Do You Know Napa Valley’s Big Three?


Written by:

Joe Becerra

Last updated:

I originally posted this article in 2017. As of this month in 2021, there are limited wine tasting opportunities in the Napa Valley. We can enjoy Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley and learn a few facts about these “Big Three” grapes at home.

napa valley wine facts
Welcome to the world-famous Napa Valley.

Napa Valley’s Big Three – Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon

If you travel to the Napa Valley or consume Napa Valley wines, here is what you should know about Napa Valley’s “Big Three.”  Let us begin with Chardonnay. Do you have your glass of Chardonnay in hand?

Napa Valley Chardonnay

Chardonnay accounts for 6,397 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley. Chardonnay represents 15% of the vineyard acres in the Napa Valley.  The average price per ton of Chardonnay grapes is $2,952.  Among the “Big Three,” Chardonnay offers the winemaker the most flexibility in creating a wide range of flavor profiles. It can be produced in stainless steel, neutral oak barrels, and French or American oak. There are also different winemaking treatments, such as battonage and malolactic fermentation. The result is Chardonnay wine that can range in character from light and fruity to robust, with creamy butter and big oak flavors. Chardonnay tends to love cool climates and the Carneros region fits that environment.  Hillside regions also offer cool climates, and many flavorful Chardonnays come from the hillside vineyards on Spring Mountain. One interesting idea is to try Chardonnay at the two extremes. Hendry Winery in the Napa Valley makes an unoaked Chardonnay. It is fermented and aged in stainless steel and not allowed to go through malolactic fermentation. Compare it to the Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay. This wine undergoes malolactic fermentation in barrel and spends nine months aging in American and French oak. The two wines show the versatility of Napa Valley Chardonnay.

Napa Valley Merlot

Now pour yourself a glass of Napa Valley Merlot. Today there are 4,707 acres of Merlot planted in the Napa Valley, fetching an average price of $3000 per ton. Merlot is a grape that grows well in many climates but it particularly likes climates with cooler temperatures like Carneros, Oak Knoll and mountain hillsides. In contrast to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot tends to be a softer and not as intense wine. Both are Bordeaux wines, Merlot being the grape of choice in the Right Bank of Bordeaux.

Merlot nearing harvest in the Napa Valley

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Now for the King of Grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa Valley has 20,342 acres (45% of the vineyard acreage) of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The average price per ton is $6,289. This represents 64% of the total value of grapes in the Napa Valley. There are several “Cult Cabernet” producers of Cabernet Sauvignon. The price for these wines can be astronomical. Screaming Eagle, Harlan, and Bryant Family Vineyard are examples of highly sought-after Cabs selling at high prices. These wineries have a waiting list to get on the buying list. But there are affordable Cabs in the Napa Valley, and excellent Cabernets can be purchased for under $20. Black Stallion and Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet are two examples.


More information on the wines of the Napa Valley

When will we be able to travel safely to the Napa Valley? Perhaps mid-way through 2021? However, you can enjoy the “Big Three” wines of the Napa Valley in the comfort of your home. Enjoy and discover these famous wines of the Napa Valley.


Chardonnay vineyard
Chardonnay vineyard
Merlot grapes St. Emilion
Merlot grapes
photo of Joe and Janelle
Joe and Janelle – Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in St. Helena AVA
  • Joe Becerra

    Joe Becerra has been traveling to wine country and enjoying wine since 1965. He is a retired educator, and now have the time the opportunity to share his wine travel experiences through this Website.

3 thoughts on “Do You Know Napa Valley’s Big Three?”

  1. Consumers can still buy quality Napa Cabernet from first rate producers if you read and taste with a group. There are still quality everyday Cabs like the Martini Sonoma which retails anywhere from $12-15 a bottle. Very good article. Rememer you can find quality Cabernet in places like Chili, Argentina, Spain and other regions.

  2. You can also find some great wines that are value priced in the Lodi Wine Country. Many quality producers in Lodi include Harney, D’Art, Jeremy Wines, and Borra.

    • We have explored Lodi wine country many times including attending the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2016. We very much enjoy Lodi wines especially the Spanish varieties. The intent of my article on the Big Three is to show how much these three grapes are valued in the Napa Valley. It was not meant to indicate that Napa Valley wines are better than any other wine region.
      Thanks for your comment. Joe

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