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Napa Valley's full-bodied white wines match the flavors of fall

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 27, 2021 series
  • Updated

Napa’s full-bodied white wines highlight the savory, umami tastes of autumn favorites, from roast turkey and squash to oysters and duck. There are a wide range of full-bodied white wines to explore from different areas of the valley.

Catherine Bugue, vice president of education and co-owner of Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa, said full-bodied white wines can have a higher alcohol content, like 13.5 percent or above.

The high amount of alcohol adds a rich texture to the wines. Napa Valley wineries also make crisp, leaner white wine styles. Carneros Chardonnays are a regional favorite. The grape has an affinity for the cooler, ocean-influenced temperatures.

“While Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc hold the most plantings, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Semillon, Viognier and other white grapes are also grown in the Napa Valley. The wines made from these grapes in Napa Valley often have a silky texture. Viognier in particular is known for its aromatics,” said Bugue.

Bugue added that often, flavors in Chardonnay wines come from the expertise of the winemaker.

“Oak influence can add these flavors as well as provide more body to the wine,” said Bugue.

The cooler growing areas for white wines include Coombsville, Carneros, and Oak Knoll. There acidity is maintained in the grapes. This translates to acidity in the wines. Wines grown in cooler areas usually have citrus and stone fruit flavors. Warmer growing areas include Yountville, St. Helena, Rutherford, and Calistoga.

“(Here) tropical fruit flavors can be found in some of the wines, along with a fuller, richer texture,” said Bugue.

Bugue said producers often create a balance by blending wines from warmer areas with wines from cooler areas.

Sean McBride, co-winemaker and co-owner of Crosby Roamann Winery in Napa, said he searches out the “less voluptuous, overpowering” white wines for those that are “more tactical, with more race to them.”

“You want a wine that leaves more of an impression under the tongue. You need that break of acidity,” said McBride.

McBride said one of his favorites is the Watson Ranch Chardonnay made by Arnot-Roberts, a winery based in Healdsburg.

“This Chardonnay is grown in the most southern part of Napa County on a hillside. It’s a really tight Chablis-style Chardonnay. It doesn’t have that soft, buttery character that comes from converting malic acid to lactic acid. It has more of a bite,” said McBride.

How to explore full-bodied white wines

Vincent Morrow, master sommelier and wine director at PRESS in St. Helena, said full-bodied white wines should not be served extremely cold.

“Chill the wine to the lower to mid-50s to start. The floral, aromatic grapes will blossom over time and the texture will come out more. The more you chill a white wine, the thinner and leaner it will taste,” said Morrow.

Morrow said a home chef should taste a full-bodied white wine before cooking.

“This type of wine will keep about two to three days after opening it. You can use a Repour or other type of preservation device to extend the drinking window,” said Morrow.

Morrow said his favorite full-bodied white wines include Pott Wines’ Viognier from Mt. Veeder and Truchard Vineyard’s Roussanne from Carneros.

“Aaron Potts’ Viognier is a tense, aromatic example from Mt. Veeder, whereas Annie Favia’s Suize Viognier is a fuller-bodied example made from grapes grown in Amador County. I also like Helen Keplinger’s Eldorado, a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc wines grown in a variety of vineyards. Supporting Napa winemakers sometimes means going beyond the vineyards in Napa Valley,” said Morrow.

Making a full-bodied white wine

Derek Flegal, winemaker at Tamber Bey Vineyards in Calistoga, said his process to create Deux Chevaux Chardonnay is a good model for making a full-bodied white wine.

“Deciding when to pick is important. That moment encapsulates the potential of the wine. If you pick earlier, you’ll retain more acidity. I’m trying to find that point where the grapes are ripe and flavors have fully developed enough to make a complete and richly styled wine. (I also want to keep) enough acidity for length and freshness,” said Flegal.

Flegal said Tamber Bey goes direct to press.

“(There’s) no destemming or crushing. We are careful with how hard we press the grapes. If we press too hard, we lose freshness and get bitterness,” said Flegal.

Flegal added Tamber Bey “barrels its Chardonnay down dirty.” This means the winery puts the wine in the barrel the same day the grapes go to the press.

“We keep all of the lees and like to age the Chardonnay in a more reductive environment than other wines. The lees help mitigate oxidation and add an inherent richness to the wine. We do not stir the lees,” said Flegal.

Flegal said it is a hard job to offset the richness that a full-bodied white wine develops.

“The Chardonnay ages 14 months. It’s bottled the year following the vintage, in December. We make sure we keep the wine taut and fresh by aging on lees. Then we pull the wine up to stainless steel tanks a few months before bottling. (We do this) once we’ve achieved the texture we’re looking for,” said Flegal.

Flegal said the complexity of the 2019 Deux Chevaux reveals the care and time that went into its profile.

“It’s a rich wine, with notes of white flowers, jasmine, and subtle hints of honey. It has a palate of Bartlett pear, vanilla, and apple butter. You can sense the aromas of ripe pineapple, cinnamon, and brown sugar,” said Flegal.

Best foods for pairing

Full-bodied white wines go well with many different dishes. The key lies in how the foods are prepared.

“A salad (with a) creamy element such as ... rich, savory scallops, creates a great textural symmetry between the wine and the dish,” said Bugue.

Bugue said this is the reason she likes to pair Chardonnay with a white cream pasta sauce. She also enjoys having Asian-inspired dishes with aromatic whites.

“Aromatic whites often focus on the purity of the fruit. (They) have refreshing acidity,” said Bugue.

Bugue said a home chef should match acidity levels in a food and wine pairing.

"If the food is too acidic, it may make the wine seem flabby," said Bugue.

McBride advises matching a full-bodied white wine with “perfect, roasted French-style chicken with crispy brown skin.”

“Full-bodied white wines are also good with roasted root vegetables, whole or pureed with a little cream, thick-cut bacon coated in brown sugar, and pork loin. You’re looking for the thicker kind of chops or steak. A full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc would go well with any type of shellfish, including crab, cioppino, and oysters. Oysters are in season between September and December,” said McBride.

Morrow said he likes to pair full-bodied white wines with fall dishes that contain walnut, caramel, maple, and pumpkin.

“Home chefs may also look to Alsatian dishes from northeastern France for inspiration. This part of France borders Switzerland and Germany. Cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts with bacon and apple cider vinegar (are) good examples. Parsnips are also a favorite ingredient for a full-bodied white wine. You want to make sure the dish has a contrast of spice and a little bit of sweetness,” said Morrow.

Flegal had a cautionary note about pairing.

“Avoid too much spice or bitterness. It can accentuate acid, alcohol, or oak,” said Flegal.

Flegal said home chefs should focus instead on healthy, occasional bites of richness.

“Incorporate goat cheese and toasted nuts into a salad. Avoid vinegar-based dressing,” said Flegal.

Flegal said he sometimes gets help by visiting the Calistoga Farmers Market. He often goes there to ask vendors what produce they think will work.

“The Calistoga Farmers Market is a good place to support local growers and find people who understand wine,” said Flegal.

French vintner Jean-Charles Boisset gives a brief tour of renovations for the historic Calistoga Depot

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