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Napa tasting highlights whites

Chenin Blanc and Albariño came out top in a tasting of Napa Valley whites made from grapes other than Chardonnay and Sauvignon.

In the US, Chardonnay outsells all other wines, red or white and Pinot Grigio/Gris, Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc follow from there in white wine popularity.

In Napa Valley, however, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the two reigning white wines of the region.

There is a surprise, however, waiting for you on your next trip to Napa Valley.

The Napa Valley Vintner and St. Helena Star Tasting Panel recently reviewed the “other white wines of Napa Valley” and tasted through white wines other than the region’s top two varieties.

Panelists included Napa Valley winemakers and other key industry individuals including: Ted Henry of Jarvis, Cameron Parry at Chateau Montelena, Pierre Bierbent of Signorello Vineyards, Craig Becker at Somerston Wine Co., Mark Skinner of von Strasser Winery, John Skupny of Lang & Reed, Jim Sullivan of Castello di Amorosa, Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock Winery, Gerard Zanzonico of Del Dotto Vineyards, Kristen Belair of Honig Vineyard & Winery, Eric Carpenter of Dean & Deluca, Bill Nancarrow of Duckhorn Wine Company, Anne Vawter of Ziata Wines, Matt Crafton of Chateau Montelena, Master Sommelier Bob Bath, and Barbara Trigg of Appellation America.

Meeting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone’s Rudd Center this month, the panelists were eager to see how Napa Valley’s versions of Moscato/Muscat and Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris were tasting and what else Napa Valley is producing.

The variety was surprising. In addition to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Moscato and Pinot Grigio, there were Viogniers, Albariños, Rieslings, Gewürztraminer, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and white blends included in the tasting.

Some of these wines are very limited production, especially given their acreage.

Albariño, for example, has only 104 acres in California, 13 of which are in Napa County. Gewurztraminer has a more impressive 1,500 acres in California, but only 15 in Napa County.

Increased plantings come with the very popular Moscato at 1,705 acres in the state and 60 acres in Napa County, but really clock in with Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris which has 12,529 bearing acres in the state, and 240 in Napa County.

Following a blind tasting of several flights, the panelists discussed these other white wines.

From a retail stand-point, Eric Carpenter of the fine purveyors, Dean & Deluca, noted that although the Viogners were good, Napa Valley Viognier is a hard sell with the average bottle price of $40. He added that lesser known white varieties required a hand sell to make it to the cash register.

John Skupny, owner of Lang & Reed, noted “With the warm Napa Valley climate, it is difficult to do delicate.” Yet Skupny and the other panelists agreed, there were a wide variety of styles from the same variety – some having a more delicate touch and others embracing richer, riper fruit.

Chris Phelps, winemaker of Swanson Vineyards, also touched on the weather. “We are a warm region for some of these varieties. Some of the wines lacked character, yet some were stand-outs.”

Keith Hock of Schramsberg Vineyards was more impressed, finding good aromatics in the wines.

Bill Nancarrow, winemaker of Duckhorn Wine Company, agreed, noting “The wines are pretty well crafted, and overall, pretty interesting… There are some high quality wines in these flights.”

When Master Sommelier, Bob Bath, was asked what he thought of the wines, he quickly quipped “I like some of these price points”, to which everyone enthusiastically agreed.

Bath also felt that while some may think of Napa Valley as one-dimensional [with its Cabernet Sauvignon], here was a great display of variety.

There is a lot to choose from when choosing a white wine from Napa Valley.

The top white wines of the tasting were:

Ballentine Vineyards 2011 Chenin Blanc, Pocai Vineyard, Napa Valley  ($17)

Chenin Blanc used to be one of the most-grown varieties in the Valley. Its numbers may be down but it can produce great wines here. The Pocai Vineyard lies off the Silverado Trail just south of Calistoga.

Panelists enjoyed this wine’s grassy and lemon-lime citrus aromas and flavors; it was a stand-out at the tasting.

Hill Family Estate 2011 Albariño, Carneros ($28).


Albariño is a variety better known in Spain, particularly along the coastal region of Rias Baixas in the northwest. Not a lot of it is produced here in the Napa Valley but the grape produces crisp wines with good fruit and lots of citrus flavours.

They can also have a nice, rich mouth feel, especially from Napa Valley. Albariño is great with seafood and this wine has nice ripe red apple and pear fruit flavors with balancing acidity.

Swanson Vineyards  2010 Pinot Grigio, Oakville ($21).


Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris enjoyed lots of press after ousting Sauvignon Blanc as the second most popular white wine in the country. While Moscato is gaining popularity with lightning speed, pinot grigio still retains its second place standing.

The wines are made in easy-to-drink styles and richer, full bodied styles. Swanson’s Pinot Grigio is a refreshing version with lots of lemon citrus, grapefruit and pear flavours. It has some richness on the palate, making it a universal style embracing both the grape’s acidity and its ability to create mouth-coating wines. 

Stags’ Leap Winery 2011 Viognier  ($20).


Viognier was the variety that impressed a number of the panelists the most during the tasting. The grape gained widespread popularity in the 1990s even though plantings are low. It likes a warmer climate and produces aromatic, rich yet refreshing wines.

This wine by Stags’ Leap was the group’s favourite Viognier. It combines floral aromas with melon, mango, papaya and more.

Somerston Wine Company Highflyer 2010 Grenache Blanc ($20).


We see less of this grape than the others noted here, but it can produce richly flavoured and full-bodied whites. This Highflyer wine has nice nectarine and citrus flavours with a touch of herb. Just 28 barrels were made of this wine.

The Somerston estate covers 1,600 acres off Sage Canyon Road, and there is also a tasting room on Washington Street in Yountville. 

 Trefethen Family Vineyards 2011 Riesling, Oak Knoll District, ($22).


This dry white wine is one of Napa Valley’s darlings. It is often cited when wine lovers mention Riesling, and so too, when discussing full flavoured and refreshing whites. Riesling is another grape with historic roots in Napa Valley, having been well planted years ago.

Trefethen is one of a handful of Napa Valley wineries making the grape popular again.



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