Napa: the jewel in California’s wine crown

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A handful of the brave immigrants who
ventured forth into California in the 19th Century realised that Napa Valley
was a very special place indeed, and great wines have been made in Napa ever
since. Its unique location on the west coast of the US located just north of
the San Francisco Bay area affords Napa lots of warm sunshine tempered by
cooling sea breezes, creating the perfect conditions for grape growing. The
Journal studies three outstanding wineries in Napa Valley to find out why their
wines are so special.

Chateau Montelena: the definitive
California winery

If ever there was a winery which summed up
the very essence of Napa Valley wines it is Chateau Montelena. Developed by a
San Francisco entrepreneur named Alfred L. Tubbs in 1882, the winery saw its
first planting that year, followed by the building of the dramatic and imposing
chateau itself shortly afterwards and by the end of the 19th Century the
winery, now named Chateau Montelena (after its location, at the base of Mount Saint
Helena), was the seventh largest in the Napa Valley.

Prohibition only stopped the production of
wine for the winery for a short time and the family continued to grow grapes
until it was sold in 1958 to Yort and Jeanie Frank, who beautified the overgrown
land on which the Chateau stood.

Eventually the winery began production
again under the stewardship of Jim Barrett, who rejuvenated the entire winery
and in 1972 wines were again produced.

The significance of the redevelopment of
the winery was huge because its new production of wines actually helped to
define Napa Valley as an internationally renowned wine producing area.

In 1976
the famous Paris Tasting, in which French wine experts were asked to blind
taste Chardonnay wines from Burgundy and Napa Valley, was the defining moment
for Chateau Montelena. The French wine experts all voted the Chateau Montelena
as the top wine (much to their consternation), proving (what California wine
makers already knew) that California wines were up there with the best.  

Not only is the climate conducive to the
growth of grapes but the soil is also incredibly accommodating. The Montelena
Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are grown in a unique location that has
a varied terrain, from flat to steep hillsides. At its base, the soil is
particularly rich with minerals, while the most prevalent soil is also rich and
nutrient alluvial soil extending out from the Napa Valley River. The result is
rich, complex and aromatic wines, all hand crafted in Chateau Montelena cellars
by an experienced team and made from hand picked grapes.

Lee Royle from Jacques Scott discusses his
favourite wines from the winemaker: “My pick from Chateau Montelena is of
course the Chardonnay that sprang them to fame in the Seventies. We currently
are on the 2007 vintage of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay which was a stunning
year for producing Chardonnay in Napa.”

Lee says the wine shows a beautiful pale
golden straw colour, aromas of orange blossom, citrus, and stone fruits open
the bouquet followed by layers of tropical fruits such as pineapple and

“Excellent weight and acid balance
throughout refresh the palate, while subtle notes of oak spice and vanilla
linger at the end of the very long finish. The Chardonnay is available in
Jacques Scott stores for CI$54.99 and the Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon
is also available at CI$51.99.”

Grgich Hills: a biodynamic sensation

In charge of the 1976 Paris tasting winning
wines at Chateau Montelena was a winemaker by the name of Miljenko “Mike” Grgich.
His victory in the famous tasting led him to create Grgich Hills, in
conjunction with Austin Hills and his sister Mary Lee Strebl from the Hills
Bros Coffee family. Hills owned prime vineyards in Rutherford in the heart of
Napa Valley and thus an important partnership was forged between the
businessman and the acclaimed winemaker.

Grgich Hills continues to make a signature
Chardonnay even today, and has been drunk by dignitaries around the world. In
recent times, the winery owes much of its success to a complete turnaround in
its farming methods, embracing biodynamic farming as the way forward.

The initial decision to turn to this new
concept came about after vines suffered a virus which threatened the important
old vines. Instead of taking out the infected vines the winemakers decided to
switch to biodynamic farming, with the end result that vines were saved and
wines became more intense and richer.

