Benessere Vineyards offers a taste of Italy in Napa Valley
On a recent trip to Napa Valley, one of the producers I was eagerly anticipating my visit with was Benessere Vineyards. They’ve been around since 1994, but are in the midst of a rebirth with new winemaker Jack Stuart. While there I had the opportunity to spend some time with Stuart, and -- among other things -- taste the wines with him. He’s been on board at Benessere for roughly a year and he’s ushering in the winery’s next era. For more than 20 years he was the winemaker at Napa Valley stalwart Silverado.
The focus at Benessere is on Italian varietals. Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Muscat Canelli, and Aglianico are all part of the portfolio. Their Rosato contains Sangiovese as well, and they make several Zinfandels, in addition to a couple of other releases. Each wine in the portfolio I tasted on my visit was distinct. What ties the Benessere wines together is that they are well-balanced offerings loaded with varietal character; each of them is primed to pair with food. When I returned from my trip I had the opportunity to re-taste most of the wines. This time out I’ll take a look at three of my favorites.
First up is the Benessere 2009 Pinot Grigio. All of the fruit for this wine was sourced in the cool climate of the Carneros appellation. Carneros is split between Napa and Sonoma. The fruit in this case is from the Napa side, and this offering is 100 percent Pinot Grigio. Fermentation took place in stainless steel, and two months of aging in neutral French oak followed, prior to bottling. Just fewer than 1,000 cases of this Pinot Grigio were produced, and it has a suggest retail price of $22. Golden delicious apple aromas fill the bright, engaging nose. Wisps of citrus and white flower blossoms are present as well. Tropical fruits such as pineapple and guava are abundant through the palate from the first sip you take; an undercurrent of lemon ice offers a nice counterpoint. Hints of honey emerge on the finish, which is dotted by flint, limestone and other minerals, as well as ginger and white pepper. This wine is crisp and refreshing; it’ll pair with light, warm weather foods and it also drinks well on its own.
Next up is the Benessere 2007 Sangiovese. This wine was produced exclusively from fruit sourced at their home estate in St. Helena. The clones for these vines were brought from Tuscany, the home of Sangiovese. This offering is 100 percent varietal. The grapes are hand-sorted, manually punched down and essentially hand-guided through the winemaking process. About 1,236 cases of this Sangiovese were produced, and its suggested retail price is $28. Bing cherry and violet are the dominant aromas on the nose. Both black and red cherry fruit flavors are present in droves throughout the palate. These are accompanied by black pepper, nutmeg and plum pudding spices. Black raspberry, dark chocolate and espresso bean characteristics emerge on the finish, which has terrific length. This wine has soft, approachable tannins and excellent acidity. This is a food lover’s wine. Pair it with hard cheeses, roasted meats, pasta and more. Without question, this is one of a very small handful of the best examples of Sangiovese coming from Napa Valley.
Last up is the Benessere 2006 Phenomenon, their proprietary red blend. The fruit for this offering comes from their estate property in St. Helena. The blend for the 2006 vintage is Cabernet Sauvignon (56 percent), Sangiovese (37 percent), Merlot (5 percent) and Syrah (2 percent). Much like the Sangiovese, the vinification process was a very manual and labor-intensive one. In addition to time spent in barrel, the finished wine was bottle-aged for 12 months prior to release. Just fewer than 500 cases were produced, and it has a suggested retail price of $50. Red and black berry aromas are present through the nose of Phenomenon. These are joined by cedar, eucalyptus and a hint of Kirsch liqueur. The palate of this blend is both lush and rich; it’s absolutely layered with fruit and spice elements. Cherry, raspberry and blackberry are present along with dark sweet chocolate. Cinnamon, vanilla, white pepper and bits of sour cherry emerge; all are part of the finish, which has good persistence. Phenomenon’s firm tannins yield with some air. Racy acidity helps make this one another wine that is easy to pair with food, leaning toward fuller-flavored dishes. It is, however, approachable enough to drink on its own. This wine will improve over the next four to six years and drink well for five or so after that.
The Benessere wines are elegant and approachable. They offer good value in their respective price categories. The Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese are fine examples of their respective varietals, and provide a window into how these grapes can flourish in Napa when treated with care. Phenomenon is a terrific example of a Super Tuscan style wine made in the heart of California wine country. This trio is just an introduction to the wines of Benessere, each of which is well worth tasting.