Can Napa Valley be understood like Bordeaux?
I had nothing to read the other day, so I looked through my wine library and spied a book I hadn’t opened for years: Hugh Johnson’s “The World Atlas of Wine” (fifteenth edition, 1984), one of the greatest wine books of our time.
I was a newbie then, absorbing every ounce of learning I could about wine, and that book helped me enormously. So I pulled it off the shelf and opened at random to page 86: the section on Pauillac.
Who doesn’t remember their introduction to Bordeaux and the four communes of the Médoc, plus Graves (or Pessac-Léognan): Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estephe? For me, it was a revelation, an intellectual journey into the mysteries of terroir, which Mr. Johnson described with such clarity. The wines of Saint-Estephe, he wrote, “have more acidity, are fuller, solider, often have less perfume, but fairly fill your mouth with flavor,” attributing this to the fact that “as the gravel washed down the Gironde diminishes there is a stronger mixture of clay found in it.” In Margaux, by contrast, “there is very little” clay; that commune has “the thinnest [soil] in the Médoc…the result is wines which start life comparatively ‘supple’, though in poor years they can turn out thin. In good and great years, however, all the stories about the virtues of gravel are justified.” And so on.
It all made perfect sense: a predictable and historic hierarchy of qualities based on location and soil type. When I had spent some years studying the communal differences in the Médoc (and not just via Hugh Johnson, but Alexis Lichine and many other writers, all by the way in agreement with each other), it was only natural for me to look at the five towns strung along Highway 29 in Napa Valley and wonder if terroir conclusions could be drawn. I thought it probable, not so much in terms of soils, as of climate. Yountville, being closest to San Pablo Bay, would be coolest, with temperatures gradually escalating as you proceeded northwest (i.e. inland) from Oakville and Rutherford through St. Helena to Calistoga.
Now, though, I wonder if it’s all that simple. There are so many complicating factors. Napa Valley is a much more complex place than the Médoc. For one thing, Bordeaux doesn’t have mountains to factor into the equation. Oakville, for example, goes up to the 500 foot contour line in the Mayacamas, and the higher you go, the more dramatic are the distinctions between valley floor and elevation. In Pauillac, the highest elevation, I believe, is 100 feet (at Mouton). And in Napa Valley, the soil choice is not simply between clay and gravel, an easy equation. Because of the San Andreas Fault and plate tectonics, “There exist an amazing 33 different soil series in the Napa Valley representing six of the 12 soil orders that comprise modern soil taxonomy. In other words, in an area just 30 miles long and five miles wide, half of the soil orders that exist on the planet can be readily found,” in the words of the Napa Valley Vintners.
To make matters yet more complicated, we have the maritime air and fog that arrives in Napa in unpredictable ways, not just from the southeast via San Pablo Bay but through various gaps in the Mayacamas from Sonoma County. For example, as I report in my upcoming article on the Calistoga appellation in Wine Enthusiast, there is data suggesting that St. Helena is actually warmer than Calistoga due to such a gap, thereby tossing the cool-in-the-southeast, hotter-in-the-northwest theory into the trash. And purely anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve watched the dashboard thermometer in my car for many years as I’ve driven south from, let’s say, St. Helena to Yountville during the summer months and seen the temperature increase.
Another reason why it’s so complicated to define communal differences in the five towns (which are now AVAs on their own) is because winemaking styles vary significantly. There are those who pick earlier and make lighter wines–Corison, for example–and those who prefer a fatter style: Araujo and Hall, among many others. Even in Pauillac, the experts always scratched their heads over the fact that Lafite, which is just a stone’s throw from St.-Estephe, is more “Margaux-like” than Mouton, in the south, which is more “St.-Estephe-like.”
I don’t doubt that scholars will try to define Napa Valley communal patterns, including me. I think it can be done on a macro level, in the same way we can make vintage assessments on a macro level. On the micro level, though, which is what really counts, generalizations generally break down (which is itself a generalization). Which is good news for mavens and journalists: we’ll be talking about this for the next 100 years.