Calistoga Wines Come of Age

As the 15th Napa Valley AVA, Calistoga's sharp heat results in some of the most delicious full-bodied, tannic red wines.


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After a long and arduous battle, the federal government finally approved the Calistoga American Viticultural Area designation in 2009, making it the 15th in Napa Valley. So what can the consumer expect from a bottle of Calistoga wine?

Understanding Calistoga’s terroir is indeed complicated (the region consists of a series of pocket canyons, each of which has different exposures and air flows), but one thing’s for sure: Calistoga is hot.

“There are dehydrating winds in midafternoon and intense heat,” says Daniel Petroski, Larkmead Vineyards assistant winemaker. Being furthest away from the cooling maritime influences that wash up from San Pablo Bay over the Carneros, Calistoga is crammed up against Mount St. Helena on the northeast and the Mayacamas Mountains (chiefly, the Diamond Mountain district) on the west, which allows for cooler breezes from the Russian River Valley to funnel in.

“Even if we have a scorcher of a day, we get a breeze coming through that gap from Sonoma County that allows nighttime cooling,” says Grant Herman, winemaker at Bennett Lane.

Petroski argues that Calistoga is actually cooler than Mount St. Helena—a view echoed by Araujo Estate winemaker, Nigel Kinsman. Weather stations, on the other hand, suggest that St. Helena has been warming up in recent years due to urbanization, relative to Calistoga.

“Defining Calistoga’s terroir, with all its sub-regions, is like herding 300 chickens,” says Jim Summers, co-owner of Summers Winery. Jericho Canyon, for example, is an official part of the AVA, but because it’s tucked into a side valley, looks and feels separate; Araujo and its neighbors are similarly situated in a pocket canyon.

Yet even with the slight distinctions in calibrations of heat, Calistoga still is a hot region, and because of that, it produces full-bodied, tannic red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends. Petite Sirah and Zinfandel are also popular.

“There’s a definite terroir in Calistoga made for the big reds we grow here,” says Beth Summers, co-owner of Summers Winery.

Yet not all of the Cabernets show elegance and authority. The wine’s from Araujo, a leading Calistoga winery, display ripe fruit and firm, ageworthy tannins. Chateau Montelena is another iconic producer from the region, with the Barrett family playing an instrumental role in gaining the official AVA status. The classic or prototypical Calistoga Cab may be Clos Pegase’s Tenma Vineyard (formerly their Palisade Vineyard) Hommage Cabernet Sauvignon. Kenefick Ranch’s Picket Road Red, a Merlot-based Bordeaux blend, also shows the tannic structure so characteristic of Calistoga reds. Kenefick’s estate vineyard is situated next to Araujo’s, as is Venge’s Bone Ash Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most compelling wines to come out of Calistoga in years.

So now that Calistoga is a full-fledged AVA, are producers jumping on the opportunity to paste it on their labels? Yes and no. Araujo and Kinsman, for example, don’t plan to, while Summers Winery is all about it.

“We will definitely put Calistoga on our label,” says Beth Summers. “We think Calistoga is something to be excited about, big time.”

Kirk Venge, at Venge Vineyards, is on the fence. “I didn’t put ‘Calistoga’ on the 2008; I’m not sure how the consumer will recognize it just yet,” he says. “Maybe it’s time to lead with that.”

To read about The New Calistoga, click here.

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