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Beyond Cabernet

Napa Valley is well known as being the home of great Cabernet Sauvignon, but it isn't just a one-grape valley, as SUSAN KEEVIL reveals.

Napa Valley is well known as being the home of great Cabernet Sauvignon, but it isn’t just a one-grape valley, as SUSAN KEEVIL reveals

Follow route 37 up from San Francisco and somewhere, as you break into Carneros from Marin County, you’ll see a signpost. It changes every day. ‘Today is a Zinfandel day,’ it says, or ‘a Merlot a day keeps the Doctor Away’; most often, ‘Life is a Cabernet’. Here in Carneros, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir all sit happily alongside each other in the vineyards, but drive a few miles further north and the last statement pretty well sums up the situation. In Napa Cabernet thrives to such an extent that it’s barely worthwhile planting anything else – grape prices reach an astronomical $12,000 a ton (£7,700). And as just about every spare hectare of land that can possibly be devoted to vineyard already is, it can’t be too long before Napa Valley is home to a monoculture, Cabernet, and Cabernet only.


‘Everybody knows it’s all about Cabernet!’ says Larry Maguire of Far Niente, one of many estates putting most of its weight behind the variety. ‘We have pursued a more or less Bordeaux château profile for years, one red, one white.’ The red is, of course, Cabernet. Napa sees itself as the USA’s flag-flying region – ‘It may only create 4% of the total output but it’s like the grands crus of Bordeaux against the rest of the region’s production: it leads the way, carries the weight of the reputation,’ explains Gilles de Chambure of Mondavi winery. And it does that mostly with Cabernet – many of which equal and outshine Bordeaux’s top growths in price. But is there a future for anything else?

Bruce Cakebread of Cakebread winery is one of a handful who believe yes, there is: ‘My feeling is that it’ll take 10 to 15 years before people realise it, but different pieces of Napa will yield different grape varieties best. Just because Cabernet prices are high, you can’t plant it everywhere and expect it to be successful.’


Since the scourges of phylloxera in the early to mid-1990s Bruce has moved away from Cabernet altogether: ‘One of the things phylloxera taught us is to diversify. We’re now putting in more whites, more Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot on the better-drained soils, and different clones of Cabernet where the soils are heavier.’ It’s a ‘more eggs in different baskets’ approach and it gives Bruce a chance to indulge his other crusade: ‘We want to make a fruit-forward Sauvignon Blanc with complexity – a wine that can age.’

Surprising, in a land of big, rich reds, to indulge in a light white grape? Perhaps. Certain commentators on the industry have suggested Sauvignon is hardly worth bothering with in Napa. The region’s too hot. But for Mondavi too, this grape is a Holy Grail. Out on the Oakville Grade, in some of the valley’s most prized Cabernet territory, a large square plot of gnarled old gobelet vines greets the eye. These are the 56-year-old ‘I Block’ vines.

‘All these vineyards would be planted to Cabernet but we have a historical commitment to Sauvignon,’ says Gilles de Chambure of Mondavi. ‘Fumé Blanc was one of the first wines to be made by Robert Mondavi in 1966, so has a history here we want to maintain.’ Given Napa’s warm climate, red varieties make more sense here, and the Mondavi team acknowledges this: ‘We have a high awareness of Bordeaux grape varieties,’ says Gilles. ‘Our Meritage blend is important to us, so we will never go all Cabernet at the Robert Mondavi Winery.’

To this end they’re proud of their Cabernet Franc plantings, Merlot (for fleshiness), new crops of Malbec, and (‘we’re particularly enamoured of it’) Petit Verdot. Blending these old ‘Cabernet family’ grapes in with the top dog isn’t just a habit formed from long years of using a Bordeaux role model for the Napans, but a chance to display their winery’s individuality. ‘People want to craft a house style, and blending is one of the best ways of doing this,’ says Maguire of Far Niente.

Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards, although herself in passionate pursuit of the Cabernet-only style – some of the most fashionable of Cabernet blockbusters are made up there on Howell Mountain – argues that even if there were to be a law on such things (‘heaven forbid it’), human nature would shy away from sticking to just one grape. ‘Even if they were told to plant to 100%, we’d still want to try others.’ The more experimental of Napa’s wineries will always have something interesting tucked away.


Julie Garvey at Flora Springs comes from a family of grape growers. Experience, for them, not fashion, has suggested which grape should grow where. ‘Flora, my mother, is 90. She still walks two miles a day and claims it’s because she drinks the Merlot.’

Garvey’s top wine is ‘Trilogy’, thirds of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. ‘Trilogy has layers; we like the fact you have to grapple a bit with the tannins on the back of the mid-palate – that’s the Cabernet Franc – and the Merlot is intense but not in your face.’ There’s also Malbec: ‘We get such intensity. It’s like cough mixture it’s so thick. But to make it a single variety, no way. It needs to be a tiny part of a blend: it’s like having a quiver of arrows – it’s nice to have a few very good arrows.’

Garvey also sings the praises of Napa Sangiovese: ‘People got very enthusiastic about it and too much was planted. Ten years ago the consumer didn’t know what it was and now they’ve been over-saturated. But we’ve done okay. We like the bright red-fruits character we get. It goes great with tomato dishes, it’s got enough acidity – Merlot gets tinny.’ The Flora Springs way is to treat Sangiovese like Pinot Noir: ‘Otherwise it’s too much of a team player: if you put it in oak it piles on oak, if you blend in Cabernet it becomes a Cabernet.’ It’s usually kept as a single varietal. And good news has come with newer plantings in Pope Valley, a mountainside enclave with hot summers and hard-freezing winters.


‘We pulled out Cabernet here because we thought Sangiovese was better. Yields were so low at first that the wines came out big and heavy; the best thing to do was blend them with Merlot, so we’re making a bit of a Super Tuscan.’ When asked if this isn’t more Zinfandel territory, Garvey shrugs and says that people are put off Zin now that they’ve found it’s not a native. Pinot Noir is, instead, another effort. ‘They say a winery that makes great Cabernet can’t make great Pinot, so maybe we’re asking too much,’ she worries, but hers are proof enough that there’s more to life than Cabernet.

Further south, in Stags Leap District, Doug Shafer also works with Sangiovese. His Firebreak wine is full of black pepper spiciness, ripe without being heavy. ‘I’m not trying to make an Italian wine,’ he explains, ‘just something different.’ Shafer admits that in Napa, the Italian thing is ‘never going to happen. It’s the same with Merlot, it was a short-term phase.’ Syrah, on the other hand, he reckons has a future. ‘We’re not making an Aussie-style wine, or a Rhône wannabe, it’s a Shafer.’ He’s also working on a field blend including, with Syrah, 19% Petite Sirah, thus further expanding Napa’s grape range.

Clos Pegase, up in Calistoga, in the north of the valley, sticks mainly to Bordeaux varieties, but also sees a future for Syrah. Winemaker Shaun Richardson also points out the new fashion for co-pigmentation (addition of a tiny percentage of white grapes to the blend) to stabilise a red wine’s colour. Napa has never been an area to resist fashion, so this is perhaps another reason for the valley not to go mono.

Doug Shafer admits that Napa is just about full. ‘There’s no way of planting further into the hills as these days houses fetch more money than Cabernet does.’ But will the valley eventually become a one-variety monoculture? ‘Well there’s a reason Cabernet is king, and that’s because it really gives.’ The old hands at Château Montelena agree: ‘Our job is not to make six little wines, but one masterpiece.’

Susan Keevil is a freelance wine writer. Visit decanter.com’s Learning Route section for more information on Napa.


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