2017 Vintage in St. Helena & Highlights from its Recent AVA Tasting

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Last week I attended the Appellation St. Helena (ASH) tasting. It was a preview event for the Premiere Napa Valley Auction. ASH took place upstairs in the Carriage House at Charles Krug Winery, a nice spot for such things.

Twenty-one St. Helena AVA member wineries poured current releases, auction lots, and the occasional library wine. I tasted all 61 wines. It doesn’t make sense to provide notes for all of those here, so I’ll hit the highlights and address the 2017 vintage which was that of the auction lots.

2017 Vintage in St. Helena

Smoke taint is the worry in many consumers’ and buyers’ mind with respect to 2017 in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The devastating fires came toward the end of harvest. The fire delayed picking in some cases, damaged some grapes, left wineries without power and, in some cases, meant fermentations continued without supervision. So, what was the effect of the fire on the wines?

First of all, no high-quality winery in Napa Valley (or Sonoma) is going to release wine that is flawed or substandard, be that due to smoke taint, otherwise damaged fruit, or fermentation gone awry. They just won’t. Their brands are too valuable and the toll bad wine would take on their brand too great. Any bad or faulty wine will have been either dumped or bulked out.

Some of the wineries will have taken a hit on volume. However, that is normal in the wine business. Shatter causes poor fruit set. Hail damages crops. That’s farming. And the amount of wine affected at most wineries was small, if any.

I tasted twelve 2017 wines at ASH. All were at least “good,” nothing lower than 88 points and that was a pleasantly fruity Sauvignon Blanc. Several wines were tremendous. Unfortunately, since most were auction lots, you’ll never get to try them. But, I’ll provide some notes here for reference. The auction lots are indicated by an asterisk.

*2017 AXR Napa Valley Sleeping Denali is a blend of red Bordeaux varieties from two vineyards. It’s intensely flavorful—dark fruit, dark chocolate, oak, and espresso—with excellent structure. I gave it 93, others would probably score it higher.

*2017 Raymond Vineyards Dress Code Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley starts as a ripe, purple fruit bomb, then switches at mid-palate to structure and finesse. Yummy. 93+

2017 Charles Krug Winery Limited Release Estate Sauvignon Blanc is made from vines adjacent to the Carriage House. 100% stainless, it’s crisp and juicy, highlighting guava and grapefruit. 90 points and, at just $18, a no-brainer to stock up on for summer.

*2017 Corison PNV Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of Cab from all of Corison’s vineyards. It’s little lighter and more fruit-forward than the 2015 Kronos, Sunbasket, or Napa Valley, but is a fresh, lovely, eminently drinkable, red cherry-inflected wine. 93+

*2017 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc has an absolutely beautiful, floral nose. I wish I had some right now, but I can still smell it in my mind. Channels the best of Chinon, then gives that a Napa Valley spin. 94+

*2017 CORLEY Five Points Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t referring to a low score. It’s a blend of five vineyards. Loaded with flavor, and with toothsome tannins. Built to last, somebody could be loving it in five years or twenty five. 94+

2017 Robert Biale — They poured three different 2017 Zinfandel and they were all good to very good.

*2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon PNV offered great fruit balanced by perfect structure. 94+

2017 Spottswood Estate Sauvignon Blanc is crazy good—precise, complex, intense without shouting, and wonderfully balanced. Grapefruit, lime pith, smoky mineral and nectarine. 94

Other Highlights

There were a lot of non-2017 wines being poured. And those you may actually be able to buy. Here are a three you should not miss.

2014 HALL Wines “Coeur” Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena is a delicious study in rich dark fruit, coffee, and dark chocolate with fine, soft texture. 93

2015 Crocker & Starr Estate RLC Cabernet Sauvignon offers wonderful dark fruit and a chiffonade of wintergreen with medium-plus body, very fine, velvety tannins, and a super-long finish. A great value at $65. 93+

2014 Ehlers Estate 1886 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is rich and intense with delectably soft, chalky tannins. 94+

Library Wines Worth Seeking Out

2007 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) is a timeless classic, refined and medium-boded with flavors of black currant and dried currant leaf. It’ll still be great in 20 years. 96

2008 Stanton Vineyards Petite Sirah reminds us that Cabernet isn’t the only Napa red that ages well. A very nice wine, with excellent balance between fruity and savory elements. Well-textured and with many more years ahead of it, 93+.

Shop for wines from the St. Helena AVA and more at JJ Buckley Fine Wines.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing  appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

Images courtesy of Charles Krug Winery, Spottswoode Estate, and Ehlers Estate