Note: This tip is an excerpt from the Sept. 30, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator, "Napa Valley." For more tips on visiting Napa Valley, including our editors' picks for don't-miss wineries, hotels and restaurants, check out our complete Napa Travel Guide.
Napa Valley's reputation was underscored when it became California's first American Viticulture Area (AVA), in 1981. Napa County's political borders mostly define the legal boundaries of the AVA, but the heart of the county is the narrow valley that stretches 30 miles from San Pablo Bay in the south to the border with Lake County in the north.
Since the 1981 boundaries were set, the valley has been further subdivided, into 16 nested appellations that vary in size from 3,300 acres to more than 16,000. The following eight are known as the "Valley Floor AVAs," nestled between the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains. They are listed from north to south and west to east; check out our map of Napa Valley for reference. You can also get to know the rest of the valley in the accompanying tip, Napa Valley 101: Know Your Mountain AVAs.
Established: 2009 | Total acreage: 12,675 | Acres planted: 2,668
Positioned at the narrow, northern end of the valley, Calistoga is the warmest appellation in Napa. Stretching south from the foot of Mount St. Helena, it covers 7 square miles of diverse topography with uniformly rocky volcanic soils. Gentle northwestern breezes pick up in the afternoon and evening, creating one of Napa's most extreme diurnal variations. Eisele Vineyard and Chateau Montelena were the early pacesetters, crafting dark, dense and earthy Cabernets with mineral accents. Newer producers using Calistoga grapes include Maybach and Perliss.
Wine to try: Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon Calistoga District Collection 2014 (94, $95)
Established: 1995 | Total acreage: 9,000 | Acres planted: 6,800
The valley narrows considerably near the town of St. Helena, providing shelter from the bay wind and fog and trapping in the heat. Home to dozens of wineries, including Spottswoode, Charles Krug and Raymond, the appellation's terroir is diverse, with less fertile sedimentary soils to the north and west and deeper volcanic soils to the east and south.
St. Helena Cabernets generally fall into two camps. Vineyards near the center of the valley soak up the sun, producing ripe, complex and supple wines. Those planted in the western foothills sit in the shadow of Spring Mountain, which tempers the heat during the late afternoon, resulting in powerful wines with more earth and mineral notes. In addition to Bordeaux varieties, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah thrive in the warm climate.
Wine to try: Turley Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 2014 (94, $75)
Established: 1993 | Total acreage: 6,840 | Acres planted: 4,371
Rutherford is the center of Napa Valley both geographically and historically. Midway between the city of Napa and Calistoga, the area is home to many renowned wineries, some dating to the late 1800s. Wheat was Napa's cash crop when Thomas Rutherford and his bride settled the land in the 1860s. Rutherford later planted grapes and made wine.
Beaulieu's Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1936 and Inglenook's wines from the 1940s set the early pace for Cabernet. Modern benchmarks include Staglin, Scarecrow and Dana. Caymus is based in Rutherford but its wines are regional blends that carry the broader Napa appellation, using some grapes from the home ranch.
Rutherford is wide, stretching from the valley floor into the benchlands along the foothills of both the Mayacamas and Vaca ranges. It has a slightly warmer climate than Oakville, to the south, with wide diurnal swings. Vineyards in the benchland along the western foothills receive less late-afternoon sun, which can result in subtle differences in the wines.Cabernet thrives in Rutherford's rich, loamy and well-drained soils, which are mostly alluvial fans. The grapes ripen fully, making rich, supple wines with loamy flavors that winemakers sometimes refer to as "Rutherford dust." They can be showy early on, yet have the concentration and depth to age.
Wine to try: Heritance Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2014 (92, $53)
Established: 1993 | Total acreage: 5,700 | Acres planted: 5,275
Oakville is the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon country. Located north of the Yountville AVA, it's warm enough to ripen Cabernet consistently. Morning fog billows in from San Pablo Bay, creating a wide diurnal shift that allows the grapes to ripen evenly while preserving acidity.
Named after the native oaks that once covered the land, it's centered on the tiny town of Oakville. Hamilton Crabb pioneered the region's wine industry when he planted To Kalon Vineyard there in 1868. Following Prohibition, Robert Mondavi led the valley's resurgence when he built his iconic winery in 1966.
