Often overrated, Calif. chardonnays of 1990 are finally worth celebrating


June 21, 1992|By MICHAEL DRESSER

A fine vintage of California chardonnay doesn't sound like a big deal, right? After all, every year's a vintage year in California, or so the story goes. In sunny California, there's none of that

nasty climate variation that's constantly mucking up those French wines. And chardonnay, since it is the state's most popular wine variety, must be uniquely suited to its climate and soils.

What a crock. California is a treacherous place for an innocent chardonnay vine to hang out.

The weather is not particularly hospitable. Most of the state's chardonnay vines are planted in overly hot regions where some other variety would produce better wine. While most vintages are adequate, really good ones are few and far between.

Cabernet sauvignon might enjoy four or five exciting vintages each decade, chardonnay maybe two. Spotty vintages, such as 1989, are far more common than anyone in the California wine industry likes to admit.

That's why 1990 is worth getting excited about. From Santa Barbara to Mendocino County, the chardonnay grape enjoyed that year its most consistent, most harmonious growing season in more than a decade.

And this time around, California is better poised to take advantage of nature's kindness than ever before. More of the state's chardonnay vineyards are in cool growing regions, and the manipulative excesses of past years are less prevalent.

Put it all together and you might just have the best chardonnay vintage California ever had. Unlike past rich, almost buttery vintages that have been hailed for their allegedly great chardonnays, these 1990 wines are concentrated, but they are also taut and stylish.

Because the wines in most cases are not overwhelmingly opulent, the 1990 vintage gives tasters a clear picture of the state's varying regional styles. Russian River chardonnay tastes distinctly different from Santa Barbara County chardonnay, and neither tastes like Carneros.

Most of all, it's a vintage that lets the soil speak. Great vineyards show their greatness. It was a year for the winemaker with the wisdom to stand back and let nature work its magic.

Of course, as always, there were some who screwed up. You had to work a little harder to make a bad chardonnay in California in 1990, but some were equal to the challenge. But out of more than thirty chardonnays tasted, only about a half-dozen were seriously disappointing, and none was undrinkable.

The tasting did demonstrate convincingly that the chardonnay action in California has shifted away from the Napa Valley. While some excellent chardonnays are produced in Napa, it is becoming increasingly clear that cabernet is its true strength.

Rather than coming from Napa, California's best chardonnays come from the Sonoma County's Russian River Valley and from the Central Coast. Carneros, the cool growing region that straddles the Napa-Sonoma border near the San Pablo Bay, is a good growing region for chardonnay, but it seldom lives up to the hype it receives.

These fine geographic distinctions are blurred quite often because of the practice of blending chardonnays from widely separated parts of the state.

Such blending often produces good wine, but rarely is it great. What is lost is the individuality you get from a single vineyard. Many of the complaints about California chardonnay's boring sameness arise from this practice.

Readers should take those complaints with a grain of salt. Most emanate from professional tasters and wine writers, including this one, who have ample opportunities to get bored. Few consumers go through a dozen chardonnays at a sitting. The basic rule is that if you like it, it's a good wine, and so what if there are dozens of other wines that taste just like it.

I'm not a big fan of California chardonnay. In a cellar that holds more bottles of wine than any sensible person should own, few are chardonnays and only one is from California.

Nevertheless, even a die-hard Riesling fanatic can recognize progress. In my tasting of 1990 chardonnays, few of the wines showed signs of excessive oak or the clumsy addition of acidity -- common sins only a few years ago. Gradually, it seems that California winemakers are learning to be stewards, rather than manipulators, of wine. They've come a long way from the late 1970s, when drinking a chardonnay was often the next best thing to hit ting your own head with a hammer.

Now the most dangerous thing about California chardonnays is the price. Many of the top producers have jacked theirs above the $20 mark, and a few ambitious souls have ventured past $40.

That pinches. Still, with each famous producer who ascends into the pricing stratosphere, it seems that some new star comes along to fill their void in the $15 neighborhood. A taste of a Calera, a J. Lohr or a Chalk Hill can go a long way to console you over your inability to afford Chateau Montelena any more.

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