What do Harlan Estate, Opus One, and Screaming Eagle have in common? All of these iconic producers own vineyards in the Oakville American Viticultural Area (AVA). The Oakville AVA is a small California winegrowing region located at the center of the Napa Valley that is famous for its production of top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends. The wines made here are profoundly complex and age-worthy, with fresh acidity, firm tannins, and nuanced herbal notes of mint and eucalyptus. Not only are these wines charming and flavorful, but they are also tremendously valuable. Some of the world’s most expensive and sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon labels like Harlan Estate and Morlet Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Passionnément are made in the tiny Oakville region.
This is why it’s important to get to know Oakville on a deeper level. Whether you’re looking for a special trophy wine to serve at a momentous dinner or you want to invest in some of the best bottles California has to offer, you should start with wines from the Oakville AVA.
What Do Oakville Wines Have in Common?
The Oakville AVA is a two-mile-wide area of the Napa Valley nestled between the Vaca and Mayacamas mountain ranges. It’s fitting that the Oakville AVA is located in the very heart of Napa, as this AVA represents the lifeblood of the valley. Even though this region is small—with less than 5,000 acres of planted vineyards—it’s central to California’s fine wine market. Producers here focus on cultivating limited parcels of distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and even tinier parcels of high-quality Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Bordeaux-style blends are especially popular here and some critics even compare these wines to some of the finest Old-World Bordeaux labels. For example, Marisa D’Vari of Forbes says that Opus One is “redolent of first growth Bordeaux, while also hinting at the opulent ripe fruit Oakville in the Napa Valley can produce.”
The region’s top varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Nearly all Oakville AVA wines share this characteristic. They strike a perfect balance between lively acidity and sweet fruit—a harmonious marriage between Old-World-inspired elegance and New-World vigor. The region’s top varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as these grapes thrive in the moderately cool Oakville climate. They produce wines that are rich and full of concentrated black fruit flavors combined with savory notes of mint, dried herbs, and bell pepper. Unlike many other bold red wines produced in the Napa Valley, which tend to taste quite jammy and fruit-forward, Oakville wines are multifaceted and earthy. They contain many layers of flavor that unfold slowly over time. The top labels and vintages reach maturity 15 to 20 years after release, and some have even greater aging potential. If you typically enjoy Old-World wines, then you will likely appreciate the complex yet powerful flavors of red Oakville AVA blends.
The region also makes prestigious and rare white wines of exceptional quality. The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines from this region are crisp and refreshing, with alluring pear flavors and distinctive minerality and salinity. You’ll find the subtle scent of jasmine, elderflower, and herbs underpinning ripe stone fruit flavors of peaches and pears. Like the red wine blends from this region, Oakville’s best white wines also grow more complex with age. The top vintages and labels can age for ten to 15 years or more.
Why are Oakville AVA wines so complex, earthy, and age-worthy? This is mainly due to the region’s unique terroir.
Why the Oakville AVA Is So Remarkable
Most regions of California are quite warm and have dry Mediterranean climates that encourage grapes to ripen fully and develop very concentrated fruit flavors. However, the Oakville AVA is a bit different. This area does receive abundant sunshine, but it is tempered by cooling winds and fog from the nearby San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay. As a result, the grapes ripen slowly in the sun without burning or raisining on the vine. The fog slows down the ripening process slightly, allowing the grapes to develop more phenolic (aromatic and flavor) compounds before harvest. These cooling influences also preserve acidity in the grapes which gives them greater aging potential and balance.
In the Oakville AVA, winemakers embrace Cabernet’s greener flavors because they give the wines more character, depth, and earthiness.
The influence of cooling winds and fog is especially noticeable in Cabernet Sauvignon from the Oakville AVA. This variety has the potential for vegetal flavors like bell pepper and eucalyptus, but these flavors are rarely present in most California wines. That’s because California winemakers often grow this variety in hotter, drier climates that produce a more fruit-forward, riper flavor profile. In the Oakville AVA, winemakers embrace these greener flavors because they give the wines more character, depth, and earthiness.
