Friday, 21 June 2013

there's a wine for everyone in saint helena...

In the nascent days of my wine world managing a wine-shop in Christchurch, one product we did very well with was called Saint Helena (pronounced saynt-HELL-en-ah). With little knowledge beyond the maritime borders of New Zealand, I always wondered at the Americans who came in and asked if these wines were the same as the Californian Saint Helena (pronounced saynt-hell-EEN-ah). At the time, I was completely unaware that saynt-hell-EEN-ah was a very important part of American viticultural history, and just as well presumed the two were closely related. With the opportunity to explore the Napa Valley many years later, I therefore decided that saynt-hell-EEN-ah was worth a day’s visit.
Scenic Saint Helena from Rombauer
Located at the northern end of Napa, St. Helena has a decidedly hotter climate than AVAs located further south in the valley. This is because the famed Bay fogs that roll in to moderate temperatures in the Valley do not penetrate this far north. The result is a large cluster of wineries big and small that attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. It is, quite arguably, the Disneyland-destination for oenophiles. While the Kiwi saynt-HELL-ena (sold as Flying Kiwi in North America) specialised in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, saynt-hell-EEN-ah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon are the major grapes. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot also perform very well.

With limited time (so many wines, so little time!), I narrowed my visit to just 4 recommended wineries. While I had a general idea of what to expect in terms of wine quality, it was the tasting room atmosphere that blew me away at each of these wineries; beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

V. Sattui ( – Crowds are not my thing, but if crowds are your thing, then 7-time-out-of-10-years winner for best destination winery V. Settui is up your alley. The volume of guests sipping wine and shopping in their deli for a picnic lunch attests to its destination-winery status, but I’m happy to give credit where credit is due; the service was excellent for the volume. The wines – well – not bad for the price, and I have to admit that their Moscato Frizzante and semi-sweet Moscato were a pleasant and refreshing surpise.

Heitz ( – Quite arguably among the top-pedigree of Napa producers, Heitz is humbly low-key just a few doors down. Their Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (sourced entirely from a single vineyard in the XXXXXXX AVA) is their flagship wine, having earned high scores in the now infamous 1976 Paris Tasting. The Trailwind Cabernet Sauvignon is more rustic and meaty, and the Sauvignon Blanc a refreshing white for any occasion; among the best in the valley. At just US$45, the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is an absolute bargain, providing you with the chance to taste the pedigree at a fraction of the price it could earn. Made from traditional Douro varietals, the Heitz Port is another stellar find; among the best port-styles I’ve come across outside Portugal.

Rombauer ( - With a superb view of unspoiled forest mixed among vineyards, it’s no wonder Rombauer is on the must-see list of visitors to the Napa.  My initial intention was to visit the winery that provides me with the antithesis of Chablis when teaching classes. Big, buttery, and oaky is the theme among Rombauer Chardonnays, but I was duly impressed with their Zinfandel programme, such as the Fiddletown and Amador labels. Heavy oak extraction may not be to everyone’s taste, but I can appreciate it when this style is done well. Also, an intriguing influence of Petit Verdot in all red-blends proved an unexpected addition to the Rombauer programme.

Sipping from serenity at Duckhorn
Duckhorn ( – The purpose of my visit this far north, Duckhorn proved to be well worth the trip in terms of both ambiance and wine selection. The mother to duckling labels Migration, Decoy, Paraduxx, and Goldeneye, Duckhorn is an icon of Napa production with a history dating back more than 30 years. The Napa-based Duckhorn label is a benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and for single-vineyard Merlot; the Three Palms Vineyard is a testament to why some Napa vineyards should earn a Grand Cru-esque title. Exquisite at all price-points, it is also great to experience a relaxed tasting atmosphere amid a surprisingly busy tasting room.

Just four wineries today, and clearly by my notes half are for the wine-savvy at heart and the other half for the wine-needy at heart. Nevertheless, each fulfilled a promise of great service and value-for-money wines which goes to show you that there is a wine for everyone in Saint Helena.

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