1996 Stony Hill Semillon de Soleil, Napa

OK. I admit it. I really don’t like dessert wines. Eiswein? Forget it. Muscat? Ick. Even many Sauternes just are overkill on the sweetness. I really need a wine to have enough acidity to cut through the sweetness before I will pay attention. Too many dessert wines are cloying and sticky, basically as appealing to me as drinking a mouthful of maple syrup. So when a dessert wine has the right balance of sugar, acid, and alcohol, when there is more than one dominant flavor in the wine, I tend to sit up and take notice.

I don’t know how much Semillon is planted in the Napa Valley, or in all of Northern California for that matter, but it can’t be more than a dozen or so acres. One of those acres has sat, mostly undisturbed on the benchalnds of Spring Mountain since the early 1940’s, worked by the hands of a single family.

Stony Hill Vineyard started, like many farms in the post Depression era, as a homestead for a family who had a dream of supporting itself off the land. in 1943, Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased a 160 acre plot of land on the western slope of the Napa Valley between two creek drainages and set about creating a family farm. Four years later, with a barn and a ranch house built to house their growing family, and enough money to hire a tractor and a little help, they set about planting grapes, with the dream of making wines like those they had enjoyed occasionally from Burgundy. Against the advice of University of California viticulturalists, who at the time thought that Chardonnay was a risky bet, the McCreas planted most of their vineyards with the varietal that had only been planted on about 200 acres in California to date. In addition to Chardonnay, the planted a little bit of Riesling, and one small acre of Semillon. In 1952 the McCreas finished a winery on their property which had the distinction of being the first winery built in the Napa Valley after prohibition.

Today the farm remains in much the same form as the McCreas established it in the early days, albeit with a solid four decades of winemaking history and prestige behind it. Stony Hill has remained an iconoclastic winery that has bucked many of the trends that drive the winemaking styles of Napa Valley. They use no new oak on their Chardonnay, they eschew secondary Malolactic fermentation, they make a dry, Alsatian style Gewürztraminer, and they still tend that small patch of Semillon, which each year yields a few tons of grapes with which they can make a quite unusual (for California) dessert wine.

The Semillon de Soleil is a dessert wine made from air dried grapes, much in the style of the Amarone or Sforzato red wines of Italy. The grapes are picked very ripe and then left to dry for several days (up to 15) on special wooden racks in the sun, before being crushed to make wine. These weeks in the sun and air cause the grapes to shrivel like raisins, as the water evaporates out of the grapes and the sugars concentrate. The result is a drastically reduced volume of juice from the grapes, but a juice that is rich in sugar and flavor, and which after fermentation still holds much of its sweetness.

These 46-year-old Semillon vines yield barely enough fruit for a couple of barrels, so these days Stony Hill also gets some Semillon fruit from a younger (15 year old) vineyard called Two Dog Vineyard. This fruit is dried and co-crushed into old French oak barrels where it ferments for 21 days down to about 15% sugar and is then transferred to another set of old French oak barrels, where it ages for 8 months before bottling. Winemaker Mike Chelini continues to produce this wine in tiny quantities (~80 cases of 375ml bottles each year) because the family loves the wine, and can’t bear to tear out the old vineyard, even to replace it with something more profitable.

Tasting Notes:
A bright citrine-gold color in the glass, this wine smells like a field of ripe white grapes simmering under the noonday sun. Aromas of sultanas, banana, and slightly woody/nutty aromas perfume the nose. In the mouth the wine is silky and viscous, with a good modicum of acidity, and a surprisingly mellow sweetness that swirls in complex flavors of exotic honeys, caramel, candied dandelion (ok maybe that’s a little excessive on the adjectives), and the reduced concentrated essence of white grapes. It has a satisfying finish, and is one of those wines that is very easy to sip again and again.

Food Pairing:
Because of its mellowness, this wine could pair with a lot of different things, but I think in particular it would accompany nutty desserts well, like pecan pie for those who care for it (I don’t) or something like this pear and almond tart.

Overall Score: 9.5/10

How much?: this vintage sells at about $50 now, but current vintages can be had for around $15 per bottle.

Some older vintages, as well as current vintages can be purchased online.