The soil also has an impact on the flavor of Oakville AVA wines. This region has an unbelievably high concentration of top-rated producers located in a very small subregion of Oakville called the Western Bench. Here, the soil is extremely gravelly and fast-draining, which prevents water dilution and results in grapes with a higher concentration of flavor. Many of Oakville’s best producers are located in these western hills, including Harlan and Robert Mondavi Winery, among many others. However, other parts of the Oakville AVA also produce high-quality wines. Near the valley floor, the soil is denser and made primarily from clay and sandy loam. The grapes here grow under slightly cooler, wetter conditions, so they are more vegetal and herbaceous. Wines made here are generally not as age-worthy or as highly rated as those made from grapes grown at higher elevations like the Western Bench, but they are still delightful. The quality and flavor profile of the wine varies by producer as well as by vineyard location. Some producers try to bring out as much earthiness in their wines as possible, whereas others prefer to make more fruit-forward, approachable styles.
Exceptional Oakville Wine Producers
As we mentioned previously, the Oakville AVA is home to a number of the most reputable Cabernet Sauvignon producers in California. That’s because this area is known for having the ideal climate and topography for growing age-worthy and complex Cabernet Sauvignon. The world’s most renowned winemakers have been buying land in this region for decades in order to capitalize on these perfect conditions. For example, in 1965 Heitz Cellars released its first wine from grapes that were grown in the now-famous Martha’s Vineyard. Just one year later, Robert Mondavi purchased land in the nearby To Kalon vineyard. To this day, both of these vineyards and producers are known for making some of the most highly rated Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. Many other ambitious winemakers have been influenced by their success and have chosen to follow in their footsteps and cultivate grapes here as well.
Virtually any producer from this region is capable of making noteworthy wines.
There are just over 50 producers in this region and each of them makes delicious wines. However, a few noteworthy producers make wines of exceptional quality, including:
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Of course, this list isn’t comprehensive. In fact, because the Oakville terroir is so ideal for growing top-quality Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, virtually any producer from this region is capable of making noteworthy wines. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep an open mind and try as many wines from this region as possible.
How to Start a Collection of the Finest Oakville Wine
With so many high-quality wine labels available in the Oakville AVA, you could easily spend years just tasting the wines from this region. How do you know which wines are right for your collection? It depends on what your plans are and the types of wines you typically prefer. If you want to resell all or a portion of your collection, then you should invest in the wines that will gain the most in value over time. Wines from producers like Screaming Eagle, Schrader, Opus One, Dalla Valle, and Harlan Estate have historically performed very well on the secondary market and are likely to bring a profit.
Many of the finest wines from the Oakville AVA require a great deal of patience.
If you plan on drinking the wine yourself, then you’ll need to consider other factors like flavor profile in addition to the wine’s overall value. Some producers, like Screaming Eagle, Robert Mondavi, and Harlan Estate, are known for making wines that are hedonistic, concentrated, and fruit-forward, while other producers, like Opus One and Dalla Valle, tend to make more herbaceous wines. Read tasting notes for each wine carefully or seek out tastings at wine bars and shops to find the producer and label that best matches your own palate.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you start an Oakville wine collection is that many of the finest wines from this region require a great deal of patience. Since they are more acidic and complex than other California wines, you should keep them in storage a little longer than other New-World bottles you may have in your collection. With age, Oakville red blends take on more stewed fruit and truffle flavors; the white wines also become richer and creamier with time. If you’d like to lay these wines down for a number of years, it may be wise to invest in professional storage so that you’re not tempted to open your bottles too soon. Few tasting experiences are as rewarding and exciting as drinking a glass of well-aged Oakville wine. When you see for yourself what these wines are capable of, you’ll understand why so many collectors are captivated by this petite California wine region.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.