Napa Cellars are something of a rarity in the Napa Valley - a winery who aren’t striving to make stratospheric, highly prized and equally highly priced wines. Since they were founded in 1976 they’ve kept things simple - their aim being to make wines that truly represent this iconic Valley, but which are approachable when young; and affordable. They achieve this with true panache and are one of the great ‘entry level’ producers in the whole of California. This wine, their Estate Pinot Noir, is so typically Californian.
What makes a wine ‘typically Californian’?
To answer this, we need to start in Europe, and specifically France, where so many styles of wine have originated. In the great regions of France they tend to plant the grapes which teeter on the verge of ripeness. In a good year the grapes will ripen and produce full, rich wines, and in bad years they won’t, leading to austere, sometimes dilute wines. The reason they do this is that one of the key elements in growing great wine grapes is making the ‘growing season’ or the time it takes to ripen the grapes, as long as possible. In France they take this to the edge, and have effectively worked out, in each great region, which grape takes the whole summer to ripen in that particular climate e.g. Sauvignon Blanc in the Central Loire, Chardonnay in Burgundy, Cabernet and Merlot in Bordeaux, Syrah in the Rhone.
In other, hotter climates and countries ripening grapes is never an issue, as beautiful hot summers are the norm, and the great regions are those which have a cooling element. But the trick is the same - to make the growing season as long as possible so the grapes ripen with character and balance. Ripen too quickly and wines will be one dimensional, will lack acidity and be high in alcohol. Growing lots of leaves on the vines for example is a good way of shading the grapes, keeping them cooler and prolonging the ripening.
So, in a nutshell, the goal of winemakers is to make wines from grapes which have taken a long time to ripen, but which have indeed done so.
In much of California, and certainly in Napa, it’s hot, but they have the fortune of natural cooling from the fog which rolls in each morning, cooling the vines for half the day. So they tick the ‘ripening slowly’ box. But the crucial difference is that once the grapes ripen, the typical Californian winemaker will leave them a week or two extra on the vine, so they build up a little more sugar and the liquid in the grapes concentrates. This leads to wines which are not always super high in acidity, but which have all the qualities of a long growing season, alongside a sweeter, richer, riper, more intense flavour profile and silker, more viscous texture.
This wine is an utterly quintessential Californian Pinot Noir and a true bargain at that. It’s so generous and silky, as Pinot can be, it has bags of complexity and expressiveness. Sometimes Pinot, when young, can be a little tight and difficult - like a rose waiting to open up. But here, and this really underlines the goal of the producer, we have a wine that swishes around the palate with all sorts of cola, macerated cherry, raspberry and vanilla complexity. It’s mouth-watering, luxurious, juicy, rich and perfumed. If you put this on the dinner table it will make everyone extremely happy!