1997 Dolce, Napa

This wine may, in fact, be the strangest wine produced in California (especially if you leave out all those people making blueberry wine). Its strangeness has nothing to do with any qualities of the wine itself (if you continue reading you’ll see that it’s pretty good) but instead comes from the fact that there was someone crazy enough to attempt to make a wine like this in California.

You see, Dolce is basically a Sauternes, but made in California. It doesn’t sound so strange on the face of it, after all Napa makes Cabernet and so does Bordeaux. Bordeaux makes a sweet dessert wine from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, so why not Napa? Maybe because it just doesn’t work.

“If I knew how hard it was going to be when I started, I don’t know if I would have had the nerve,” says Dirk Hampton, President and Director of Winemaking. “I had worked at making various dessert wines before, at various places, but this was really a Star Trek thing, to boldly go where no one had gone before.”

“Dolce is a train wreck of a wine,” says Hampton. “You have to let your Napa grapes get completely ripe, and then hope for the right conditions of humidity with morning fog. Then, if you’re lucky, botrytis [botrytis cinerea mold, aka Noble Rot] sets in. But in Napa [as opposed to Bordeaux] it’s really spotty. We have to make at least five or six passes through the vineyard to pick the right clusters and sometimes we’re even selecting individual grapes. Fermentation is just as dicey. Sometimes it takes three weeks, sometimes it takes 5 months.”

Hampton, along with winemaker Greg Allen, developed Dolce as project out of Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel winery, where they produce some of Napa’s most sought-after wines. Hampton credits the inspiration for the project as a combination of his love for the famous Chateau d’Yquem, and a desire to do something fun and different in Napa. Hampton had his first taste of Chateau d’Yquem when he was working at Mouton Rothschild, at a special dinner. “It turns out that my first taste was the 1899 vintage. I had no idea what I was tasting, but I knew that whatever it was, it was good.”

Dolce was a grand experiment from the get-go, and they tried everything to make it work, including a famously failed experiment of trying to aerially spray the Botrytis spores over the vineyard. Eventually though, they seem to have gotten to the point that they scrape by, but not consistently enough to make the wine every year — sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Marketed as “Liquid gold from Napa valley,” Dolce is pretty distinctive, and is really the only botrytized wine I’ve ever had from the United States that begins to rival a good Sauternes in complexity of flavor. Dolce also boasts that they are the only winery in America dedicated to producing a single dessert wine, perhaps making them the after dinner Opus One. If you can get past the heavy duty marketing, and the prices, which seem to have also taken their inspiration to the famously expensive Yquem, it’s a delightfully well made wine.

The wine is 86% Semillon, 14% Sauvignon Blanc, both of which have been subjected to Botrytis rot. It is barrel fermented and then aged in 100% new French oak for nearly 26 months before bottling. 2900 cases were produced in this vintage.

Tasting Notes:
This wine is a luminous perfect medium gold in the glass, a gorgeous color, and has a succulent nose of honey and candied apricots. In the mouth it is heavy and smooth, lacking a little acidity to give it a true balance, but deliciously sweet with primary flavors of clover honey, tropical fruits (mango?) and hints of melon as the wine transitions to a lingering finish.

Food Pairing:
I think this, like most Sauternes, is a great cheese wine, especially with either blue or marbled cheeses like gorgonzola, or with grainier, salty cheeses like aged piave, and aged gouda. It, of course, can be served with desserts of many kinds, with guidance from the winemaker to “keep the dessert less sweet than the wine.”

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $150, $75 for a half bottle.

This wine is available for purchase online.