Royalty of Californian wine

The Napa Valley makes 4 per cent of all America’s wines but contributes massively to the Californian economy. For publication in the week starting 5 November 2018.

The United States is a major power in the world of wine. It is the fourth largest producer on the planet and its economy is a significant driver of world spending on wine.

Wine is produced in all 48 mainland states, but California is the powerhouse making about 90 per cent of all the wine in the country. If California were a single nation it alone would be the world’s fourth largest producer.

The United States has maintained its position as the world’s largest wine market every year since 2010. Domestic sales were worth USD 35.2 billion last year, a 3 per cent increase from the previous year. Its exports last year were worth USD 1.5 billion.

Last year California shipped 241 million 12-bottle cases within the US, which represented 60 per cent of the country’s domestic wine market.

Within California, the Napa Valley is probably the best known American Viticultural Area (AVA). Wine has been made in the valley since 1861. The American Indian word “Napa” has many translations, including “grizzly bear,” “house,” “motherland” and “fish”. The most plausible seems to be that it is derived from the Patwin Indian word “napo” meaning house.

Interestingly, the Napa Valley produces only 4 per cent of wines grown in California. But a tasting this week organised by the London Friends of Napa showed that the valley makes some of the best and most prestigious wines in the world.

It must be said that these are expensive wines by European standards if we consider that the average price of a litre of wine in Italy, for example, sells for under five Euros. But we pay for quality, especially when the prices of these wines are measured against First Growth from Bordeaux.

The most expensive at the London tasting was a 2012 Morlet Family Vineyards “Passionnement” Cabernet Sauvignon which retails at £301.60. The 2014 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon costs £220 and the 2012 Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon sells for £188.

Research on the Wine Searcher site shows that 2012 Château Lafite Rothschild sells for a minimum of £376.

Many factors contribute to the high prices of Napa Valley wines. Grapes are expensive, especially for highly-desired Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes average about USD 7,000 a tonne, while a tonne of Cabernet Sauvignon costs at least USD 9,000. The same grapes in Australia cost about AUD 2,000 a tonne (USD 1,441). In countries like Italy, which had an exceptional harvest this year, grapes cost as little as 300 Euro a tonne (USD 341), though that was the price for lighter reds, and not Cabernet Sauvignon.

Land is also very expensive in the Napa Valley, along with labour costs. Land in the valley sells for about USD 500,000 an acre (USD 1.2 million a hectare).

But bottom line these are classy wines that deserve their price tag, especially in a rich state like California, which has one of the highest proportions of millionaires on the planet. People in California are accustomed to paying high prices for things they value.

All of the wines tasted at the London event were good to great. No disappointments, or duds. White wines – mostly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling – were much less expensive than the reds but equally classy. They typically retail for between £25 and £35 in the United Kingdom.

Two of the most interesting wines came from Yao Family Wines, a business relationship between Yao Ming and some American partners. Yao Ming is China’s most famous basketball player and one of the country’s best-known athletes. He retired in 2011 after several seasons in the world’s most prestigious competition, the National Basketball Association (NBA), with the Houston Rockets.

Yao remains one of the best regarded athletes in China and the US. In his final season he had the distinction of being the tallest player in the NBA, at 2.29 metres (7 feet 6 inches).

In 2009 Yao bought his former club team, the Shanghai Sharks, to help them out of financial troubles. He founded Yao Family Wines in 2011, after visiting the Napa Valley for the first time in 2009. Yao says he fell in love with the “quiet beauty of Napa Valley”.

Yao partnered with Napa winemaker Tom Hinde to focus initially on Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery launched its first brand, Yao Ming Napa Valley, in December 2011. They make two classic wines: Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Yao Ming Napa Valley Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Both have received good to excellent reviews. The current vintage is the 2015 and it is ripe and luscious with restrained use of new oak.

The company launched its second label, Napa Crest, in September 2013. The 2017 Napa Crest Sauvignon Blanc is a zesty and full-bodied white with impressive texture, the body emboldened by the addition of 10 per cent of Semillon. It reminds me of a zingy Bordeaux white. Under Californian regulations, wines only need to contain 75 per cent of a grape to be labelled as that variety. But in the Napa Valley the minimum is 85 per cent.

Another lovely white was the 2015 Inglenook blend known as “Blancaneaux,” a sophisticated Rhone style combination of 50 per cent Viogner and 30 per cent Rousanne with the balance Marsanne. It is a classy wine that could cellar for a decade.

Data released this week by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) showed that the United States produced 23.9 million hectolitres (mhl) this year, a two per cent increase on last year. It has managed a similar level of production for the past three years, confirming its position as the fourth biggest producer in the world.

The world made 282 mhl of wine this year, one of the highest levels since 2000. This came after a historically low global harvest last year.

In Europe the major producers were Italy (48.5 mhl), France (46.4 mhl) and Spain (40.9 mhl) who all recorded high production levels. Germany (9.8 mhl), Romania (5.2 mhl), Hungary (3.4 mhl) and Austria (3.0 mhl) have predicted harvests above their five-year averages. Portugal (5.3 mhl) and Greece (2.2 mhl) were the only countries to see a decrease in production compared with 2017.

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