian origins that’s hardly surprising. He too proves that elegance is possible in Napa, and stresses the importance of acidity. ‘American wines tend to be blockbusters even in restaurants, which is not such a good thing. Our wines are a little more acidic because this is how we like them to be with food.’Grgich’s wines are beautifully complex, and they are not blockbusters. Hailing from a variety of vineyards, the 1994 Cabernet is a benchmark with its taut black plums and cherries on the palate, soft tannins, crisp acidity and perfect poise. Grgich adds another key factor to the non-hefty recipe: malolactic fermentation in barrel. ‘Malo breaks the muscles of the wine and softens the tannins. Wine is often beaten up by malo, but then it grows up. It’s like life. After terrible mistakes it gets better.’It looks as if you don’t have to chew all Napa wines. Elegance is achievable. As Greg Fowler, chief winemaker at Sterling Vineyards, says: ‘Anyone can get good ink here. We don’t set out to make blockbusters but it’s so warm that it’s what we inherently have. Elegance takes more work.’ But what we should be looking for instead of gentleness is better tannin and oak management, and better sugar integration – hefty wines can have charm and balance. And, as Fowler also points out, the wines that need wrestling into the bottle are the ‘hillside wines’ from the poor volcanic soils of Diamond, Howell and Spring mountains, Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder. From these, the grapes are so small and intense that the results are nothing less than ‘Godzilla in a tuxedo’. And these are the next big fashion, so watch out!

Written by SUSAN KEEVIL