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Notes on Napa's finest

WHILE the Pacific Northwest, Chile and Argentina have much to be proud of, it was Napa Valley wines some four decades ago that first stood up and proclaimed to the wine world that they could compete with the best wines in the world. The well-documented 1976 Paris wine challenge was a proclamation of the aspirations and realities of the New World.

In Shanghai and the rest of China the excellence of Napa Valley wines remains somewhat of a secret due to the success of French wines and little promotion by US wine authorities. The past domestic success of top Napa wines also caused a bit of complacency. The best restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas, San Francisco and other culinary centers in the United States consumed the entire limited quantities of most of the best Napa wines so there was little incentive to crack new markets.

The global recession in 2008 changed all this and now, like the rest of the world, many Napa wineries are looking to the world's most important emerging wine market, China.

Over three days with a group of wine-loving friends from Dalian, I once again experienced the beauty of Napa Valley. In all we visited 10 wineries.

My friends from Dalian learned how exhilarating, yet also tiring it can be to make multiple winery visits, all with tastings of many wines. I am accustomed to it but to the uninitiated it is somewhat of a wine-drinking marathon.

Here I introduce some of the larger producers and next week I feature some spectacular smaller producers from the region.

Respected wineries

Our first visit was to Joseph Phelps, for decades one of the most respected Napa Valley producers where we had a vertical tasting of Insignia, its top wine. Many consider Insignia the original "first growth" of Napa Valley. It is certainly one of the New World's best wines and has long been one of my personal favorites. We tasted four different vintages including the 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005 wines. Insignia is a substantial and weighty Bordeaux-style blend with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and also Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec added. The wines we tasted were all quite young with the 2007 and 2006 vintages standing out for their combination of power and elegance. The 2008 will be a wonderful wine but still needs more time in the bottle which will result in softer tannins and greater complexity.

Stag's Leap is another of my favorite wineries with a range of beautifully made wines. The vision of Warren Winiarski and his family in 1970 has become one of Napa's best-known and respected wineries. Now owned by the large Pacific Northwest producer Chateau Ste Michelle and Italian Antinori family, Stag's Leap wines continue to be among the finest wines made in the US. We were taken on a walk through the beautiful tunnels storing the precious vintages of wines then led on a tasting of the winery's wines. The standouts included Fay, SLV and the legendary Cask 23. The very stylish and feminine Fay and more muscular and tannic SLV are both single vineyard wines while the Cask 23 is made of the very best grapes from these two vineyards. The women in our group adored the Fay while the men preferred the stronger SLV with everyone enamored by the Cask 23, a wine with many layers of delicious dark fruit and chocolate flavors.

Opus One is a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who also owns Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux, and may well be the best-known premium Napa wine in China. This modern winery is perched on a hill surrounded by vineyards. Every care has been taken to ensure the quality of the wine including some of the cleanest wine facilities I have ever seen. Opus One is and always has been one of the most Bordeaux-styled wines in Napa Valley. The vines are planted in the high-density style of Bordeaux that makes them struggle against each other for water and nutrients which results in more complex wines. We tasted the 2008 and 2007 vintages. Both were exceptional with the 2007 benefitting from an additional year in the bottle. Like most of the best Cabernet-blend red wines of Napa Valley, these are serious wines that can be kept for many more years. All these robust reds are best served with meat dishes especially simply prepared red meats such as steaks and lamb chops. The hearty Chardonnay whites of Napa Valley are perfect with grilled fish.


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