Aromatic whites

With nary a sauvignon blanc or chardonnay in sight, the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners panelists chose five aromatic white wines just for the summer. (The sauvignon blancs submitted will be tasted and judged this month.) Photo courtesy of Alan’s Studio Off Main, St. Helena

Verdelho in Calistoga; pinot gris and viognier in Oak Knoll; gruner veltliner on Diamond Mountain; and muscadelle in Chiles Valley? Take a closer look and you will find these white grapes grown here in Napa Valley. Are we pulling out our iconic varietals for something new?

Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc lovers need not fear — they remain the most-planted grapes in Napa Valley. There are, however, some unexpected varietals planted among our more famous ones. The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel met June 20 at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to review summer whites that you may not have suspected were made here.

The sheer variety is exciting. Included in the panel’s tasting were pinot grigio/pinot gris; grenache blanc; albarino; verdelho, semillon; roussanne; gruner veltliner; viognier; riesling; muscat; and muscadelle. Following a review of four flights of six wines (24 total) from the 2011 and 2012 vintages, panelists discussed the wines.

Winemaker Celia Welch noted that as someone who makes a lot of cabernet sauvignon, it was wonderful to taste through these different varietals. Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson, agreed, and found it a refreshing change to taste so many wines without the influence of oak flavors. He also found the restraint on alcohol a plus.

David Stevens of 750 Wines called them “well made across the board” and was surprised with how much acidity was retained, especially in that the wines also showed such richness on the palate. While some of the higher acidity, the group discussed, could be attributed to the cooler 2011 vintage, there was also refreshing acidity in the 2012 wines.

For Tom Rees, owner and winemaker at Pine and Brown Winery, he was impressed by the minerality he was finding in a number of these Napa Valley wines. While minerality is often a descriptor for many European wines, Napa Valley generally boasts riper, fruit-forward flavors.

The plantings of these other whites around Napa County are small for sure. Kyrsta Scully of Scully Advisors, a local food and beverage financial consultancy, was especially surprised to find that verdelho is being grown in her hometown of Calistoga. There is just one acre, owned by Coquerel Wines. Muscat plantings seem large in comparison at 60 acres, but are far behind the front-runner, pinot gris, with 241 acres.

When panelists discussed the economics of making such small lots of wines, Aimée Sunseri of Nichelini Winery said nostalgia is sometimes a business decision. Nichelini is one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley, and their muscadelle vines are almost 60 years old. Consumers, Sunseri said, like to see old vines and unique varietals, and Nichelini is not pulling out their old vine plantings of muscadelle any time soon.

To coincide with the official start of summer, the Napa Valley Vintners is celebrating unexpected Napa Valley wines as part of a recently released campaign. Submit a photo of how Napa Valley helps you chill this summer and you may just win the grand prize: a 34th America’s Cup getaway package. There are other prizes offered as well. Further details are found at

While you are waiting for the Vintners to announce you as the winner, the panel recommends these as their favorite summer sippers from Napa Valley’s unexpected varietals:

Artesa Vineyards & Winery 2012 Albarino Carneros ($28). The albarino grape is highly regarded in Spain, where it is the choice for the country’s fresh seafood dishes. Artesa’s albarino is equally suited for any seaworthy dinner: grilled fish, sea scallop salad, barbecued shrimp, crab cakes and much more.

Black Stallion Winery 2012 Pinot Grigio ($22). Not your barely there pinot grigio, this one by Black Stallion has rich pear and orange citrus fruit with a spice kick on the finish. The wine is refreshing while also having a nice weight on the palate.

Franciscan Estate 2012 Equilibrium ($23). This is a new wine for Franciscan that has been getting a lot of attention. It has a secret weapon — muscat — which gives this wine its exotic tropical fruit flavors. Equilibrium is a blend that also includes sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Together, these varietals produce a wine with bold lime citrus aromas and kiwi, papaya, nectarine, white floral and spice.

Markham Vineyards 2012 Muscat Blanc ($20). When you get these aromas and flavors — lychee, rich pear, ripe red apples, nectarine and honey — all on a silky palate, what is not to love? This is a hedonistic white that will draw you in and keep you raptured with each sip.

Trefethen Family Vineyards 2012 Dry Riesling Oak Knoll ($23). The Riesling grape has historic roots in Napa Valley. It was once highly planted, especially around St. Helena and Spring Mountain, where German immigrants came to settle. While not as much is planted here today, there are fine Napa Valley Rieslings like this one from Trefethen. The 2012 has pronounced lemon and orange citrus, peach and pineapple fruit flavors. It is crisp and has a good, rich palate.

Catherine Seda is the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer and works for Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa. She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and enjoys all things wine. Contact her at Only wines from Napa Valley Vintners member wineries are accepted and tasted. Not all wines submitted are chosen to be tasted as often there are more wines submitted than tasted. The wines are chosen at random. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program. Visit and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.

This story was updated on July 9 to correct misinformation about Black Stallion's pinot grigio.


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