By Chris Losh

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Former Wine magazine editor Chris Losh on why Napa Valley is small but beautiful. Napa Valley - all about quality Napa Valley is to California what...

Former Wine magazine editor Chris Losh on why Napa Valley is small but beautiful.

Napa Valley - all about quality

Napa Valley is to California what Bordeaux is to France: the beating heart of its wine industry, around which, much else revolves. There's one crucial difference, though. Whereas Bordeaux is huge, knocking out big volumes year after year, Napa is tiny. There might be more than 1,000 producers in California, but only a handful of them are based in this small valley, an hour's drive north of San Francisco. Napa's influence lies, however, not in the amount it produces, but the quality.

It's the established centre of America's fine wine industry, and has been for more than 100 years, when European immigrants first decided that it offered the right combination of sun and heat for getting grapes ripe. Not that it's all been plain sailing. Following a promising start in the 19th century, it was, like all of California's wine regions, badly hit during Prohibition, and remained an ailing industry up until around the 1960s. If there was a turning point in Napa's fortunes, it was probably the moment in 1966 when Robert Mondavi decided to leave the family winery and set up one of his own.

The locals thought he would be bust in a year and called his investment "Bob's Folly". But Mondavi had seen what no-one else had - that Napa's future lay not in trying to make cheap glugging wine, but in aspiring to hit the heights. His reference point was not what was happening in the broiling Central Valley, but in the vineyards of Bordeaux, Tuscany and Burgundy. The famous "Paris Tasting", organised by wine journalist Steven Spurrier in 1976, when some of California's nascent wineries beat their Bordeaux counterparts in a blind tasting, proved him right, and Napa's reputation was set.

One of Napa's key features is that within its boundaries (30 miles north to south, five miles east to west), there are significant changes in heat and soil. In the south, at Carneros, where the winds whip in off the San Pablo Bay, it's cool enough to give Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that are almost Burgundian in their leanness. While up in the hills at the north of the Valley, it can be too hot for even the hardiest of red varieties.

However, if you wanted one word to describe the raft of icon wines that have been launched in tiny numbers over the last 10 years, aimed squarely at the millionaire collectors, it would certainly be "overpriced". Until recently, value for money has been California's big problem (high land and labour costs, strong dollar). But with the exchange rate shifting in favour of European buyers, it's starting to come back on the radar again.

This month's recommended wines​The following are all wines that I found on the on-trade tasting section at the London Wine & Spirit Fair in May. The addition of this area is one of the best innovations in what is becoming an increasingly well-run and focused show. Rather too many of the wines in this area were average to poor or simply boring - but there were a few stars at decent prices. If you didn't make it to this section this year, try to put aside a couple of hours for it in 2005.

Woodbridge White Zinfandel 2003, Mondavi​ I have to admit to having a major problem with White Zinfandel (I hate it). So I was astonished to find myself enjoying this one from Mondavi. The reason, I think, is that it's fresher fruited, better structured and a lot less sugary than most - while a touch of Muscat adds some grapey interest to the raspberry and blackberry flavours. Serve it cold, and it'll go by the bucket as a quaffer on its own. £60 + VAT @ RM Wines (0870 350 3520 for info on regional wholesalers)

Wildflower 2002, J Lohr, Monterey​ The Central Coast south of San Francisco is probably the best place to go in California for value for money. Generally, the wines are way better than from the super-hot Central Valley, but significantly cheaper than Sonoma and Napa. I think this is great. It's an easy, super-soft glugging wine with gentle cherry and blossom flavours that could be drunk with just about anything, frankly. I'd also think about chilling it down for quaffing outside in the heat. £35.88/six bottle case + VAT @ Enotria Wine

Cellars (020 8963 4820)

Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling 2000, Weinbach, Alsace​ It may be pricey, but I couldn't let this wine go without recommending it. It's a fabulously pure expression of Riesling, with opulent lemon and peach skins wrapped around a tight, tight core of minerality and acidity. It's exotic, yet never exuberant with an elegance and focus that mark out the truly serious. Great with good Asian food. £166.26 + VAT from Justerini and Brooks (020 7493 6174)

Sauvignon Blanc 2003, Lake Chalice, Marlborough​ If, like me, you're a fan of the grassier style of Sauvignon Blanc, then you'll like this Kiwi example, which is all capsicum, hay and even flint flavours. Super-refreshing as a fish wine, all year round, it'll come into its own during the summer months. £77.80 + VAT @ McKinley Vintners (020 7928 7300)

Russian River Ranches Chardonnay 2002, Sonoma Cutrer​ Many Californian Chardonnays can be too fat for European palates - but not this one. It has oodles of deliciously pure Chardonnay flavours (lemon, pear, grapefruit) over a core of expensive-tasting French oak. And even though the alcohol looks fierce at 14.5%, it's perfectly balanced and very, very easy to drink. This wine will stand up to biggerflavoured dishes such as marinated chicken or pork. £138/case + VAT @ Lea and Sandeman

Food and wine matching - poultry​ Poultry has to be one of the widest food categories that there is, covering everything from the lighter flavours of chicken, through turkey and goose, right the way up to duck, pheasant and the like.

No great surprise, then, that the selection of wines needs to be pretty broad to cover that lot. Your bog-standard, safe bet with a plain grilled chicken would be a well flavoured, lightly oaked Chardonnay (from the Mâcon or California, for instance). The big factor with chicken is not so much the meat itself, but what's been done to it. Coq au vin, for instance, needs a red (ideally Burgundy), while a chicken tikka masala works best with a soft, wellfruited white with a nice cooling acidity.

Big tomato and onion sauces need rustic southern French reds, while chicken in big, smoky barbecue sauces will even tolerate spicy Aussie Shirazes. Turkey is similar to chicken (obviously) - though since it tends to be wheeled out on special occasions, the wines are usually a bit more highbrow (Bordeaux reds at Christmas, for instance). Goose, since it's so fatty, tends to work best with wines that have a reasonable acidity. So Pinot Noir or Barolo can be good matches, as can a really good, full-bodied Alsace or Austrian Riesling.

Duck is a bit simpler. Put it with good Burgundy and it's a classic match - though if you favour heavily reduced fruit sauces, you'll probably want a New World Pinot. Whites just don't feature on the radar. Nor do they with the likes of pheasant and pigeon. We're firmly in red territory here, with mediumto full-bodied wines such as Rioja Reservas, Chianti, Bordeaux, Barolo and Rhône reds.

BOURGOGNE BLANC 2000, JEAN-PHILIPPE FICHET​ From 30-year-old vines in the plain of Meursault, this is an elegant Burgundy that nonetheless has enough of the region's trademark richness to make it a good bet with simpler chicken - or on its own. 91.44/case + VAT @ Vine Trails (0117 921 1770)

SILENI CELLARS SELECTION SAIGNÉE 2003, HAWKES BAY​ These guys are doing some of the best wine in New Zealand, in my opinion - and this rosé is undoubtedly one of the best I've had from anywhere in the last few years. Great, vibrant colour and superb ripe plum and strawberry fruit flavours with a dusting of chocolate

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