Applying the concept of “cru” to Napa Valley
Cabernet Franc’s a terribly hard grape to vinify all by itself in California and make pleasant. The wine can suffer from all sorts of problems: a leafy vegetativeness, high alcohol that makes it hot especially when the underlying wine itself is thin, aggressive tannins, too much residual sweetness, or just a simple candied flavor.
Yet I’ve had some really good Cab Francs over the last 18 months, and surprise, they’ve come mostly from Napa Valley. Of my top 14 Cab Francs tasted since Jan. 2011, fully 13 bore either a Napa Valley appellation or one of its sub-apps: Howell Mountain, Oakville, Diamond Mountain.
Why Napa Valley should produce California’s best Cabernet Francs is no mystery: it produces the best of the state’s Bordeaux varieties, period, including (obviously) Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Merlot and what little Petit Verdot there is.
When you analyze why a region is tops in any given variety or wine type, the answers are complex. Terroir tops the list, and Napa’s terroir is perfect for Bordeaux grapes. One mountain range further inland than Sonoma County, it’s just that much warmer, and Bordeaux varieties love the warmth they need to fully ripen. It gets hotter down on the valley floor than it does up in the mountains, and that can be a double-edged sword: a heat wave can massacre valley grapes, but a chilly year (like 2010 or 2011) can help them achieve ripeness when their mountain brethren struggle. But it all depends, of course, on the vineyard’s exact exposition, orientation and the expertise with which the vines are farmed.
Napa’s soils also are ideal, whether they’re the thin, well-drained dirts of the mountains or the richer clays and loams of the floor. River bottom land isn’t supposed to be good for Cabernet, but there are some fine vineyards bordering the Napa River, including some of Beckstoffer’s. But it’s not just climate and soil that make Napa Valley Cabernet country, it’s the human culture that pervades the valley. Napa’s been making Bordeaux-style wines for something like 150 years. Cabernet is in Napa’s bloodstream, its DNA. We’re now five or six generations into experienced winemakers who understand Cabernet the way a parent understands her child. People like Philippe Melka, Andy Erickson, Austin Peterson, Heidi Barrett, Chris Carpenter, Sara Fowler, Nick Goldschmidt, Elias Fernandez, Mia Klein, Kirk Venge, Steve Leveque, Ted Henry, Tim Mondavi, Allison Tauziet–the ties between these talented individuals are deep, forming a sort of biodiverse ecology in which collective consciousness (of the Jungian variety) is as much a part of the terroir as the weather. Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux enologist, captures this concept nicely in his The Taste of Wine when he describes “cru” as combining not merely “the wine-producing property, the chateau” but also “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” All of these elemental components of cru are “supported by a tradition of quality and the owner’s particular care…”.
Marketing as part of cru? Yes. We often forget what an essential part of great wine marketing (and sales and public relations) are, which is just fine by the marketing, sales and P.R. people I know. They don’t want to be out front; they want the wine to star, along with the winemaker and/or proprietor. The people behind the scenes know the importance of the part they play, and are content to be largely invisible to the public. Just as it should be.
The best Cabernet Francs I’ve had this year include Merryvale’s 2008, Peju’s 2008 Reserve, La Jota’s 2009, Oakville Ranch’s 2007 Robert’s Blend, and a 2007 Jarvis called “Estate Grown Cave” (and if you’re ever been in Jarvis’s cave, you’ll understand why they pay it hommage. It’s the size of Rhode Island.) Try one or several of these wines, and when you’re drinking it–or any superior Napa Valley Bordeaux red–think about the fact that it’s a product, not simply of that particular vineyard or winery, but has emerged from a complex cultural web of ideas, emotions and shared experiences called Napa Valley. As with a child, it takes a village to raise a wine.