Nothing is better than a spring day and the right wine

VINTAGE POINT

April 24, 1994|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Let's lift a glass to spring. Has ever a season been more warmly welcomed?

Ideally, the contents of the glass would be Champagne -- real Champagne. We can save the inexpensive knock-offs for the blazing days of summer when anything cold, wet and bubbly will do. After what we've been through, we deserve to pamper ourselves.

So farewell to the wines that sustained us through the ice and slush and bitter cold of this awful winter. Goodbye, port. So long, Rhones. Ciao, Barolo and Barbaresco. Thanks for being there through the rough times.

But now it's the season of chardonnay and pinot noir, of petites chateaux Bordeaux, of full-bodied sauvignon blancs with just the right hint of oak. And of course those wines for all seasons, the refreshing yet complex white wines of Alsace.

With a gentle spring breeze bringing the delectable smell of April through the wide-open window of the home office, it's difficult to sustain a single theme. It's a day for rambling from thought to thought until it's time to officiate at one of life's most perfect marriages: grilled tuna steak marinated in herbes de Provence and a red Bandol.

There are times when life is really good.

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In a perfect world, the Champagne with which we hail spring would be the 1975 Bollinger R.D.

R.D. isn't the most famous of Champagnes, but it is consistently the best. To put it in context, if Dom Perignon is the Cadillac of Champagnes, R.D. is the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. That point was brought home earlier this month when Bollinger held a tasting at the French Embassy in Washington and served four vintages of its greatest wine, along with its magnificent Grand Annee Brut and Rose and its rare Vieilles Vignes Francaises.

Bollinger's road show was part of an effort to publicize the winery's admirable decision to withdraw its R.D. wines from traditional distribution channels and make it available by special order only.

Guy Bizot, export manager and a member of the founding family, said Bollinger was doing so because too many bottles of R.D. were not being properly handled or were lingering too long in the distribution chain. By switching to the special-order system, Bollinger will be able to guarantee freshness, he said. Wines will be bottled quarterly based on how many orders come in. The winery recommends that R.D. wines be consumed within 18 months of bottling.

There's little point in presenting detailed notes on wines that so few can afford. Depending on the vintage, regular size costs $122 to $246.

If any Champagne merits such a stiff price, it's Bollinger R.D. The 1975 is so close to absolute perfection it seems pointless to quibble. The youthful 1982 might be equally spectacular when it hits full stride. The 1979 is monumental. The 1973, which was served at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, is showing some age but has held up a lot better than the marriage.

If you desire these wines and can afford such indulgences, talk to your favorite wine retailer about placing an order for the next delivery. If you have the cravings but not the cash, you can console yourself with Bollinger's Special Cuvee, one of Champagne's best nonvintage brut wines.

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Have you ever noticed that when the air's fresh and clean and cool, a fine wine seems to spring to life if you take it outside? There's something about outdoors that magnifies a wine's bouquet -- especially a noble red.

Try it some time.

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Like many Napa Valley wineries, Beringer Vineyards has been hard hit by phylloxera, a voracious root louse that has been chomping its way through California's vineyards for the last several years.

According to winemaker Ed Sbragia, Beringer has had to replant half its vast vineyard holdings because of the pest. It's an arduous process. The vineyard owner has to tear out all the vines, replant on resistant root stock and wait three or four years for the vines to come back into production. (Much of the planting that took place during California's wine boom of the 1960s and 1970s took place on rootstock that growers thought was resistant -- a costly error.)

But Mr. Sbragia isn't crying in his cabernet. "I call it 'the opportunity of phylloxera,' " he said during a recent visit to Maryland. 'You get another chance of planting the right grape in the right place."

In addition, growers get the opportunity to improve the spacing of the vines and the way the branches are trained, he said. All are important factors in wine quality that were little understood 15 to 30 years ago.

By the way, nothing Mr. Sbragia poured during his visit did anything to change my opinion that Beringer is the best large winery in the United States. Mr. Sbragia's talents are especially evident with chardonnay, a grape that many other winemakers turn into boring wine.

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