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A Quick Peak at Napa Sub Appellations

Posted by on September 29, 2016

California offers many different wines from many different areas.  This post offers up a quick look at what you can expect when you visit.

Wine aficionados  have long talked about terroir when they talk about wine and how to differentiate grapes grown in one area vs another.  An appellation is a legally defined  and protected geographical area meant to describe the place where a grape is grown.  American winemakers don’t stress terroir but wine aficionados do.  So is an AVA written on a wine label mere marketing or is it real?  In the  US, federal guidelines are pretty loose and some would argue anyone with enough time and money can get an AVA pushed through especially a sub-AVA which really isn’t official.  That being said many wine drinkers alike will argue that they can tell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Rutherford vs one grown in Stags Leap District and one grown in Howell Mountain.

Napa was designated as an appellation or AVA in 1981 and was the first in California although Napa had long been producing wine since the late 19th century.  However Napa Valley only produces about 4% of the total wine produced in California.  While Napa is relatively small, different microclimates and terrain allow the grapes to take on differing characteristics thus making the case to break Napa down further into several sub-appellations.  There are currently 16 sub appellations in Napa and likely still growing.  In 2001 there were 13 AVAs which grew to 14 in 2004, 15 in 2009 and now 16 as of 2012.  So is having 16 AVA’s in one region a marketing gimmick?  No.  The truth is that grapes that come from the same AVA tend to taste more similar than grapes from other AVA’s. If you take into account the same clone, rootstock, row spacing, irrigation, winemaker, etc. why would one wine taste different than another?  Soil, mesoclimate, and other factors account for differences, inspiring wine geeks to spend so much time talking about terroir.

Napa wines can simply say “Napa Valley” on the label meaning it could come from any or multiple AVAs or they could specify a specific sub-AVA such as “Howell Mountain” or even a specific vineyard such as “Beckstoffer To Kalon” and even a specific block within a vineyard.


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Atlas Peak AVA:
  The soil is volcanic and very porous that has limited water retention so irrigation can be very important.  This AVA sits at a higher elevation and based on its direction gets more direct sunlight on the vines than other areas.  Atlas Peak used to be known for primarily Zinfandels but now also produces many Bordeaux and Rhone style varietals.Napa Vintners gives a great summary of the 16 Napa Valley sub appellations:

Calistoga AVA:  The soil is volcanic and is also the northern most sub-appellation in Napa and consequently the hottest with temperatures often above 100° during the day and in the low 40s° at night.  Similar to Atlas Peak, Calistoga AVA is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Syrah wines.

Chiles Valley District AVA:  The soil is primarily alluvial with silty clay composition.  The area has a cooler climate (with highs in the mid 80s° and below 50° at night) due to its higher elevation.  Chiles Valley is known for Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Coombsville AVA:  the soil is primarily volcanic with alluvial deposits.  Coombsville is the newest sub-appellation in Napa located in the south east corner of Napa just outside the historic Napa town.  The primary varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon on the hillsides with Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the lower, cooler spots.

Diamond Mountain District AVA:  The soil is volcanic and very porous allowing it cool down quickly.  Diamond Mountain sits on the Napa/Sonoma border.  Since the bulk of Diamond mountain including the peak actually sits in Sonoma, the AVA is known as “Diamond Mountain District” vs just Diamond Mountain.  Many Diamond Mountain District wines tend to have good acidity and be tannic in nature making them well suited for aging.  Primary wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc,

Howell Mountain AVA:  The soil is primarily volcanic with low fertility.  This stresses the vines which produces small berry clusters and intense wine.  Located on the northeast side of Napa in the Howell Mountains, the Howell Mountain AVA is the first sub-appellation within Napa.  The primary grape varietal is Cabernet Sauvignon although Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay and Viognier is also grown.

Los Carneros AVA:  The soil is clay dominant which often prevents deep rooting.  The cooler and more moderate climate allows for more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

Mount Veeder AVA:  The soils is sedimentary based.  Steep slopes with shallow and well drained soils result in tiny berries with intense flavors and soft tannins.  The primary grape varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Chardonnay.

Oak Knoll District AVA:  The soil is volcanic in nature.  The area is cool with a moderate climate with primary varieties of Merlot and Chardonnay.

Oakville AVA:  The soil is predominantly sedimentary on the western side and volcanic on the eastern side.  The climate is just right with it being not too hot or and not too cold.  The primary varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Rutherford AVA: The soil is predominantly sedimentary on the western side and volcanic on the eastern side.  The primary grape varietals  are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel.

Spring Mountain District AVA:  The soil is primarily sedimentary with low fertility and high drainage which makes the vines struggle producing more intense grapes.  The primary varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Zinfandel.

St. Helena AVA:  The soil is predominantly sedimentary in the southwest and predominantly volcanic in the northeast.  The primary varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot often with jammy flavors and firm structure and acidity for long cellaring.

Stags Leap District AVA:  The soil is volcanic with low to moderate fertility due to clay subsoils.  The primary varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with velvety textures and soft tannins.

Wild Horse Valley AVA:  The soils are volcanic with limited water retention so irrigation is often necessary.  Wild Horse Valley is the coolest of all the Napa Valley AVAs due to its elevation and proximity to San Pablo Bay.  The primary varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay both with great acidity.

Yountville:  The soils are primarily sedimentary as well as alluvial soils with rock and moderately fertile.  The primary varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot with supple flavors and firm tannins.

This year’s trip began with our own amateur study of the sub appellations.  Is it marketing or is it science?  Although we are merely wine advocates, we believe AVA’s make distinctly different wines.

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