Guide to Napa Varietals

CHARDONNAY is the most widely planted grape variety in the Napa Valley which arguably produces the best California white wines. In France, the great white Burgundies are made from the Chardonnay grape and Napa Valley labels have repeatedly won winetasting competitions against them, even in France! The Napa Valley makes several types of Chardonnay, ranging from fresh, crisp wines reminiscent of Pippin apples to wines rich with toasty and oaky flavors. With such a wide range of styles, Napa Valley Chardonnays accompany a variety of dishes, from simply prepared seafood to lighter red meats.

Silver OakCABERNET SAUVIGNON is the acknowledged "king" of red grapes in the Napa Valley. Some Napa Valley Cabernet vines from the 19th century are still alive, but most Cabernet vineyards have been replanted during the last 20 years. Cabernet Sauvignon is a complex grape; its character can emerge as black currents, green olives, herbs, bell peppers or combinations of these with mint and leather. These wines age beautifully. When young they are best matched with robust red meat dishes; older Cabernets are superb accompaniments to roasts and steaks, and also complement many kinds of cheeses.

MERLOT has long been available in the Napa Valley in small plantings.  Traditionally used as a blending wine, Merlot gained popularity in the early 1970s. Wines made from Merlot show lovely cherry-like aromas with hints of their sibling Cabernet's herbaceousness. Because Merlot's tannins are softer than those found in Cabernet, the wines are drinkable at an earlier age than most Cabernets. At the same time, Merlots reward aging by gaining finesse and complexity much as Cabernets do. Serve Merlot with any dish that calls for Cabernet and try it even with some lighter meats.

SAUVIGNON BLANC grapes make wines that appear under two names: Sauvignon Blanc and Fume Blanc (a regional French nickname is "blanc fume"). These wines are becoming increasingly popular because they have a distinctive character, often described as fruity with a touch of herbaceousness, and very good acidity. As with chardonnay, you will find a range of styles - those that are a bit tart and "grassy" and others that have a ripe pineapple richness augmented by an oak bouquet. Because of their acidity, Sauvignon Blanc and Fume Blanc are especially enjoyable with shellfish and seafood.

PINOT NOIR has been called the fickle grape variety because it makes some of the world's best wines (the red wines of Burgundy) but is also one of the most difficult grapes both to grow and vinify. In France the wines are exceptional only a few years in a decade. In California it has taken decades to make relatively few great wines, though much progress has been made in the last eight to 10 years. Pinot Noir is less tannic and has less pigment than Cabernet and Merlot so the wines are somewhat lighter. They can be very drinkable at two to five years of age and the best will improve for several years after that.

ZINFANDEL one of California's most versatile and friendly grape varieties, was the mainstay of 19th century winemaking. Most of theworld's Zinfandel acreage is planted in California and is now very popular as a white or "blush" wine, although it is also vinified as alight, easy-drinking red and a heavier, richly flavored version that rewards bottle aging. With such a range of wine types, there is a Zinfandel for just about every wine enthusiast and for every imaginable food.

GAMAY and GAMAY BEAUJOLAIS are two different grape varieties that make wines that are generally fresh, fruity, lighter reds meant to be enjoyed when relatively young. The Gamay grape is the chief variety of the
Beaujolais region of France, though somehow the name "Gamay Beaujolais" was mistakenly applied in California to one of the many varieties of Pinot Noir.

CHENIN BLANC is the white grape variety of Vouvray in the Loire Valley of France. In the Napa Valley it is often used to create similar wines - delicately fragrant and slightly sweet - though it also makes very nice dry wines, and is sometimes aged in oak.

WHITE RIESLING also called Johannisberg Riesling, is the grape from which most of the great wines of Germany are made. This varietal yields wines that are fruity and spicy, usually off-dry or semi-sweet. Occasionally the "noble rot" will work its magic on Riesling, concentrating the sugars and flavors resulting in some very sweet wines that smell like honey and apricot nectar.

THE RHONE VARIETALS chiefly Syrah among the reds and Viognier among whites, and  ITALIAN VARIETALS, primarily Sangiovese, are beginning to appear in small quantities.

Source: Napa Valley Vintners Association

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