The 2015 holiday season is upon us with convivial celebrations and gatherings of family and friends. It’s the perfect time of year to pull out special wines for celebration, lingering conversations, and to ward off winter’s evening chill. Sparkling, dessert and fortified wines have long held their place at the holiday table, giving us all the more reason to make merry with bubbles and bottles of liquid gold and velvet.

The tradition of sparkling wines in Napa Valley has evolved greatly thanks to pioneering producers such as Hanns Kornell, who purchased Larkmead Vineyards in 1958. Kornell produced sparkling wine in the traditional method of famed Champagne, departing from the tank method popular at the time.

Jack and Jamie Davies struck new ground when they purchased the Schramsberg property in 1965, and their internationally renowned sparkling wines paved the way for Domaine Chandon and Mumm Napa Valley in the 1970s.

The history of sweet wines in Napa Valley is nearly as old as the tradition of wine itself in the region. Known largely for its sweet wines before the mid-1960s, the same wave of quality improvements that swept the still wine industry in the late 1960s moved through sweet wine production as well. With this move toward excellence accompanied by a move toward the international stage, these longstanding bastions of Napa Valley have emerged in a variety of styles of remarkable character.

Last week, the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel reviewed 13 sparkling wines and 13 dessert and fortified wines, nine white and four red, from Napa Valley at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. A panel of local winemakers and wine industry professionals attended the blind tasting. The panel tasted and assessed two flights of sparkling wines, two flights of white dessert wines and a flight of red dessert and fortified wines.

Panelists discussed the wines and styles after the tasting, their thoughts and findings noting the diversity of styles of both sparkling and sweet wines to be notable.

Hugh Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards launched the conversation by noting “the wide array of good quality wines, including some very interesting surprises and outstanding examples of sparkling and dessert wines.” He added, “The increase in producers of sparkling wines will likely continue if dedicated sparkling wine production facilities take root in Napa Valley.”

Bob Bath, MS and CIA instructor, said, “There are so many good quality sparkling wines. I was surprised to see this wide array of wines with such high quality.”

Dr. Liz Thach, Master of Wine and professor of Wine and Business at Sonoma State University, added that she was “also surprised and pleased with the complexity and range of the dessert wines.”

The tasting hosted American original standouts, such as the Schramsberg 2011 Crémant Demi-Sec, made from the fruit forward and delicately spiced Flora grape (a Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay cross), and the Spiriterra Vineyards 2012 Scuppernong made from the tropically floral Scuppernong grape.

Alongside more classically styled traditional method sparkling wines, botrytised and late harvest white dessert wines, and the savory complexities of the dessert and fortified reds, reveal the true beauty of Napa Valley in the holidays to be its rich tapestry of styles.

The panelists chose the following as their top wines:

Alpha Omega 2011 Late Harvest Dessert Wine Napa Valley ($88)

A tribute to the great dessert wines of the world, this wine greets with a nose of grapefruit, jasmine and honey and hosts a palate of dry apricot and creme brulee.

Honig Vineyard and Winery 2013 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford ($70)

Harvested near the Napa River, this fruit benefits from extra moisture crucial to the occurrence of Botrytis, or Noble Rot. Barrel fermentation in French oak and eight months of aging add nutmeg and vanilla notes to a rich palate of baked peaches, figs and honey.

Schramsberg Vineyards 2010 Brut Carneros ($75)

A Blanc de Blancs wine made of chardonnay, this wine ages over three years en tirage resulting in a wine whose fresh green apple and citrus flavors are balanced by a rich texture.

Schramsberg Vineyards 2011 Querencia Brut Rosé Napa Valley ($55)

Created in honor of the memory of co-founder Jack Davies, Querencia is a Spanish word for the “deep and abiding affection one has for the place one calls home.” The light and crisp core of chardonnay is complemented by small additions of skin-fermented pinot noir for color and flavor notes of berry.

Somerston Estate 2009 Everest Fortified Red Wine Napa Valley ($30)

After fermentation and fortification, this wine was aged in neutral French oak barrels for four years before being bottled unfiltered. Sweet cherry and plum flavors are carried by balanced sweetness and acidity.

Maisie Lyman filled in for Catherine Bugue in this edition of the Star/NVV Panel Tasting coverage. Maisie is WSET III certified and works for Balzac Communications & Marketing. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program. Visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor under the Community tab to learn more.

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