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Wine

Cabernet Who? The Hot New Wines Out of Napa Valley Are White

A new wave of sauvignon blancs and other white blends are coming out from the valley's cult producers.

When a collector friend offered me a glass of Screaming Eagle recently, I automatically pictured the cult winery’s polished, pricy red. Instead, I got my first taste of its sophisticated, wildly expensive, almost entirely unattainable white.

Chances are, when you think of Napa Valley, you think of red wine. Well, get ready to be surprised. In this classic cabernet territory, dozens of top-end wineries are focusing the same kind of every-detail-matters approach to whites that they’ve long lavished on their more prestigious reds.

Fortunately, to try any of them you don’t have to splash out as much as you do for Screaming Eagle’s 300-bottle-a-year sauvignon blanc that I tried. (The 2010 vintage is selling for $4,650 (!) a bottle at Cultwine.com.)

CALISTOGA, NAPA VALLEY, CA - 2009:  A tractor sprays sulphur dust in Araujo Estate Winery's "Eisele" cabernet sauvignon vineyard as seen in this 2009 Calistoga, California, early morning spring photo.  (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
A tractor sprays sulphur dust on vines at Araujo Estate in Calistoga, California.
Photographer: George Rose/Getty Images

A New Look at a Classic Grape

Napa sauvignon blancs used to be known as bean counter wines, a way to improve cash flow through quick turnaround; you can harvest the grapes in the fall and sell the wine the following spring.  Only a handful of wineries, such as Robert Mondavi, Spottswoode, and Eisele Vineyard, took the grape seriously.

But all that’s changed. When California winemaker Julien Fayard, founder of Azur winery and the Empreinte label and a native of Provence, was in New York a couple of weeks ago, he shared his rich, unctuous, powerful Empreinte sauvignon blanc. Despite making only 250 cases, he’s launching it outside California. “It develops with age,” he said. “It’s a wine you can collect.”

He’s one of a growing list of producers making age-worthy sauv blancs, such as Arkenstone, Coup de Foudre, Dana Estates, Favia, Hourglass, Illumination, Inglenook, Marciano, Rudd, and more (see below).

The amounts may be tiny (Dana Estates makes 85 cases; Favia produces 98), but they serve a practical purpose: Many Napa winemakers simply want to serve a white at the beginning of a dinner. And from May through October, when Napa temperatures often hit 95F, the guests you’re entertaining on a porch don’t feel like drinking only reds.

Vineyard 29, a winery just north of the town of St. Helena noted for its unctuous cabernets,  took this idea to a new level last spring when it introduced a $60,000 private al fresco dinner party at the winery for 50 wine lovers. The experience, which one person or a group of friends can purchase, features whatever crustaceans are in season along with plenty of its complex but overpriced $150 sauvignon blanc. You’ll also go home with a barrel (25 cases) of the white.

Whites are hardly new to Napa, of course. Chenin blanc and riesling were once planted all over the valley. In the 1980s, Mayacamas and other historic wineries embraced chardonnay, and until recently, Stony Hill Vineyard made only whites. (In a reverse twist, they added a cabernet a few years ago.) Their floral, minerally, crisp chardonnay is famously long-lived.

Why Cabernet Is King

Cabernet took over in the early 1990s, when reds became more pricy and prestigious. When vineyards were ripped out because of phylloxera, vintners replanted with profitable cabernet. Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead and at his own all-white wine brand Massican, explains, “Whites are tough to produce in Napa now if you’re concerned about economics.” Whites grown on great “red wine” soils make wines with depth and complexity. But those vineyard land values have skyrocketed, and the problem, says Petroski, is that wine drinkers are far more willing to pay big bucks for a rich red than a white.

The New Flavors

Screaming Eagle's sauvignon blanc.
Source: Wine-Searcher

Fine Napa sauvignon blancs can be bright, fresh, and citrusy, like the lime-scented, pure Ehlers Estate ($28), which isn’t aged in new oak. Most of the new, more expensive examples are fermented and aged for varying amounts of time in used or new oak barrels, which adds complexity and a chardonnay-like creamy richness to the texture.

Some wineries, such as Arietta, are inspired by the traditional white Bordeaux recipe of mixing in sémillon grapes, which provide depth and polish. “They’re more versatile with food, with enough weight to enjoy in winter,” says owner Fritz Hatton, who likes to equate wines with music. His white, he says, is a wine for George Gershwin or Cole Porter tunes.

Still others rely on a grape clone called sauvignon musqué, which gives wines highly fragrant aromas, and on grapes from cool hillside vineyard locations such as Howell Mountain.   

But that’s not all. Adventurous new winemakers are making savory, less opulent chardonnays (a far cry from earlier buttery Napa examples) and they’re experimenting with more unusual varieties that echo tangy Italian and Spanish whites.

More Obscure Grapes

Hudson Vineyards, in the cool Carneros appellation, grows 10 different white varieties, from albariño to greco di tufo to verdejo, and started making a blend from five of them in 2013.

Napa’s climate and long, consistent growing season allow you to make very powerful whites from a wide range of varietals, says Steve Matthiasson, a star viticulturist who’s led the alternative white revolution. “Yet the cool evenings maintain freshness if ripening isn’t pushed too far.”

But back to Screaming Eagle. Frankly, I couldn’t focus on the 2012 in my glass because the ridiculous price tag kept flashing in my head. Yes it has powerful figgy aromas and elegant grapefruit and honeysuckle flavors, with some crispness and complexity. But for the price, you expect to be wowed, and I wasn’t. I’d rather have an entire case of one from my list below.

Wines to Try

Source: Brands

2013 Matthiasson White Wine ($42)

This blend (sauvignon blanc, ribolla gialla, sémillon, and tocai friulano) has become the poster wine for Napa’s new whites. It’s a combo of zingy acidity and fresh citrus and bitter almond flavors.

2014 Enfield Wine Co. Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay ($45)

Up-and-coming winemaker John Lockwood got his hands on chardonnay grapes from some of Napa’s oldest vines. Think layers of minerality combined with lush texture.

2014 Accendo Cellars Sauvignon Blanc ($50)

The crisp, pure 100 percent sauvignon blanc is the second vintage from a new buzzed- about winery. It’s citrusy and bright, with exceptional balance and intensity.

2013 Arietta On the White Keys ($65)

A sauvignon blanc/sémillon blend, it’s a superb mix of candied lemon, mint, and slate notes with an opulent texture.

Source: Brands

2014 Larkmead Lillie Sauvignon Blanc ($70)

The winery makes a tiny amount of this fresh, super-aromatic wine features grapefruit, lime, floral and mint nuances and the texture and weight of a chardonnay.

2014 Empreinte Sauvignon Blanc ($75)

This exotic-style single vineyard white has brisk green herb aromas and generous toasty flavors from aging in new French oak barrels. 250 cases were made.

2013 Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($100)

This white has reached a new level of elegance and complexity, with lush aromas of white flowers and exotic flavors of melon.

 

2013 Lail Vineyards Georgia Sauvignon Blanc ($150)

Fermented and aged in new French oak, this wine from a single vineyard is powerful yet vibrant, with tropical fruit richness.  

 

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