POSTED ON November 28, 2017 | IN Napa Valley | BY Joe Becerra
napa valley wine facts

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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.”  We attended a wine tasting of the “Big Three” at the Castello di Amorosa winery in their beautiful Great Hall. We tasted three Chardonnay wines, two Merlots, and four Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The occasion was part of the Wine Bloggers Conference held in November in Santa Rosa. 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

Merlot became one of the best-selling wines in the early 2000’s. It was a favorite wine among party goers and wines by the glass at bars and restaurants. Merlot’s popularity changed in a heartbeat in 2004. The cult movie Sideways arrived in the theaters. The main character in Sideways, Miles, cast Merlot as a trendy wine not worth tasting. Sales plummeted. Merlot is on the rise again. Just this past month, the Wine Spectator named a Napa Valley Merlot as the number one wine on their list of Top 100 Wines of 2017. It is the 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard. That wine sold out shortly after the Wine Spectator’s announcement of the number one wine. 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

Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of all grapes grown in the Napa Valley. Many Napa Valley vineyards have been ripped out and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon. Vineyard acres of Cabernet amount to 20,342 (45% of the vineyard acreage) in the Napa Valley. 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

Next time you head for your Napa Valley wine country getaway you will be armed with this knowledge and information about the “Big Three.” Enjoy and discover these famous wines of the Napa Valley. Try these links for helpful information.


  1. steve Howe says

    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.

    • Joe Becerra says

      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

  2. Mike Beltran says

    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.