In 2018, in its 11th year, the panelists of the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel met 10 times in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone north of St. Helena and ranked a wide range of Napa Valley wines.

The varietals that were part of a year’s worth of tastings included the following in alphabetical order:

  • Cabernet Franc
  • Merlots
  • Mountain Cabernet
  • Sauvignon
  • Petite Sirahs and Syrahs
  • Pinot Noir
  • Rose
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Sweet and sparkling wines
  • Zinfandels

Reporting on these tastings were Catherine Bugue, who has been writing panel reviews for the St. Helena Star for the past nine years and is co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy, and Regina LaConti, who is the Student Success advisor for the NVWA.

CABERNET FRANC

Cabernet Franc is a black-skinned French wine grape variety grown in most wine-producing nations. The variety is most famously known as the third grape of Bordeaux and can be found in many of the world’s top Bordeaux-style blends. Cabernet Franc most commonly appears in blended red wines, where it adds herbaceous accents of tobacco and dark spice.

As a varietal wine, Cabernet Franc is light to medium bodied and often shows vegetal characteristics, particularly green bell pepper. This has led many wine drinkers to incorrectly identify Cabernet Franc as unripe Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc is commonly compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, which is not without justification — the Cabernet Sauvignon variety is the result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. (Recent DNA profiling has also shown that Cabernet Franc is also one of Merlot’s parents.)

But in the vineyard, Cabernet Franc ripens at least a week earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. While it has thinner skin and lower acidity, it is also known for its hardiness and often grown as an “insurance” grape. Cabernet Franc prefers cool, inland climates, according to Wine Searcher.

For each acre planted to Cabernet Franc in the Napa Valley, there are six devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc plantings amount to 1,286 acres, while Cabernet Sauvignon amounts to 22,042 acres, according to longtime Cabernet Franc grower and producer, John Skupny, who attended the tasting.

MERLOT

Merlot was a varietal rock star around the country in the 1970s. It was easy to pronounce and easy to sip, being softer and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Too much of a good thing, however, led to a backlash. Merlot was ill-treated: planted in less desirable places and made in high volume batches to try and meet the demand for Merlot-thirsty palates. This caused die-hard wine lovers to turn away from the grape variety. That, and the following “Sideways” movie, left their negative marks.

Quietly and committedly, however, many Napa Valley producers continued to make their small lots of Merlot, knowing that their wines were different. While the vast Merlot plantings around California and beyond were producing indistinct red wines with diluted flavors and lackluster complexity, local Napa Valley producers continued to grow Merlot that built up concentration of flavor and showed off the grape’s inherent richness.

Still, plantings overall are down. There are just 4,757 acres of Merlot planted in Napa County today compared to Cabernet Sauvignon’s 22,042 (2016 Napa County Crop Report). Yet, when you look at all of the concentration, full flavors and velvety texture that you receive in Napa Valley Merlots — and then see that the wines start at just $20 a bottle retail — it becomes apparent that this variety needs to stay in the Napa Valley, offering consumers diversity as well as affordable luxury.

MOUNTAIN CABERNETS

In October, harvest 2018 was nearly completed. While some producers waited to bring in Cabernet Sauvignon, many reported that most of their fruit will hit crush pads shortly. The crisp fall mornings and sunny days are allowing for optimum ripening, and the winemaking community couldn’t be happier. It appears yields are higher than anticipated and the quality of the 2018 vintage has been exceptional thus far, according to the Napa Valley Vintners.

Despite all the work that remains to be done, some winemakers and members of the wine trade didn’t want to miss the October tasting of 2014 and 2015 Cabernet Sauvignons from five mountain appellations: Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain District, Diamond Mountain, Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain. The wines ranged in price from $62 to $175 a bottle.

Some common themes were the balanced ripeness and concentration of fruit, however, more red fruit aromas were noted than expected. There were several comments highlighting the well-integrated tannins and potential for ageing in the wines tasted.

Christie DuFault, a member of the wine faculty at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, said her students sometimes become frustrated trying to pinpoint the subtle differences of terroir in the valley. She was most surprised by the well-integrated tannins and noted that some wines appeared ready for earlier drinking and that others would benefit from additional aging for many years.

Winemaker Todd Graff, Frank Family Vineyards, said, “I was expecting bigger and more monstrous wines, and I am impressed with the quality on the first flight (Mount Veeder), surprised to find more red than black fruits flavours.”

PETITE SIRAH, SYRAH

Syrah has clearly proven itself successful around the world; wines are produced in many styles and display a myriad of dark-fruit flavors. Syrah’s origin is unquestionably the northern Rhône Valley of France. However, it is also Australia’s flagship variety (where it is known Shiraz) and has developed such a distinct personality in Australian terroir that it is regarded by some as a distinct variety.

Syrah is a dark-skinned red wine grape. Varietal Syrah can be quite floral in its youth, developing white and black pepper aromas as its ages. Some examples show tanned leather and smoky scents, while the fruit in these wines tends towards the very dark flavors of blackcurrant and plum.

Petite Sirah (better known as Durif outside of North and South America), is a natural crossing (most likely due to cross-pollination) from “Peloursin” vines and Syrah. Petite Sirah originated in France but is scarcely grown there. It is better suited to drier climates such as California, parts of Australia (where it is sometimes made as a sparkling red wine) and Israel.

Petite Sirah is a black-skinned grape variety, while “Petite” refers to the small, intensely colored berries that make Petite Sirah such a distinctive grape variety. The high tannins and acidity present in Petite Sirah make it an excellent candidate for aging. Primary flavors often associated with the wine are blackberry, chocolate and black pepper. Many other characteristics of Syrah can also be noted, such as blueberry, licorice and various herbal elements.

