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Especially around the holidays, we look to sip festive bubbles and linger over a glass of sweet or dessert wine following a particularly cozy meal with good friends.

It’s a shame we limit these wine styles to certain times of the year or parts of a meal. It’s time to break old habits and wrangle the chains loose: sip that sweet wine as an aperitif, as they do in France; enjoy different styles of bubbly throughout an entire meal – a rich, aged Vintage Champagne is heaven with mushroom-encrusted pork tenderloin or baked chicken, and this can elevate a meal any time of the year.

The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel met to taste and discuss Napa Valley’s sparkling and sweet wines. They are far from easy to produce, yet they can be a winery’s main style, or an important part of a vintner’s portfolio.

Let’s take a peek into the difficulties involved. After the exhaustingly long days of harvest start to wane and the red and white wines are safely in the cellar, there is no rest for the weary if you are producing sparkling wine. Your work is just getting started.

Making sparkling wines

For many Napa Valley sparkling wines, the traditional method of production is used, and the winemaker starts with base red and/or white wines. He or she then tastes and blends dozens and dozens of these base wines for complexity and consistency before creating a second fermentation which traps the naturally occurring carbon dioxide in bottles to create the beautiful bubbles. And there’s more! The expended yeasts then need to be expelled from each bottle. Finally, the bottles will be topped up with wine, and if desired, sugar, to sweeten the final wine or balance out the acidity.

Even before harvest begins, vigilance is needed in the vineyard. You need to maintain higher acids in the grapes to make the refreshing style of sparkling wine, but you also need the grapes ripe enough to avoid green, unripe flavors. But not too ripe or you will have too much sugar in the base wines, and then your second fermentation (which creates more alcohol) will bring the wine out of balance. Oy, right?

Making sweet wines

For sweet wines, the vineyard work is equally daunting. Some styles, like late harvest wines, require that the grapes are left on the vine longer so that the grapes start to dehydrate. With lost water content, the grapes’ sugars and flavors are concentrated in the berries, creating deliciously rich, intense flavors. But to leave grapes on the vine for an extended period of time takes incredible vigilance and good luck: rains may come, rot or mold could set in, so many issues can arise.

As winemaker Julie Lumgair noted, “I appreciate late harvest [wines] – what it takes; the patience, the extra blessing from mother nature to create.” And she continued with praise for the wines at the tasting, “I am really in awe of the talent shown in the red sweet wines; the additional cost and risk with carrying a block [of grapes] to this stage means that this style doesn’t always get a nod to be made at wineries.”

Winemaker Tom Rinaldi agreed, calling the dessert wines “a thrill; exciting wines that are explosive on the palate [with flavor] with great viscosity.”

And Rinaldi shared a story from his first winemaking vintage, in 1976 at Freemark Abbey. Harvest was pretty much done when a trailer of rotten, ugly grapes showed up at the winery. Rinaldi thought that founder Chuck Carpy was going to have a fit. Out comes Chuck to the crush pad, and as he looks at the sad grapes, he starts flailing his arms and runs back into the cellar. He returns, to Rinaldi’s amazement, with a bottle of Champagne and pops it open to celebrate! These were noble rot grapes, used in the winery’s special Edel wine, like France’s Sauternes, where a good rot concentrates sugars and adds complex flavors to the wine. Another difficult style of wine to produce as the good rot can easily turn bad.

For one wine at the tasting, the vintner dared to use a non-vinifera grape variety for their sweet wine (vinifera varieties include the well-known Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.). Spiriterra makes a sweet white wine using the native American grape muscadine. With its unique tastes, panelists appreciated and discussed its exciting point of differentiation; a wine that vintner Jac Cole called “a candy shop.”

Less discussion was had on the sparkling wines, as the tasting samples confirmed an underlying understanding by panelists: Napa Valley’s sparkling wines can compete with the best in the world.

The favorites of the tasting are listed below from two flights of white and rosé sparkling wines and two flights of sweet wines (the latter giving an insight into the different styles you can expect in the Napa Valley):

Sparkling wines

Schramsberg Vineyards 2014 Querencia Brut Rosé Los Carneros ($55) First place in its flight, this is a pale pink beauty in the globally-respected Schramsberg lineup. The rich texture wraps seductively around the red fruit flavors and the juicy acidity adds an electric zing of excitement to the tongue.

Hill Family Estate 2016 Sparkling Wine Napa Valley ($52) First place in its flight, this pale pink sparkling wine sends a silky ribbon of elegant cherry fruit flavors across the palate.

Domaine Chandon etoile Brut Napa Valley ($40) has ripe pear, fresh peach, lemon crème pie and ripe pineapple flavors showcasing California’s sunny disposition, yet with the zippy acidity you would expect in a top sparkler.

V. Sattui 2012 Prestige Cuvée Napa Valley ($43) Even the sparkling wines at V. Sattui win top placement with our tasting panel. This pale lemon sparkler has a hint of sweetness on the palate, and heady aromas of honeysuckle and other fresh spring flowers intermingling with stone fruit flavors.

Sweet wines

Benessere 2017 Muscat/Moscato, St. Helena 375ml ($25) First place in its flight, this sweet white wine’s pale appearance belies rich aromas of sweet orange blossom, jasmine, mango, guava, pineapple, and lychee fruit. A lovely wine with a goldilocks texture: neither too rich, nor too light – a wonderfully silky wine.

Fortunadi Vineyards 2014 Syrah Oak Knoll ($75) First place in its flight, this Port-style wine is fortified with spirit, producing a deep ruby sweet wine with thickly tinted legs and toasty, nutty red plums flavors, with a richly delicious texture.

Trefethen Family Late Harvest Riesling Oak Knoll ($50) Left on the vine, the Riesling grapes concentrate their sugars and flavors, producing a pale lemon sweet wine with white blossom aromas and banana, juicy pineapple, and guava fruit with a long, lip-smacking candy-sweet finish.

PEJU NV Zinfandel DELICIAS Napa Valley ($55) uses late harvest zinfandel grapes and is fortified with brandy. The wine is a pale garnet color, this wine sends a ribbon of sweet silky flavor across the palate, with menthol cherry and fresh, earthy notes, finishing with toasty goodness.

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Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. She is also the co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com.

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