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On "Unexpected Napa Valley Wines"

In 1968, the value of Napa County’s beef production was virtually identical to that of its grapes[1]. There were 1,336 productive acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, but 1,492 acres of Petite Sirah. Chardonnay grew on 364 acres while French Colombard and Chenin Blanc each covered twice as much land. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay combined accounted for just 14% of Napa’s wine grape plantings.

Today the picture is far different. Total vine acreage is four times greater. In 2013, Chardonnay represented 58% of Napa Valley’s white grape crush and Cabernet Sauvignon 55% of the red[2]. Petite Sirah was a mere 2%. Not a single ton of French Colombard was harvested.

Now, one might naturally assume Napa Valley wines made from obscure varieties, such as Grignolino and Tocai Friuliano, are a new fad. But, while their winemakers may enjoy offering non-standard wines, no Cabernet or Chardonnay vines were grubbed up to do so. Despite the valley’s massive transition, some “heritage” vines still exist in Napa Valley. Jon Bonné and Eric Asimov took wine writers on a largely historical tour with new wines made from old grapes in a seminar called Unexpected Napa Valley Wines at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers late last month.

Their Unexpected Napa Valley Wines and my thoughts on them

2012 AbrenteAbrente 2012 Albariño, Napa Valley
Some comments on the Mark Squires message board take the position that, since there’s good Albariño in Spain, making it in Napa Valley is stupid. I agree. And since there’s good Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, we should rip out all the Cabernet in Napa too. But, in the meantime, Michael Havens and Morgan Twain-Peterson are making this full-bodied, Carneros Albariño with long-lasting flavors of tropical fruit, tangy peach and white flowers. The palate weight is balanced by prominent acidity and grippy texture. It’s very nice. Try it with Chicken Koorma. Highly Recommended. About $23.

I should point out here that Albariño is not a blast from Napa's past. It was introduced to Napa Valley by Michael Havens himself in the late 1990's[3]. He also led the effort to get it offically approved by the TTB as a legal varietal in the U.S. His 2000 release was this country's first commercial Albariño wine. Now the grape grows in a variety of California AVAs.

Chappellet Vineyards & Winery 2012 Chenin Blanc, Napa Valley
There are just 22 acres of Chenin Blanc left in Napa Valley, a mere 2% of 1982’s sum. Good riddance, say some, since Chenin in California has mostly been associated with high-volume, nondescript whites from the Central Valley. But that’s got nothing to do with varietal releases from serious wineries in Napa Valley.

There was Chenin in the vineyard when the Chappellets purchased their property back in the 1960’s. The vineyard was replanted a decade ago, but a combination of French oak, stainless barrels and concrete egg add complexity to the wine. It’s off-dry, mouth-filling and minerally with a core of juicy, yet under-ripe stone fruit.It won't make you forget top-quality Vouvray but it’s a good wine. Served chilled with hot, crispy arancini. Recommended. $32

Massican 2012 White Blend, Annia, Napa Valley
If you want to start throwing “hipster” around, I guess this would be the time. Massican’s Dan Petroski went to Columbia, has lived in Brooklyn and worked in publishing before chucking it all to to study winemaking in Italy. Now in Napa Valley, he’s making wines to suit his Friuli-loving palate. On the other hand, “hipster” doesn’t describe wine (or anything) very well. So let’s scrap that and talk about the wine.

The blend is 46% Ribolla Gialla from Oak Knoll and Russian River Valley, 36% Tocai Friuliano from Chiles Valley and 18% Chardonnay from Carneros. The nose and palate are mineral-laden and delicately fruity with taut apple and stone fruit. Medium-bodied with juicy acid and just 12.7%, I’d enjoy this wine with linguine alle vongole, a white pizza or all by itself on a warm day. Highly Recommended. About $28.

