It wasn’t chardonnay, and it wasn’t sauvignon blanc; the stars of this Napa Valley tasting were albarino and white riesling. With small plantings and price tags ranging from $12.50 to $36, Napa Valley’s aromatic whites provide two things that almost never go together: rare and affordable.
The economics of the valley are straightforward: Plant cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and you just may get a return on the staggering costs involved in running a vineyard and cellar. Plant pinot grigio and grenache blanc; not so much.
Wineries make small amounts of various aromatic whites for numerous reasons, including existing plantings, love of a variety, something fun for club members or for sale exclusively at the winery.
Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are the only white varieties with plantings over 1,000 acres in the Napa Valley. White grape varieties other than the region’s top two provide something new and exciting for the palate to appreciate about Napa Valley. And who knew that muscadine, grenache blanc, and pinot grigio vines are happily coexisting among all that cabernet sauvignon? Chenin blanc and riesling are less surprising inclusions. Not only were both of these grapes historically planted in the valley, but they were also among the top planted varieties just decades ago. The two grapes have managed to keep a foothold in the valley, albeit to a very small extent.
The St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel sat down at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone recently to review 18 white wines from the 2014 and 2015 vintages, covering varieties from albarino to viognier.
In a discussion following the blind tasting, a preference for wines from the 2015 vintage was expressed by numerous panelists, who found them, as CIA instructor Christie Dufault described, “more varietal, fresher, brighter and balanced.”
“The acidity levels in 2015 are consistent, balanced – you want acidity in these kind of wines,” said Master Sommelier Bob Bath. Bath also appreciated the diversity, adding, “I am always willing to try wines from those who are willing to plant something other than the usual. There are a lot of varieties here; all interesting.”
Panelists also found favor with certain varieties. Ashley Broshious with Arkenstone Winery (who recently sat for the Master Sommelier exam) commented, “Incredible rieslings here; they would stand up against other world-class rieslings.”
Chris Phelps of Chris Phelps Wines agreed, calling the three rieslings in the lineup (Hagafen, Trefethen and Galerie) the “best wines of the tasting.”
The variety of the wines is certainly exciting, but as John Skupny of Lang & Reed joked, there is another reason to love Napa Valley’s aromatic whites: “You don’t need a second mortgage to have any of these wines; Only five in the group were over $30.”
Students from The CIA’s Advanced Wine, Beverage and Hospitality Program attended the tasting and gave their fresh perspective to the discussion. One had her eye on food pairings, noting that the wines showed complexity on the palate, providing a lot of versatility with food. In fact, Ramona Nahapetian reviewed each wine with a souffle of strawberries and cream in mind. The third student was pleased with the acidity she found in the wines, calling them “so refreshing, with balance.”
When the results of the blind tasting were scored, the panelists’ top choices revealed a taste for Napa Valley’s albarino, riesling, viognier and pinot grigio.
Here are those top picks of the region’s aromatic white wines:
Artesa 2015 Albarino from Los Carneros ($28) is lip-smacking good with lemon citrus and subtle floral bouquet on a rich body with zesty acidity.
Benessere 2015 Pinot Grigio from Napa Valley ($22) is rich in body with a zesty pungency of fresh grass and juicy lemons.
Fortunati Vineyards 2014 Estate Viognier from the Oak Knoll District ($32) is rich and nutty with pear fruit, toasty oak, and fennel on a creamy palate.
Galerie 2015 Riesling Terracea from Spring Mountain ($30) combines white floral, peach and pear in each fresh, fruity sip.
Hagafen 2015 White Riesling from Napa Valley ($24) takes on riper fruits of mango and pineapple with peach and lime zest. The wine is medium sweet.
Hill Family Estate 2014 Albarino from Los Carneros ($28) is one crisp sip with plenty of zingy acidity and generous lemon citrus, white blossom and dried herb flavors.
Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 to learn more.