Napa Valley’s Northern Districts

Napa County encompasses 485,120 acres with 45,000 acres planted in vineyards. This accounts for about 4% of wine production in California. There are over 300 wineries ranging from the small family operation without a tasting room to the giant destination wineries with first class art galleries, full time chefs, and prestigious international distribution. Some wineries have history and facilities, going back to the late 1800’s, while others are new operations with state of the art equipment making small amounts of highly sought after wines.

Five million visitors descend upon the region annually with most coming through during the summer or during the harvest in the fall. First class hotels, resorts, restaurants and spas contribute to the areas quality reputation.  

For northern Napa Valley, here are overviews of six of the region’s 14 American Viticultural Appellations (AVA).

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Entry at Rubicon Estate, Rutherford California

Rutherford is just north of Oakville and has a population of close to 600 in its six square miles. Located at the valley’s widest point, Rutherford’s 3,263 acres of vineyards receive more sun than most other areas with mid-summer temperatures reaching the mid 90’s. Soils are well drained and primarily gravel, sand and loam, with more volcanic deposits found on its eastern side. Rainfall averages 38 inches a year. Cabernet Sauvignon is king here with 70% of the vineyards planted to the variety with Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc rounding out the top five. Characteristics of the region include the dusty, berry, allspice and light herbaceous. Some wines exhibit intense cherry, currant and earthy flavors. Supple tannins are common allowing for longer aging.

St. Helena is the cultural, social and economic heart of the Napa Valley covering just over 9,000 acres with less than 1000 acres of vineyards. Located where the Napa Valley floor narrows, this region is considered the center of Napa viticulture with 30 wineries located here. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot represent 70% of the grape varieties grown in the region. Cool Pacific breezes from the north cool the vines which can create 40 degree temperature swings from day to night. Soils are sedimentary, gravel-clay with low fertility and moderate water retention. Rainfall averages 38 to 40 inches a year. Wines here are graceful, with concentrated fruit flavors, often jammy, with firm tannins and aromas of currant, blackberry and cherry. 

Sycamore Trees at Peju Province Winery

Spring Mountain grapes are handpicked from steep terraces of the Mayacamas Mountains. Just west of St Helena the vineyards here are small and reside at elevations ranging from 400 to 2100 feet. Days are cooler and nights are warmer than on the valley floor, allowing for a longer growing season. Up to 50 inches of rain fall during the year on the well drained, weathered sandstone and shale soils. The red wines are powerful with blackberry-currant flavors with good acidity, richly tannic and generally not as fruity as those found at lower elevations.

Howell Mountain overlooks St. Helena from the Vaca Range on the Valley’s northeast side and encompasses around 14,000 acres with only 600 acres of vines. Vineyards can be found at elevations ranging from 600 to 2,200 feet on this rugged mountain above the fog line. Up to 50 inches of rain fall on the shallow, infertile volcanic soils. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel have rich powerful black-berry and currant flavors with robust tannins for aging. The Chardonnays are less fruity and have more stone fruit and citrus flavors.

Chiles Valley is a narrow appellation in the Vaca Mountains along the northeast side of the Napa Valley and covers an area of approximately 6,000 acres, with more than 1,000 acres under vine. Warm summers and cool evenings make for a long growing season for the Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that are grown here. Cooling maritime breezes rarely reach this far east. The valley floor has primarily alluvial soils while the hillsides have more clay-loam and stony-clay composition. The red wines exhibit lush yet firm textures with distinctive cherry and blackberry flavors.

Diamond Mountain District is a tiny appellation that covers 5000 acres on the northeastern side of the Mayacamas Mountain range with only about 500 acres planted to grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc reign supreme here in this rocky outpost creating firmly structured, rich, chewy wines with plenty of tannin for aging. The reds will often have mineral flavors of black currant and cedar. The Chardonnays are full bodied with firm acidity and green apple aromas. 

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