The Napa Valley is, indisputably, one of the world’s most recognized wine regions. The region received its American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation in 1981, making it California’s first AVA, and the country’s second overall.
In the decades since, the growers and winemakers in the region have worked to gain a greater understanding of the climate and soil types within the AVA and, in doing so, have learned that the region is actually home to many different, distinct meso- and microclimates, each suited to specific grape varieties and winemaking styles. This has resulted in the designation of 16 separate sub-appellations within the Napa Valley that recognize and celebrate the viticultural diversity of the region. Here is a rundown of all 16.
Established in the early 1990s, this cool, high elevation AVA on the western slopes of the Vaca Mountain Range is the most prominent peak in Napa. Its high elevation keeps it about 10-15 degrees cooler than the valley floor, which results in bright, expressive wines with higher acidity than other Napa Valley appellations. Atlas Peak growers supply premium fruit to dozens of wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and local winemakers produce some of the world’s finest wines made from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and merlot, as well as other classic varieties like sangiovese, syrah, and chardonnay.
This AVA not only has one of the warmest climates of the region, it is also the most geologically uniform in all of Napa Valley. While summer temperatures can top 100 degrees, they can also drop into the 40s at night due to cool breezes from the Pacific drawn in through the Chalk Hill mountain gap. This diurnal shift is a grape grower’s dream, as it results in fully ripe grapes balanced by fresh acidity. Principal varieties here include cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, and petite sirah.
Established in 1999 and located in the Eastern hills of Napa Valley, Chiles Valley is among the smallest AVAs. At about 1,000 ft. elevation, the fog-heavy breezes which cool the Valley floor don’t reach this area, so it can get quite warm. However, nights in the Chiles Valley are cool at this altitude, creating a diurnal shift that greatly benefits the grapes, which include classic Bordeaux varieties. Interestingly, because of the Chiles Valley’s relative isolation, many of the earliest vineyards were spared from phylloxera. As such, the AVA is home to some very old zinfandel vines as well.
Napa Valley’s newest AVA, Coombsville received appellation status in 2011. This area, in the Southeastern corner of the Napa Valley, is only ten minutes outside of downtown Napa. The weather is cooled significantly by the AVA’s proximity to the San Pablo Bay, yielding elegant examples of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, pinot noir and chardonnay.
While you may not find those sparkling gemstones here, you will find wines made primarily from cabernet sauvignon that are just as stunning. Located in the warmer Northwestern part of the Napa Valley, this region, which gained its AVA status in 2001, was actually named for the shards of reflective volcanic glass found in the soils. First planted in 1868 by Jacob Schram of Schramsberg Vineyards, the region has come to be associated with wines that are structured and plush with unmistakable mountain fruit intensity and great aging potential.
Located on the Northeastern side of the Vaca Mountains just above St. Helena, this is Napa Valley’s first established sub-AVA, and one of the most prestigious. Many celebrate the concentration and signature “wildness” of Howell Mountain wines – predominantly cabernet sauvignon, as well as merlot, zinfandel, and petite sirah. This distinctive character is a result of the region’s warm, dry climate and rocky, porous soils, thanks to its positioning well above the valley floor.
The Los Carneros AVA, established in 1983, actually straddles land in both Napa and Sonoma Valleys, making it the first California wine region to be defined by its unique climate as opposed to political boundaries. This is a cool climate appellation heavily influenced by prevailing winds from the San Pablo Bay, with daytime temperatures rarely exceeding 80 degrees. Stunning examples of chardonnay, pinot noir, and sparkling wines, as well as some merlot are produced in Carneros thanks to this distinctly cool climate.
Formed from an ancient seabed, the Mount Veeder appellation boasts one of the longest growing seasons and the lowest yields in the Napa Valley. It is also the only hillside appellation that adjoins the cool, bayside Carneros. These factors, combined with the steep, rugged conditions that severely limit mechanization, have allowed the region to develop a reputation for intensely concentrated, hand-crafted, and age-worthy wines made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, and chardonnay.
This district achieved its AVA status in 2004 as a result of local winemakers’ concerted efforts to have the region’s cool climate and relatively long growing season recognized. The region boasts Napa Valley’s largest alluvial fan – triangular-shaped deposits that form from water as it descends from the mountains – which is one of Oak Knoll’s defining characteristics. The emerging granular soil forces vines to dig deep in search of water, resulting in small, highly concentrated grapes and elegant, intensely perfumed wines made from the most diverse lineup of grape varieties in the Napa Valley.
Named for the groves of native oak trees that covered the area in the 1800s, Oakville was actually once just a steam train stop in the Napa Valley. Today, wines from Oakville are among some of the most recognized and sought in the world. Marquis names like Opus One, Robert Mondavi, Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and Far Niente have helped create the concept of “Cult Cabernet” so synonymous with the Oakville appellation, while other smaller, family-run producers in the area continue to maintain its stellar reputation for world-class wines and hospitality.
Located just North of Oakville as the geographic and historic center of the Napa Valley, and boasting a warm climate moderated by cooling Bay Area fog, Rutherford is a classic Valley floor appellation with vineyards reaching from the base of the Mayacamas to the Silverado Trail. Some of the region’s wineries date back to the late 1800s, when wheat was Napa Valley’s main crop. Thomas Rutherford, for whom the AVA was named, settled and began planting grapes instead. Today, visitors will find rich, ripe wines made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and zinfandel, with some sauvignon blanc as well.
Located above St. Helena on the Eastern side of the Mayacamas and connecting with the border of Sonoma County to the North, the region gets its name for the many natural springs that mark the area. Spring Mountain District is rich with history – it is said that the region’s first vineyard, planted in 1874, withstood Prohibition because it was so remote. Today, the challenging mountain terroir yields complex, “intellectual” wines made from Bordeaux varieties as well as other unique grapes like riesling, sémillon, gewürztraminer, and even traditional Portuguese grapes.
Thought of as the birthplace of Napa Valley’s commercial wine industry, Napa’s oldest wine estate, Charles Krug, was established here in 1861. St. Helena is home to 6,800 planted acres of grapes and 400+ vineyards, more than any other AVA in the Napa Valley. With a warmer climate than other AVAs, the region produces ripe yet structured cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, zinfandel, and sauvignon blanc. The region also organizes an annual wine tasting and food pairing competition called BASH.
The potential of this region was cemented when Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won the infamous Judgment of Paris tasting over more famous wines from Bordeaux. Thought of as a “valley within a valley,” the appellation is only one mile wide and three miles long and planted with mostly Bordeaux varieties. It’s a warm region moderated by cool bay winds at night, with diverse soils that allowed the region to be the first AVA to be approved based on the distinctiveness of its soils.
While one of the earliest AVAs to be established, the Wild Horse Valley appellation remains one of Napa Valley’s most obscure. In fact, unlike most other Napa Valley AVAs, this region serves as more of an area for growers who supply winemakers with fruit of unique terroir, usually from pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah, thanks to the cool climate and shallow, volcanic soils.
Winery to try: Heron Lake Winery
Not to be confused with the downtown area of Yountville, home to the famous French Laundry, the Yountville AVA has a rich history in Napa. Geourge Yount, for whom the town is named, planted the first vineyards in the region in 1836 in the area that would ultimately become Dominus Estate. Established in 1999, the AVA stretches from the Mayacamas in the West to the Vaca Mountains in the East, and exhibits a diverse range of microclimates and soil types that allow for many different grape varieties to be grown – a distinctive characteristic of the region.
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