Top Shelf Whites That Aren't Chardonnay

Wine In Focus

A $75 bottle of Chardonnay, while perhaps not commonplace, is far from unheard of. And those fortunate enough to have that kind of wine budget are unlikely to think twice when recommended a well-made Chardonnay from an exclusive Napa Valley or Burgundian label with such a price tag. But if you were to throw a Sauvignon Blanc at them with that same sticker price, they are likely to hesitate. And this holds true to every level of wine budget. Those that are more than willing to spend any given amount on a bottle of Chardonnay often need convincing to spend that same amount on a white wine of a different varietal or white blend. I think this, in part, is a result of expectations. With few exceptions, you know what you’re getting with a Chardonnay priced around $50 or higher. While the balance of oak, acidity, and fruit obviously varies, it is safe to assume you’ll get some notes of baked apples and pears, toast, and butterscotch with a fuller bodied mouthfeel. But what does a $70 Sauvignon Blanc taste like? Or a $50 eclectic white blend? Because these categories are much less common in the market, it is hard to find a point of reference. And I wouldn’t blame anyone for hesitating to spend money on a wine having no idea what to expect. That’s why I wanted to take some time to highlight some of our higher end white wines that aren’t Chardonnay that are worth every penny.

Realm Cellars Fidelio Sauvignon Blanc 2018 | Napa Valley, CA

Realm Cellars Fidelio 2018Realm Cellars has only been around for 18 years, but already has half that many 100 point wines from Robert Parker, and twice as many rated 95 points or higher. Founded in 2002, the entirety of their second vintage was decimated in a warehouse fire in 2005. But founder, army medic, and RN Juan Mercado would not be deterred and released a 2004 vintage of wines all scoring over 91 points. In 2011 Realm brought on Benoit Touquette and after his first vintage, has only one wine rated under 94 points. If you haven’t heard of Benoit, he has silently been making his name as one of the best winemakers in Napa Valley over the last decade. Starting out as the right hand to Andy Erickson throughout his time at Screaming Eagle, Ovid, Arietta, and Favia, Benoit currently heads winemaking at premier wineries Realm, Kata, Fait-Main, and Hartwell. Known largely for their Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux style blends (priced anywhere between $125 and $500), Realm produces a single Bordeaux-inspired white wine…Fidelio.

In 2007, Realm decided they wanted to make serious, Bordeaux-inspired Sauvignon Blanc, so Mercado asked his good friend Andy Erickson what makes a vineyard perfect for Sauvignon Blanc. After the fact, his answer seems a little obvious. As Sauvignon Blanc is one of the parent grapes to Cabernet Sauvignon (the other being Cabernet Franc), the same conditions that make Cabernet Sauvignon thrive in a specific vineyard will do the same for Sauvignon Blanc. The only issue now was to find an excellent Cabernet vineyard that spared some its costly acreage to dedicate to Sauvignon Blanc. Enter Farella Vineyard. Nestled in the Coombsville appellation in the southeastern corner of Napa Valley, highly acclaimed winegrower Tom Farella had just a few rows of his land set aside to produce exquisite Sauvignon Blanc. As mentioned earlier, Juan Mercado is a determined guy, and it took 3 years of pestering Farella to finally secure some of this fruit. These grapes form the backbone of Fidelio, with much smaller amounts of Sauvignon Blanc making their way in from other prized vineyard sites. The result is a richly textured, insanely complex Sauvignon Blanc like none you’ve ever had. The 2018 vintage is packed with guava, grapefruit, melon, and tangerine, a discernible minerality brought about from the volcanic soils of Farella Vineyard, and a structured, concentrated mouthfeel that wraps everything together.

Due to the exclusive nature of this wine, we have been asked by our distributor not to list it on our website, so please call if you are interested in acquiring any bottles.

Technicals: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. ABV 14.1%. $79.99

Law Estate Soph 2017 | Adelaida District (Paso Robles), CA

Law Estate Soph 2017If you have ever asked me where to go wine tasting in Paso Robles, then you have heard of Law Estate. Located at the top of a hill in the Adelaida District of Paso Robles, Law Estate never ceases to impress with the architectural beauty of the winery, the gorgeous views, very personal wine tasting experience, and of course, their delicious wines. Founders Don and Susie Law, both geologists, had a passion for Rhone-inspired wines and knew that Paso Robles was the best location in California for those varietals. After spending two years meticulously vetting potential vineyard sites, they found a perfect spot with the right combination of soil, sun exposure, and elevation. The winery itself is an impressive 28,000 sq. ft. beauty, complete with a state of the art gravity flow production system. (Gravity flow is an environmentally sustainable process in which grapes are crushed at the top of a slope and the resulting juice flows downslope into fermentation tanks, then barrels, then bottling using gravity instead of gas or electric powered pumps.) Originally led by Scott Hawley (of Torrin Wines) and now by his protégé Philipp Pfunder, the quality of wines coming out of Law Estate has certainly elevated Law to one of the top rated wineries in Paso Robles in the short 10 years since their first vintage.

Similar to Realm, Law Estate makes a single white wine. True to the wineries Rhone-ish inspirations, Soph is a Roussanne based white blend with smaller percentages of Marsanne and Clairette Blanche varying from vintage to vintage. In order to create the desired fruit profile, structure, and body, Hawley experimented with a variety of different fermentation and aging vessels. The final wine would be fermented in open top concrete eggs (to allow for aeration without impact on flavor), and a mixed barrel 12 month aging program with 40% new French oak across a variety of sized vessels (225 liter barriques, 500 liter puncheons, and 1000 liter foudre). The result? A golden hued, rich and full bodied white wine with a powerful bouquet of tropical fruit, citrus, melons, vanilla, and toast. The rich texture and mouthfeel is some how put in check with fresh acidity that makes this incredibly enjoyable now but also something that can be hidden away at the bottom of the cellar and discovered in 5 years with a new, but undiminished appreciation.

