Napa Valley: A Delicate Balance


“Napa is the ‘it girl’ of wine country,” I’m told. I’d like to meet her.

Over breakfast at the lush Meadowood Napa Valley, steaming pumpkin pancakes with rum raisins, a dollop of fresh ricotta and a swirl of maple syrup is sweet comfort, while a vibrant garden of wild coloured pressed juice from carrots to blood beats electrifies my senses to embrace my Napa sojourn.

Cycling the Napa Vine Trail we get a broader story of the valley. From interpretive signage of local history and Native American culture to natural history and soil types, it’s a 4-D oen-cyclopedia through green countryside. I download the mobile app onto my phone and learn about the art installations I’m breezing past, what kinds of grapes I’m looking at, and the cultural connections to my wine experience. This multi-million dollar vine trail is like a spine from which I can ride the side roads up to the wineries themselves.

First stop, the stone Victorian Manor of Stags’ Leap Winery. French oak barrels imbue a vanilla essence into their Chardonnay while malolactic fermentation adds that buttery, creamy quality typical of Californian style. But, I’m here for one reason: Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s all about the fruit, and The Leap 2010 is a bountiful basket full of berries. Silky and smooth, I could make love to this wine. Luscious blueberry lingers on my palate, as I grab the bottle from the tour group and claim it for myself.

Napa WineThe 2011 Twelve Falls Estate Red Wine of 50% Cab Sauv, 40% Petite Sirah and 10% Merlot is voluptuous with sweet soft tannins, beautiful deep colours, and could pair well with tender sliced duck, jam and Brie. The 2011 Ne Cede Malis, “Don’t give in to misfortune” Estate Petite Sirah is a mélange of deep violets and summer berries with a soft balance and bouquet of perfumed fruit that I imagine pairing with succulent lamb or pork chops. Each wine in the Stags’ Leap portfolio is sublime. With each one I’ve found a new life partner.

In addition to Cab Sauv, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, a passion for Pinot lead Etude Wines to transplant a range of Pinot Noir grapes from Santa Barbara, Sonoma, the Willamete Valley, Oregon and Central Otago, New Zealand. The aim is to extract the best fruit in Napa. Etude is a study in textures and aromatics. Twenty Pinot Noir clones, including ten heirlooms are nourished in well-drained volcanic soils. The 2012 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir is well balanced, and nuanced with expressions of cinnamon and spice, leaving me black and blueberry notes lingering on the palate. The 2012 Pinot Noir Carneros is elegant nectar of plump baked raspberries and pomegranate without the acidity. Dining at Auberge du Soleil we pair it with lemon risotto with wild gulf shrimp, fennel and watercress in a yuzu emulsion.

Focusing on small lots, St Clement Vineyards blends their wines from different blocks of vineyards or from within the same vineyard. The view from the veranda is a heavenly panorama. We are greeted with a beaker of water infused with cucumber, lemon and mint reflecting the confluence of art and science in their viticultural process. Known for their single vineyards, I want to cut to the chase and taste the iconic Oroppas. Clusters of Cab Sauv grapes are selected from four different vineyards and blended only after fermentation and two and a half years of ageing in French Oak. Vibrant and sensuous, sweet chewy tannins nurture a plum-y depth of cassis and blueberry. Petit Verdot lends an inky colour, while merlot softens to a silky mouth feel. The sumptuous nectar of the Bordeaux blend has luscious texture and encapsulates the fruit of the valley and the finesse of its vintners. Not to be outdone, Sauvignon Blanc is quietly turning heads, and the 2012 harvest from St. Clement, is a clean and refreshing confirmation of this. It’s a well-balanced structure of subtle citric and tropical notes from lemon to lychee perfumed with an inviting hint of elegant florals.

What sport can you play while holding a glass of wine? Bocce Ball! Stags’ Leap, Chateau St. Jean and Beringer Vineyards all have courts. We test our level of play before and after tastings. I got better.

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Berringer is the only winery in the world voted by Wine Spectator as number one in both red and white categories. Hand-chiseled hillside tunnels insulate their wines. Over lunch we pair the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon with a succulent filet of Aka-ushi beef and “hallelujah” foie gras. Why “hallelujah”? Because it’s legal again! Interestingly, the 2013 Private Reserve Chardonnay with refreshing notes of key lime and pineapple also pairs seamlessly with this juicy rare steak. As Berringer’s Wine Educator, Jerry Comfort explains, the “perfect pairing” has to do with how the dish itself is balanced. The right salt and acid balance of red meat can enable pairings with a wide variety of wines including white.

Too often we colour code or aroma code our wine pairings. According to Comfort it’s not necessary for wine and food to share the same nuances together in order to pair them. Pairing by flavour often backfires. Pairing sweet with sweet could be like brushing your teeth and drinking orange juice—the sweet character saturates our taste buds, so all we taste of the orange juice is its sour notes. Foods low in salt will emphasize oak and tannins with unpleasant effect, so they need to be balanced with wine lower in oak. A maple-glazed salmon will tear up a dry wine, unless balanced with mustard and salt. A bland fish will become a more versatile pairing with a touch of salt and a splash of lemon. It’s not about making it “salty”; it’s about the right level of salt to keep the acid-based wine in balance. Enlivening our palates with Berringer we focus on natural chemistry rather than flavour.

Berringer wines are ambrosial. The Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve blends select grapes from mountain and valley floor vineyards, and is finished with Cab Franc. Voluptuous with a velvety soft mouth feel of plump summer-sweet berries, it is a hedonistic seduction. Quantum is a plummy bowl of raspberry and marzipan, mellifluously composed of 71% Cab Sauv, 12% Merlot; 11% Cab Franc; 5% Petite Sirah and 1% Petite Verdot aged 15 months in 63% new oak. The architecture of these luxurious wines is a science as much as it is an art form from which I am happily drunk.

From a complex palate of microclimates and vineyards, a delicate balance is maintained through blending and pairing, stretching the potential of each single grape to its maximum expression for the most refreshing and opulent wines in the world.

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