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Terroir

The Napa Valley has been producing fine and memorable wines for more than a century. Indeed, the words "Napa Valley" have become synonymous with great California wine to consumers all over the world. Yet many wine lovers have not discovered the full expressive range of Napa Valley wine, as magnificence takes many subtle forms. In fact, there is more viticultural diversity within the Napa Valley appellation than there is within the Médoc or the Côte d'Or.

Whether a wine producer orchestrates a blend from several vineyards or chooses to showcase a particular vineyard, the character and quality of Napa Valley wines emerge from the diversity of viticultural environments within the appellation. The environment of a favored vineyard site is something like a musical chord, with the primary tones corresponding to elements of soil and climate, which interact to produce harmonies in texture, balance and flavor. This matrix of factors the French call terroir is so complex that it keeps a global community of scientists engaged in trying to quantify it-yet it can be grasped immediately by anyone comparing, say, a Cabernet from Rutherford and one from Howell Mountain.

Here's a simple geographical declension: Vitis vinifera will grow in the temperate latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres, but it would make good wine in most of those places. It will make decent wine in (among other places) California. It will make excellent wine in certain locations in coastal California. It will make outstanding wine in Napa Valley. It will make exceptional wine in many locations within the Napa Valley.

Once within this dimension of superb locations, the issue is no longer how good the wines are, but the characteristics of the wines. Some locations will favor certain grape varieties over others. In places having a single grape in common, the wines from each place will show distinctive aromas, flavors, color, texture, acidity and - most difficult to define - an overall sensibility that might be likened to personality.

We invite you to explore the Napa Valley through the distinctive personalities of the wines that so beautifully display its viticultural diversity. Experience the differences between the wines from divergent soils, exposures and microclimates; explore this jeweled terrain through its expressions in Napa Valley wine.

Geology

The geographical feature we call Napa Valley was formed in the throes of forces so vast in scope, so colossally violent yet profoundly slow, that they defy imagination. The entire history of humanity has lasted a tiny fraction of the time it took to create the soil in Three Palms Vineyard. The valley is part of the California coastal margin, which is made of old seafloor, diverse chunks of rock from the greater Pacific basin, and fire-born materials disgorged from inside our planet. During millions of years, North America's western coastal margin rose from the sea as several plates of the earth's crust collided in cataclysmic slow motion. The long, steady compression formed the uplifted seabed into folds that became mountain ranges. In that process different types of valleys were created. In a few cases the troughs between the mountains were widened and lowered. The Napa Valley is one such drop-and-spread valley, which accounts for its low elevation relative to the higher stream-etched valleys which are more typical of the Coast Range.

Along many seams of thinned crust, volcanic vents opened and belched molten rock and ash. During long eras of fluctuating sea levels, the land was repeatedly submerged, dried out and submerged again, adding successive layers of sediment millions of years apart. The vegetation in forests and swamps was reduced to organic soil components, helping to provide footholds for new kinds of plants, new forests, and eventually for oversized gardens of grapevines cultivated by humans.

The landscape as we know it today was completed inside the last 10 million years, with what we consider finishing touches coming in the geological equivalent of last week. Around 5 million years ago, Pt. Reyes was somewhere off the coast of Monterey, grinding northward on a tectonic journey that began on the Mexican coast and may end in the Arctic Circle. Just a few thousand years ago the Golden Gate was the mouth of a mighty river draining most of the melting snowpack of the Sierra west to the sea.

California's coastal landscape is still changing. The volcanic chaos and marine incursions have given way to gentler but no less inexorable forces. In more recent time, seismic activity and simple water movements have been the primary agents of change. Every earthquake is a reminder that the earth's crust is dynamic, that features we consider permanent parts of the landscape may, in fact, be transient. Meanwhile, water continues to erode, transport, mix and deposit rock materials, introducing them to the ongoing process of weathering into new soils. Like the wine it yields, fine soil ages gracefully. Older soils are better able to restrain youthful exuberance of healthy grapevines, because through leaching and amalgamation they have become inherently less vigorous. In fact, many of the materials that make up Napa Valley soils are far older than the topography they cover.

Provided by Napa Valley Vintners Association, Rod Smith, A Napa Valley Primer.
 

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