Matthiasson 2011 White Wine Blend, Napa Valley Steve Matthiasson’s NapItal white also features Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friuliano but pairs them with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon instead of Chardonnay. The nose offers subtle jasmine perfume along with mineral notes and a mix of slightly tart tropical fruits that carry through in the mouth. The palate is fresh, medium+ in body and smooth, yet grippy. This wine would be perfect with the grilled octopus burrito from La Taquiza (next to the Starbucks on Redwood Rd. in Napa). Highly Recommended+. $40.

Heitz Wine Cellars 2012 Grignolino, Napa Valley
This unassuming wine has been a focal point for the scorn of Wine Advocate writers and their supporters this week. Lisa Perotti-Brown complained that the wine looked more like a rosé than a red, but then that’s the varietally correct appearance for Grignolino. One person dismissed the wine with an irrelevance, quoting Oz Clarke’s views on the variety in Italy. Others have totally missed the point that this is not a new grape to Napa.

Grignolino was already resident in “The One and Only Vineyard” when Joe Heitz bought it in 1961. It won’t be confused with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and that’s just fine in my book. It’s a $19, medium-bodied red wine with light, yet grippy, tannins, generous acidity and just 12.5% alcohol. The nose is fresh and lively, reminiscent of rose petals, purple flowers and huckleberry pie. Tart berry flavors and juiciness are long-lasting in the mouth. Lisa Perotti-Brown likened it to an average Gamay. If “average” equates to 88 points or so, I agree. It’s a versatile lunch wine, right for everything from steak tartare, or a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce, to a bowl of cioppino. Recommended.

Lagier-Meredith 2011 Syrah, Mount Veeder
Syrah might be considered unexpected in Napa not because it’s still left from the old days but because someone was crazy enough to plant some recently. There was none at all in 1968’s Napa Valley. The other unexpected thing about this wine is that, owing to the Mount Veeder growing location, it’s got a disciplined, cool-climate personality.

I found aromas and flavors of thick-skinned black plums, mountain blackberries, licorice, earth and white pepper. Body is medium+ with firm, lightly chalky tannins and acidity that peeks through. This is a very enjoyable wine now—decant it or braise a lamb shank—but will soften and gain delicious complexity for at least a decade in the cellar. Very Highly Recommended. $48

Turley Wine Cellars 2011 Petite Sirah Library Vineyard, Napa Valley
Despite it’s drop to 2% of red crush, Petite Sirah isn’t exactly unexpected in Napa Valley. Several of the other grapes in this complicated, mixed black (and white) blend are though. They include Mission, Peloursin, Grand Noir (huh?), Cinsault, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscadelle, Burger and Green Hungarian. That’s seriously old school.

I found this wine’s nose almost as opaque as its color during the tasting, but dense purple fruit and a hint of spice showed through. The body is medium+ with fine, very grippy tannins and plenty of acidity offsetting zesty dark berries and spice. This is your grandfather’s Petite Sirah and will reward cellaring. Highly Recommended+. $70

Corison 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Okay. There’s nothing unexpected about a Corison Cabernet Sauvignon at tasting presented by Jon Bonné. (Welcome, yes. Unexpected, no.) It would, however, have surprised any writers who expect all wines of that variety from Napa Valley to be voluptuous studies in ripe cherry, black currant and mocha. Visitors from Bordeaux might also wonder when Napa started bottling St. Julien juice.

The nose is complex but dignified. Dry black currant is surrounded by an elegant range of spice, mineral and wood aromas which are indivdually distinct but also combine to smell something like the center drawer of an antique wooden desk. The palate is nearly full-bodied with firm tannins of light chalk but balancing acidity. Flavors include chewy blackberry, violets, pencil lead and crushed gravel. Very Highly Recommended. $80

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.


  1. Annual Crop Report Gross Values 1969, Napa County  ↩

  2. Preliminary Grape Crush 2013, NASS-USDA  ↩

  3. Napa Valley Wine Library Report, Summer 2005  ↩

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