Although Napa Valley only accounts for four percent of total wine production in the United States, its reputation for producing fine wine is known the world over. The all-encompassing term “Napa Valley” is often used when talking about the wines, but a deep dive into the nuances of various AVAs within Napa — from St. Helena, Calistoga, Rutherford, and beyond — reveal how complex the region and its terroir actually is.
While cabernet sauvignon may be the marquee grape, Napa’s warm and sunny Mediterranean climate makes it an ideal place to grow a wide range of varieties. Here are some of the top grapes of Napa Valley and wines to look for in a tasting room or to enjoy at home.
The reigning grape in the region, cabernet sauvignon often shows dark red and black fruits, tobacco, mocha, and hints of spice. With its medium to full body and great structure, it’s no wonder the grape has become a signature for Napa Valley.
Wine to try: Louis M. Martini, Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
As either a partner to cabernet in a Bordeaux-style blend or as a varietal wine, merlot’s fruit-forward profile and plush texture show an added finesse in Napa’s terroir. Plummy and juicy but still savory, merlot is a popular choice during a wine tasting experience.
Wine to try: Robert Mondavi, Merlot, Napa Valley
Cabernet franc plays a vital role for a winery focused on blends, but an increase in vineyards of this lighter-bodied and spicy red grape shows a growing passion for varietal bottlings — even single-vineyard focused wines.
Wine to try: La Jota Vineyards, Cabernet Franc, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
As Napa’s leading white variety, it’s common to find chardonnay sitting alongside cabernet in a tasting room. Winemaking techniques vary widely in Napa, allowing for different expressions of this malleable grape, from lean and crisp to voluptuous and full-bodied. Napa Valley chardonnay is probably best-known for its award-winning turn during the 1976 Judgement of Paris, when Chateau Montelena’s wine beat out French competitors.
Wine to try: Chateau Montelena, Chardonnay, Napa Valley
A highly aromatic varietal, sauvignon blanc from Napa is distinctly different from sauvignon blancs from France or New Zealand. Here, it shows bright tropical fruits and an irresistible zestiness which make it a very food-friendly wine. While often fermented in stainless steel, it can also be aged in neutral oak barrels to add texture, as is the case with Grgich Hills’ Fumé Blanc.
Wine to try: Grgich Hills Estate, Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley
Although cabernet sauvignon may be the most planted grape variety in Napa, zinfandel may be the most historic. Often called America’s heritage grape, some of the best wines come from old vines that were planted pre-Prohibition. Usually a full-bodied, fruit-forward wine, zinfandel holds special meaning for many winemakers due to its legacy.
Wine to try: Robert Biale Vineyards, Black Chicken Zinfandel, Napa Valley
Given all the bold reds that Napa is famous for, it may surprise some to learn that high-end, traditional method sparkling wines are also a mainstay of the region. Book a tasting experience at estates like Domaine Carneros and you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking you’re in Champagne.
Wine to try: Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Estate Brut Cuvée, Napa Valley
Although not a widely known grape, petite syrah is often used as a blending grape. However, some intrepid winemakers produce stunning single-vineyard wines, often from old vines. As a young varietal it can be inky in color and dense in texture, but over time it mellows and exudes a beautiful bouquet.
Wine to try: Turley Wine Cellars, Hayne Vineyard Petite Syrah, Napa Valley
Although pinot noir is most closely associated with the neighboring region of Sonoma, the thin-skinned grape thrives in cooler pockets of Napa. Its fruit character is more prominent when grown in Napa soils, but it still retains those lithe and savory qualities that are distinct to the varietal.
Wine to try: Charles Krug, Carneros Pinot Noir, Napa Valley
While it’s long been accepted that French grapes thrive in Napa Valley, some estates look to other countries for inspiration. Italian grapes, in particular, are capturing the attention of winemakers. Dan Petroski, head winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards, cultivates white varieties like Pinot Bianco and Greco in Napa and Sonoma. Pinot Bianco, with its fresh fruit notes and bright acidity, is a showstopper.
Wine to try: Massican, Gemina, Napa Valley
Almost always a supporting character in Napa blends, Petit Verdot still makes its presence known. A thick-skinned grape that does best in warm climates, it provides tannin and structure to many wines.
Wine to try: Duckhorn, The Discussion, Napa Valley