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.
Here is how it works: the producer picks fully ripe red grapes to make a premium red wine. Early in the red winemaking process some of the juice – not yet red, but having just started to turn a salmon or pink color -- is taken from the vat of red wine and put into another vat where it will continue to ferment as a rosé. Because only juice is bled off, and none of the grape skins (the latter of which creates the color in the wine), the new vat of rosé will not become 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.
The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel set out to find the best rosés of the season, tasting three flights of wines at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. All but two of the wines were from the 2017 vintage. Panelists include a list of Napa Valley’s top winemakers, including Kari Auringer, Laura Barrett, Kristin Belair, Mike Conversano, Alison Doran, Bill Dyer, Thomas Foster, Jennifer Lamb, Brooks Painter, Tom Rinaldi, and Linda Trotta, joined by retailers, restaurateurs and other key wine trade such as Jamie Jamison of Brix Restaurant, Peter Molinari of Domaine Storage, Katie Leonardini of Whitehall Lane, and Master of Wine Peter Marks.
Top rosé wines chosen by the panel are:
PEJU 2017 Dry Rosé Napa Valley ($25) with pronounced lemon citrus, pink grapefruit, strawberry and red cherry candied fruit. Winemaker Sara Fowler explains that the rosé is made by the saignée method; the zinfandel fruit picked on Sept. 12.
Fortunati Vineyards 2017 Rosé of Syrah Oak Knoll District ($24). The Syrah picked for this red cherry-strawberry-white blossom perfumed wine is picked specifically to make a rosé wine.
Whitehall Lane 2017 Syrah Rosé Napa Valley ($24) is full of juicy, cherry fruit. A very inviting rosé that can cross over from kick-off-your-shoes picnic wine to serious dinner-starter wine.
St. Supéry Estate 2017 Estate Rosé Napa Valley ($18). The strawberry and cherry fruits here are lifted by juicy acidity with an undertone of mineral-y goodness that makes this a front runner for an al fresco dinner party. The wine is made partially by saignée method and partially by traditional pressed grape method [see sidebar]. Julia Jinks explains that the saignée portion brings opulence and bright berry fruit to the blend, and the traditional method adds a naturally crisp tension and freshness with subtle elegance.
Bouchaine Vineyards 2017 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($27). A pale salmon color, this wine smells of a walk through a strawberry patch. Juicy red fruit aromas and a whisp of fresh airy green-ness lead to zingy cherry flavors on the palate. Bouchaine generally makes their rosé wines by a combination of saignée and traditional methods.
Saintsbury 2017 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir Los Carneros ($22). Cherry delicious-ness with mineral complexity makes this a great sipper. The wine is made with a combination of saignée and traditional direct pressing (whole clusters) methods.
Let these rosé wines foretell the story of some of the great 2017 reds to come into the market, with 'nary a smoke signal in sight.
Catherine Bugue, the Star's tasting panel columnist, loves writing about -- and drinking -- wine. She is also the co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa. You can contact Catherine at email@example.com. 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.