Cabernet in Napa

It goes without saying that Napa Valley is the flagship appellation of the whole Californian wine industry, but some people will be surprised to learn that “the Valley” didn’t always enjoy such prestige. For the longest time, Sonoma was the jewel in the crown of the Californian wine. A gentleman by the name of Charles Krug can be greatly credited with putting Napa on the map. He established Krug winery in 1861, and placed great emphasis on quality measures such as rootstock selection and vineyard management. Some of the Valleys’ greatest winemakers cut their teeth at the Charles Krug winery, including Jacob Beringer and Karl Wente.

As the years rolled by, and vineyards became ever-more part of the landscape, the Gold Rush only served to strengthen the growth of wine sales in Napa. More wineries such as Inglenook, Beaulieu and Louis M. Martini started to appear. However; Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Second World War put a severe dent in the sales all the way through into the middle of the 1900’s, effectively sending Napa right back to where it started from.

In 1960, Napa Valley was in bad shape. Only 25 wineries had managed to survive, and it wasn’t until Robert Mondavi came onto the scene in 1966 that it started to regain some of its former glory, becoming the first major winery to appear in the post-Prohibition era.

It really wasn’t until the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when in a blind tasting, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet beat-out some of the best of the Bordeaux region of France, that wine drinkers throughout the world started to give Napa Valley Cabernet the credit it deserved.

Few people will argue that Cabernet has found a suitable home in Napa, even though the grape produces varyingly styles according to its vineyard placement, and winemaker’s own personal interpretation of what the wine should taste like. But how did it come to be that Cabernet vines dominate the vineyards of Napa? Is the grape really that well suitable to its unique terroir, or are there other forces at work?

Depending on who you speak to, it’s often suggested that Cabernet just happened to be “in the right place at the right time”. A combination of relatively high tannins and extract means that wines Cabernet-dominated have the capability for long-term cellaring the world over. It’s this ability which has set apart Napa Valley Cabernets from every other domestic wine region.

The name Napa comes from the Indian tribes who lived in the Valley, and means “plenty” in their native tongue, owing to the easily cultivated valley floor and river full of fish. It’s this fertile ground where many of the wineries now call home, the most revered of which being found along the famed Highway 29. However; if you’re looking to visit the Valley, don’t be afraid to go “off the beaten path” and explore some of lesser well-known hillside vineyards. Here, the vines are made to struggle to produce highly concentrated and intense grapes, rather than valley floor fruit that becomes lazy due to the overabundance of nutrients in the soil.

Whichever way you look at it, Cabernet in Napa is here to stay, and time will tell the direction the Valley takes the grape.

Published: Aug. 28, 2012

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