Biodynamic farming, as with organic
farming, does not employ any herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or synthetic
fertilisers. But biodynamic practices go a good few steps further than organic
in that they embrace a holistic approach to farming, introducing biodiversity
into their methods and ensuring that they are in tune with nature at a
spiritual level. At Grgich Hills cover crops are introduced, for example, which
attract insects that are beneficial to the environment and chickens were
brought in to eat pests and add natural nitrogen to the soil.

In 2006 all 366 acres of the Grgich Hills
winery had been converted and now all vineyards are certified organic and
Biodynamic by the Demeter Association, the certifying agency in the United

Lee says: “The concept of biodynamic
farming is one that I am fascinated by. The concept of a vineyard as a complete
living, breathing, self-sustaining entity without the use of herbicides and
pesticides can only lead to a good thing. That would be the Grgich Cabernet
Sauvignon priced at CI$69.99.”

Lee says they are slowly moving on to the
2005 vintage which was a consistent, cooler, growing season in Napa. 

“This resulted in more subtle reds as
oppose to the “jammy” type wines that often come out of the area. A full bodied
Cabernet with black licorice, plums, cassis, cedar and spice all combining to
give a beautiful red wine. Grgich Hills also make a Fume Blanc made from 100%
Sauvignon Blanc fermented in used oak barrels. 
This method gives the wine a creamy roundness in addition to the
exuberant fruit of Sauvignon Blanc, priced at CI$35.99.”  

Cuvaison: caring about sustainability

Another Napa Valley winery totally in tune
with nature and focussing very much on sustainability is Cuvaison Estate Wines.
Established in 1969, the winery uses grapes from its Carneros and Mount Veeder
estate vineyards to create wines of character and refinement. 

Their approach to winemaking ensures that
sustainable practices are used from start to finish, mitigating the impact on
the environment by way of a number of different practices, including solar
electricity generation, environmentally-friendly soil and pest management,
water conservation and ecosystem management. Cuvaison complies with the code of
Sustainable Winegrowing Practices, which means compliance must be adhered to in
a number of different aspects of sustainability. 

Cuvaison’s two estate vineyards are
situated in ideal locations for grape growing. The Carneros Estate Vineyard is
a 400 acre estate which lies in the southernmost corner of Napa Valley. The
site enjoys fog and cool breezes from the San Pablo Bay, gently rolling hills
and dense clay soils. The morning fog keeps the grapes from heating up too
quickly, while the afternoon wind lowers leaf temperature and dries the dew
left by the morning fog, making it an ideal setting for the growth of
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlot.

On the southwest side of Napa Valley in the
Mount Veeder appellation lies the 170 acre Brandlin Vineyard, located in the
Mayacamas range. The vineyard lies on a ridgeline overlooking Napa Valley and
the soil is gravelly loam over shale. The vineyard is divided into 15
sustainably-farmed blocks and vines endure the drought stress typical of
exposed peaks and free-draining mountain soils which makes intense wines as a

“Intense is a very apt description for the
Brandlin Cabernet,” Lee says. “I tried this wine earlier this year and I was
highly impressed with it; it’s absolutely stunning in every way. The vineyard
was founded by the Brandlin family in 1926 and then in 1998 Cuvaison purchased
the property with a promise to Chester Brandlin to maintain the integrity of
the estate and thus many of the vines planted in 1926 are still producing
fruit. Priced at CI$60.95, it may seem a little on the expensive side but
believe me it is worth every cent!”

Lee furthers: “In addition to the Brandlin
Cabernet, Cuvaison produce many wines but another of my picks is an excellent
Pinot Noir from a 400 acre estate in the southern part of the valley. A lively,
bright Pinot with lots of strawberry nuances, hints of clove and at CI$33.99,
an absolute steal.”

Jacques Scott and The Journal are giving
you the chance to sample some of these amazing wines at the wineries
themselves, so make sure you enter our competition in this month’s Journal!




Jaques Scott’s Lee Royle.