PINOT NOIR

Whether Agoston Haraszthy of Buena Vista, Charles LeFranc of Almaden Vineyards or Frenchman Pierre Pellier brought Pinot Noir to California is a matter of debate, but we do know that the grape appeared in Napa Valley vineyards, such as Gustave Niebaum’s Inglenook, in the late 1800s.

Andre Tchelistcheff produced two gorgeous vintages (1946, 1947) for Beaulieu that quickly became the benchmark style for California Pinot Noir. Hard to replicate in other years, the special 1946 and ’47 wines are said to have haunted Tchelistcheff thereafter.

One of the biggest changes for Pinot Noir in Napa Valley today involves where it is grown. The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel sat down in August to look at current vintages of Pinot Noir in Napa Valley, tasting close to 30 wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Panelists did not shy away from discussions on the suitability of Pinot Noir in Napa Valley’s warm climate.

Vintner Bill Dyer touched on the southern migration of the grape in the valley, explaining, “Carneros gets the winds; it is cool and a good place for Pinot Noir. It used to be planted in the North, where it is too warm.”

Long-time winemaker Tom Rinaldi came out and asked: is Napa Valley simply too warm?

At the heart of the question is the fact that Pinot Noir’s beauty is in its perfumed aromatics and bright acidity, which can get lost in warm growing seasons.

Making Pinot Noir in a warm climate requires a lot of vigilance. You want to extract color and tannins for a structured wine, yet retain the lovely aromatics and bright acidity that Pinot Noir is famous for. It is not an easy feat.

When the right balance is struck between California’s ripe, generous fruit and juicy acidity, the wines show off rich red and black cherry and red plum fruits with compote-like concentration and a silky ride along the tongue into a long, full flavored finish. Many of Napa Valley’s Pinot Noirs include generous amounts of sweet oak-spiced flavors, adding another dimension to the wines.

ROSÉ

Fresh strawberry, juicy cherry, and zingy raspberry flavors … not what you might expect to hear about 2017 Napa Valley wines given the concern over smoke from the October wildfires. Yet, here they are, a line-up of refreshingly fruity wines; perhaps one of the first wine reviews of the vintage.

True, it is rosé wines that we discuss here, so one could argue that the grapes were picked earlier and in the cellar before smoke descended on the valley. You’d be right in some instances; yet many Napa Valley rosés are made in the saignée method, where early picking is not a part of the process. That is because the saignée method is a bleeding-off of fermenting juice from a red wine.

These rosé wines, any resulting reds — and all of the grape varieties used to make them: Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel (etc.) — are tangible, tastable proof of the fresh, fruity wines made during the 2017 vintage.

The real story of the vintage, before the fires came and took away its voice, was a powerful combination of a wet spring and summer heat spikes, both of which converged to bring in an early crop of ripe, healthy grapes. Were all of the grapes in? No, unfortunately, but 90 percent of the total grape crop was in. Of that, 75 percent of the longer-to-ripen Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were also already picked.

To celebrate spring and new beginnings, many of us turn to rosé, and the white blossom, strawberry, cherry, watermelon flavors that make us feel like we are drinking in the delicious weather. Napa Valley pulls out all the stops to help you on your path to summer.

SAUVIGNON BLANC

What do we love about sauvignon blanc? The list could start with its generous aromatics, and zesty acidity which highlights flavors from crisp citrus to stone and even tropical fruits, along with fresh grassy aromas of spring and summer, and hints of mineral complexity. It’s fun and zippy like a lean Jamie Curtis to Chardonnay’s warmer and rounder Marilyn Monroe. With Sauvignon Blanc, the freshness is energizing.

While the top five grape varieties in the country include two whites – Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio – Sauvignon Blanc is one of the fastest growing wine categories in the United States (Nielsen 2018) and in the past, has been among the top white grape plantings.

In California, there are approximately 15,000 Sauvignon Blanc acres, making the grape the fourth most planted behind Chardonnay, French Colombard (used in blends; great for distillation) and Pinot Grigio (California Grape Acreage Report 2017).

Napa Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc style included — even several vintages ago — dominant oak aromas and flavors in the wine. That style, however, has waned in the last two years. Oak is used, but its aromas and flavors are more integrated into the wine, and often a percentage of the oak being used is neutral (not imparting strong oak flavors).

SPARKLING & DESSERT WINES

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.

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?

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.”

ZINFANDELS

Jamie Jamison from BRIX Restaurant noticed it; Brianna Beighle of Spottwoode Winery commented on it; John Skupny thought it might disappoint many a cooper.

What were they talking about? A noticeable change in the style of Napa Valley zins. The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel sat down earlier this month to taste four flights of Zinfandel, totaling 22 wines. They spanned four vintages – from 2013 to 2016 — and ranged from $20 to $95 a bottle.

The number of wines showing a difference in style from past vintages foreshadows a wider pendulum swing away from old-school zin: those with overly-concentrated (almost syrupy) fruit; spirit-y alcohol; and generous heaps of oak spice.

Jamison confronted the subject head-on, “The style has changed from big, jammy and oaky; it is refreshing to see.”

“Cooperages must be sad,” joked Skupny, “they are not selling as many (barrels)”, in response to the more restrained oak use in the wines. He also found less jam than in the past, with many of the wines showing bright red fruit flavors. Beighle agreed and shared her preference for “lighter, acid-driven wines”; attributes which several panelists commented on positively during the discussion.

Balance was mentioned over and over again, including integrated alcohol and vibrant acidity which lifted the rich fruitiness of the wines. Alcohols are often high in zinfandel due to the grape’s inherent nature in the vineyard. The grape bunches ripen unevenly, and so to avoid un-ripe berries, the bunches are picked when all of the berries are ripe, leaving some of the fruit super jammy and laden with sugars. These high sugars are converted to higher alcohol in the fermentation tank.