Napa Valley and Terroir

I attended a great seminar last week run by the Napa Valley Vintners Association and organised by the Institute of Masters of Wine. It was entitled Napa Valley terroir. Now terroir is something us European wine lovers are led to believe is an Old World concept shunned by some parts of the New World. This seminar very successfully showed how seriously the Napa Valley winemakers take terroir, although our hosts, Dick Ward of Saintsburys and Christopher Howell of Cain Vineyards admitted that the Californians are still learning about terroir.

So what is terroir? The Oxford Companion to Wine defines it as “the total natural environment of any viticultural site,” the major components being topography, soil and climate. We started the seminar on climate by talking about the winds that come off the Pacific across the bay and up through the Napa Valley, all amazingly illustrated by some stunning graphics using Google Earth. An interesting statistic is that Napa and Sicily are on approximately the same latititude yet grow quite different grapes. This is because of the temperature of the surrounding sea, the Pacific being much cooler than the Mediterranean because of the currents coming down from Alaska. These Pacific breezes bring in the cooler air, which means the difference between the southern part of the Napa Valley and the northern, between Carneros and St Helena can be as much as 6 degrees. It also means that the climate is just right in Saintsbury’s vineyards in Carneros to grow the cool loving pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.

We also covered the impact that the topography of the valley has and the effect the early morning sun that hits those vineyards on the Western side has compared to the impact the later sun has on vineyards on the Eastern side of the valley. Rutherford, for example, is warmer than Stags Leap and doesn’t cool off quite so much, resulting in more warmth and generosity in the grape.napa-map.JPG

The key characteristic of soil that impacts vineyards is the ability to hold and release water, especially important considering how little rain there is in the summer. To illustrate the points the speakers were making, we tasted blind cabernets from 5 different AVAs to see if we could identify the impact terroir has on the style of the wine. We were asked to deduce from what we had been taught which AVA each wine was from. I freely admit I only got one correct. I guessed the fifth to be from Calistoga, the wines from there being identified as having riper fruit and more aggressive tannins as the soil is lighter and thus warms up faster.

The seminar further illustrated the impact soils and topography make by having us taste and compare 5 different pinot noirs all from Saintsbury’s Brown Ranch vineyard. These included 3 different Pinot clones on the same rootstock in a part of the vineyard with similar soil and aspect. Needless to say there were differences in the aromas and taste as there was when we also tasted the same clone but on different rootstocks in different soils but all vinified the same way. Pretty complicated!

I came away from the seminar with 2 feelings. Firstly, the Napa valley winemakers really take terroir seriously. There is further detail on the excellent NVV site. Secondly, to be confronted by 5 cabernets all from the same region but to have them taste so different makes blind tasting even harder for me - as if it wasn’t hard enough before!

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Reader Comments

Thanks for sharing this info! It must have been a very interesting seminar. I visited Napa Valley this summer for the first time. Coming from Europe, I didn’t have a clue how and if terroir played a role here. I asked about it at Trefethen Tasting Room, and learned that yes, terroir is a big issue in Napa. Reading about this seminar explains a bit more. I will certainly check out the NW site when I have the time.