It's a diverse appellation notable for its deep and loamy soils. Oakville's boundaries extend into the foothills on both sides of the valley, rising up to 500 feet along the Mayacamas, home to Harlan Estate. Alluvial runoff composed of gravel, clay and sand that washed down from the mountains dominates the gently sloping western benchland. Vineyards along the Vaca Mountains on the appellation's eastern side are planted on predominantly volcanic soils and bask in the afternoon sun.
Oakville has the highest concentration of benchmark estates in the valley, with Screaming Eagle, Opus One, PlumpJack and Peter Michael's Au Paradis Vineyard representing the diversity of Cabernet styles being made. Schrader, Tor and Carter's best wines hail from the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard.
Although styles vary among producers, the wines are typically rich, dense and complex, with firmer tannins than versions from Rutherford or Stags Leap, and often show herbal and minty flavors.
Wine to try: PlumpJack Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville McWilliams Oakville Vineyard 2013 (94, $120)
Established: 1999 | Total acreage: 8,620 | Acres planted: 4,000
Yountville is the birthplace of Napa's wine industry. George Yount, who laid the foundation for the town of Yountville, planted the valley's first vineyards in 1836 in the area that would later become Napanook Vineyard, home to Dominus Estate.
Yountville is defined by a single hill at its center, known as the Yountville Mounts. Rising from the surrounding vineyards, it creates a barrier for the marine air currents and fog moving up the valley, helping to temper the afternoon heat. This moderating effect creates a cool climate, lending concentration and tannic backbone to the area's Bordeaux-style blends and also producing rich Chardonnays.
Wine to try: Rocca Merlot Yountville Grigsby Vineyard 2014 (90, $55)
Stags Leap District
Established: 1989 | Total acreage: 2,700 | Acres planted: 1,350
Grapegrowing in what is now Stags Leap District dates to the mid-1800s, but it wasn't until 1961 that grower Nathan Fay planted the first Cabernet vines. The region's wines gained international attention in 1976 when Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' 1973 Cabernet won the Judgment of Paris tasting, triumphing over top Cabernet-based wines from Bordeaux.
Due east of Yountville, the area is defined by the Stags Leap Palisades along the Vaca range. The rocky outcroppings radiate heat during the day, but funnel cool winds from the bay at night. The appellation is small—barely a mile wide and 3 miles long—encompassing around 2,700 acres, with half planted to vines, mostly Bordeaux varieties.
Stags Leap Cabernets are known for their smooth, polished textures and soft tannins. Shafer's Hillside Select is the benchmark bottling, showing the aging potential of the wines. Vintners have also found success with Petite Sirah, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Wine to try: ¿Como No? Petite Syrah Stags Leap District Stags' Leap Ranch 2013 (91, $60)
Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley
Established: 2004 | Total acreage: 8,300 | Acres planted: 4,000
The Oak Knoll District is planted extensively to Chardonnay, producing elegant and refined versions marked by lively acidity. Located just north of the city of Napa, where the neighborhoods give way to vineyards, it's one of Napa's coolest appellations, with foggy mornings and cool winds that temper the afternoon heat.
Vineyards are planted on fine gravelly clay loam, spread across the valley. The climate is ideal for growing white grapes, but there's enough warmth to produce graceful Cabernet Sauvignons and refined Merlots.
Wine to try: Beringer Chardonnay Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley Luminus 2015 (91, $39)
Established: 2011 | Total acreage: 11,000 | Acres planted: 1,360
Coombsville is Napa's newest AVA. Due east of the city of Napa, the appellation is defined by a crescent-shaped section of the southern Vaca range, with rocky volcanic and alluvial soils. Warmer than Carneros, it still stays cooler than appellations to the north, with fewer heat spikes. Fog frequently blankets the area in the morning and burns off later in the day. Grapevines tend to bloom early, and crops are harvested late in the season, resulting in structured Cabernets with earthy profiles, as well as crisp and aromatic Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays.
The area was mostly pastureland in the 1970s when early pioneers such as Richard Perry and John Caldwell planted the rolling benchlands to Bordeaux varieties. Today, wineries such as Favia, Failla and Herold are turning to Coombsville for grapes as the region's wines gain greater recognition.
Wine to try: Ancien Pinot Noir Coombsville Mink Vineyard 2014 (93, $50)