Technicals: 57% Roussanne, 22% Marsanne, 21% Clairette Blanche. Fermented in concrete tank. Aged 12 months in 40% new French oak. ABV 14.2% $78.99

Denner Vineyards Theresa 2017 | Willow Creek District (Paso Robles), CA

Anyone who has been wine tasting in Paso Robles knows how close-knit the community is. Winemakers at competing wineries are best friends, and you might start your day at one winery with a particular tasting host and end your day at a different one with the same host, who is just helping out because someone called out sick (this actually happened). Denner Vineyards serves as a prime example of this camaraderie. Their facility has often served as a sort of incubator for small, up and coming winemakers who didn’t have their own winemaking and storage facility yet. In fact, it wasn’t until my third visit to Denner that I actually tasted any of their wines. My first two visits were almost pop-up like tastings with Jacob Toft out on the crush pad and Denner’s winemaker Anthony Yount’s personal label Kinero in the chemistry lab. Their support of upstart wineries, in combination with Yount’s undeniable quality of winemaking, has since made Denner one of my favorite spots to visit.

Denner Vineyard’s 2017 Theresa has a lot in common with the Soph from Law Estate. Both are Roussanne based Rhone style blends made with a gravity flow winemaking process, using a mix of barrels and concrete tanks. Denner however opts for the 500-liter puncheons and adds one new acacia wood barrel as a vessel for fermentation. Although both blends are led by Roussanne and Marsanne, Theresa adds a healthy dose of Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Vermentino (all usually lighter, higher acid varietals). Theresa is then aged for 15 months in a mix of all used 500L barrels and concrete tanks. The lack of new oak and addition of concrete and lighter blending grapes provides Theresa with more restraint and freshness than Soph, as well as a lower sticker price since new oak adds a significant cost to production. The final wine offers notes of stone fruit, jasmine, citrus, and brioche. While there is a creaminess to the mouthfeel, an underlying acidity and minerality keep it lively on the palate.

Technicals: 40% Roussanne, 20% Greanche Blanc, 15% Marsanne, 15% Picpoul Blanc, 10% Vermentino. Fermented in used oak, concrete tank, and acacia. Aged 15 months in used oak and concrete tank. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. 485 cases produced. ABV 14.8% $49.99

Corra Tail Feathers 2019 | Rogue Valley, OR

Corra Wines Tail Feathers 2019Celia Welch is kind of a big deal. As a consulting winemaker, she is responsible for production at some of the biggest names in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery most synonymous with her name though is Scarecrow. The Scarecrow Cabernet has earned 100 points in 3 of the last 5 vintages (2017 and 2015 earning a meager 97 and 99 points respectively). It retails somewhere in the ballpark of $700, and that’s only if you can find it. The winery has a 3 year waitlist, and very small amounts are highly allocated to select retailers across the country, many of them with waitlists of their own. Some of Celia’s other projects include Lindstrom, Keever, and her own personal label Corra. Named after a Celtic god who took the form of a crane and represented prophecy, Corra Wines is always looking to the future. With her personal project, Celia sources Cabernet Sauvignon from some of the most prestigious vineyards in Napa Valley (someone with her pedigree can effectively get whatever fruit they want), and blends them together to create a powerful yet elegant representation of the best Napa Valley has to offer. In addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Corra produces a singularly unique white wine called Tail Feathers.

Compared to some of the other wines featured in this post, Tail Feathers isn’t particularly expensive in the traditional sense. But if you were to pick the bottle off the shelf not knowing the story behind it, you might be hard pressed to spend $35 on blend of Muscat, Riesling, and Viognier from Rogue Valley (an appellation very few consumers have even heard of).  Celia grew up in Medford, Oregon, just north of the California border and the heart of the relatively little known AVA Rogue Valley. While Willamette Valley to the north of the state provides a cool climate perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Oregon’s warmer Rogue Valley provides ideal conditions for varietals such as Syrah, Merlot, and heartier whites grapes. And so as an homage to her roots in Southern Oregon, Celia added Tail Feathers to her Corra label. Don’t let the varietals in this blend fool you, this white is bone dry. Fermented in stainless steel, Tail Feathers is a light, dry, and crisp blend perfect for warm summer weather. Muscat, Riesling, and Viognier are all intensely aromatic, so expect to be blown away by notes of jasmine, passion fruit, lychee, and exotic flowers. Delicious on its own, this will really shine with grilled fish and a mango salsa or other light, summery meals.

This is another wine that our distributor has asked us to keep off our online store, so please call with any interest you have. For those interested, at the time of this post, we are also carrying the Cabernet Sauvignon from Corra for $149.99.

Technicals: 40% Muscat, 35% Riesling, 25% Viognier. Fermented in stainless steel. ABV 12.5%. 300 cases produced. $34.99

Sometimes when customers are looking to spend a little extra money on white wine, it can be hard to find something that isn’t chardonnay. And let’s face it, not everyone likes Chardonnay (more for me). All four of these wines are great options for special occasions, gifts, or just the opportunity to try something really fun and unique. Hopefully knowing a little more about these wines takes out some of the guesswork on what you’re getting for your money. But remember, next time you’re browsing bottles here at the store and something catches your eye that you’re not familiar with, well…that’s kind of what we’re here for.


Written by Michael Fuller, CSW

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