Screaming Eagle, Opus One, Heitz Cellars . . . the Oakville region of Napa Valley is home to some of the most coveted wines produced in the U.S. Thankfully, this small region also produces quality, more affordable wines that are also an expression of the best of Napa.
An overview of Oakville wines
Oakville is located north of Yountville and south of Rutherford. It was initially a water stop for the Napa Valley Railroad Company, which had a train that transported tourists from a ferry to the town of Calistoga and its hot springs. Today, its tracks are used by the famous Napa Valley Wine Train.
Oakville gained its name from the groves of oak trees that were prominent in the region. However, it would soon become known for its vines, and not its trees. In 1868, Ohio native Hamilton Crabb purchased 240 acres of land near the Napa River and founded a winery named To Kalon (which means “the beautiful” in Greek). Within 11 years, Crabb had planted 130 acres of winegrapes, which produced an annual yield of 50,000 gallons of wine. By 1880, Oakville had 430 vineyard acres.
The Oakville AVA
Oakville has been a designated American Viticultural Area (AVA) since 1993. Its 5,000 vineyard acres are currently allotted to its 24 wineries.
Unlike other AVAs in Napa (there are 16 in total!) the Oakville AVA is considered an “east-west” wine zone rather than a wine zone that runs north to south. This leads to more late afternoon sun exposure for vines planted in the east of the AVA. The eastern hills of Oakville are also very dry and have a low-ph, volcanic loam soil. The area is prime for Bordeaux varietals (such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), which produce grapes with deep, concentrated aromatics and flavors in this dry, low-ph environment.
The western parts of Oakville have more varied climates and soil types. The west typically produces powerful yet elegant wines with dark fruits, herbal notes, and strong tannins that are balanced by the wine’s acidity.
Oakville’s climate is unique to the region. Its mid-valley location allows it to receive some of the San Pablo Bay’s morning fog, which keeps the grapes from warming too quickly in the morning sun. As the fog dissipates, the grapes ripen in the Napa Valley sunshine, but before they can reach temperatures that lead to quicker maturation, the evening’s cool breezes cool the grapes. The result is a region that is cooler than those surrounding it: on average, Oakville is one degree cooler than Rutherford, three degrees cooler than St. Helena, and eight degrees cooler than Calistoga.
Wines made in Napa’s Oakville
Oakville produces many varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc. However, the Oakville AVA is first and foremost known as the epitome of textbook “California Cabernet.” Its wine exudes the deep flavors, intense aromas, and bold tannins that put Napa Valley on the map.
Oakville’s wines are often referred to as “Bordeaux wines” or “Bordeaux blends” because the grapes planted there––mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot––are some of the more popular wines produced in France’s Bordeaux region. (Interestingly, Cabernet Sauvignon was not one of the primary grapes used in Bordeaux wines until the 19th century. Around the same time as Cabernet Sauvignon was gaining acclaim in Bordeaux, it was finding its roots in the Napa Valley and Oakville.)
Cabernet Sauvignon is often associated with black currants/cassis. It often also has the aromas and flavors of blackberries, black cherries, mint, dried herbs, and cedar. Occasionally, there is a tinge of bell pepper flavor in the wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon has small berries whose skins add high levels of tannin to the wine. These tannins are powerful when young and mellow as the wine ages (they are also the reason that wines can age so well). Foods high in protein, such as grilled steak or roasted lamb, pair well with these tannins; bold flavors, such as arugula, endive, and rosemary, also complement the wine’s flavors.
Suggested Oakville AVA wines
Sojourn Cellars’ 2016 Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was produced primarily from grapes sourced from Oakville Ranch Vineyard, sitting at 1,000 to 1,400 feet above sea level with a westward aspect overlooking Napa Valley. The vineyard was replanted in 2006 by esteemed organic viticulturist Phil Coturri, and is fast gaining a reputation for producing some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. The rocky clay, loam and basalt soils have a heavy iron influence providing structure, power and depth.
After three weeks or maceration, these wine lots had achieved optimal extraction and were gently pressed. The Oakville Cabernet was aged in Darnajou and Taransaud barrels, which framed the elegant flavors and allowed the young wine to develop harmoniously. After 20 months in barrel, the wines were racked and bottled unfined and unfiltered, showcasing the classic dark fruit and richness of Oakville.