Bargain hunters can score with 1992's dry white Bordeaux

VINTAGE POINT

August 17, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

A little knowledge can be a wonderful thing -- as long as it's the other guy's knowledge that is little.

Nowhere is that demonstrated more vividly that in the world of wine, where misguided assumptions move markets in strange ways that can be advantageous for the well-informed.

Right now, there's an opening for smart wine consumers because of a common misconception that 1992 is a uniformly poor vintage for Bordeaux.

In fact, while 1992 is widely regarded as a below-average year for the red and sweet white wines of Bordeaux, the top dry white wines are very good. But because of the general perception of the vintage, prices for these wines are down from recent good vintages.

The fate of red Bordeaux is the key.

In the minds of all too many consumers, a French vintage is defined by how well the reds of Bordeaux turn out. It doesn't just apply to white Bordeaux. Prices in Burgundy -- hundreds of miles away -- can be depressed because many consumers become fixed on the ratings of red Bordeaux.

A good example of this phenomenon came in 1980, when a very good vintage for red Burgundy and Sauternes commanded blessedly reasonable prices because Bordeaux reds were mediocre.

The same thing has happened in 1992 to the dry whites. The semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes that make white Bordeaux were largely harvested before rains diluted the 1992 red grape crop. The result is that 1992 turned out to be a very fine year for Bordeaux whites, at very attractive prices.

This information isn't likely to set off a stampede because the dry whites of Bordeaux remain stepchildren in their own region.

It's a shame because these can be great wines. The white wine of Chateau Haut-Brion, best known as a renowned First Growth red, can rival the greatest whites of Burgundy. Chateau Laville Haut-Brion and the white wines of Chateau Fieuzal and Domaine de Chevalier are regarded as its peers.

All are rare and expensive, but less so in 1992 than in 1989 or 1990, when the reds flourished as well. Most white Bordeaux are for relatively early consumption, but these four are among the longest-lived dry white wines in the world.

Just behind these stand a small group of estates that produce excellent wines that remain a good deal when compared with premium California chardonnay or single-vineyard white Burgundy. They include Chateaux La Louviere, Carbonnieux, Malartic Lagraviere, Smith Haut-Lafitte, La Tour-Martillac and Couhins-Lurton, as well as Clos Floridene and Pavillon Blanc de Chateau Margaux. These wines seem to be trading at about 25 percent less than 1989-1990 prices, with no significant loss of quality.

Most of these, like the Big Four named above, carry the appellation Pessac-Leognan. This region used to be called Graves (grahv) before some geniuses decided the name was too morbid for English-speaking markets and decided to confuse everybody by renaming the best part of the region. Most knowledgeable Bordeaux enthusiasts still call the entire area Graves.

All of these wines are whites of considerable character, with enough body to make a bold statement but also the finesse to pair up with delicate seafood dishes that would be overwhelmed by an oaky chardonnay. Mineral, spice, peach and pear tastes tend to dominate rather than more overt, exotic flavors. They are generally a blend of semillon, which contributes a silky texture and an opulent richness, and sauvignon blanc, which adds acidity, herbal flavors and an attractive smoky quality.

Of these, the one that consistently stands out in my tastings as a great value is Chateau La Louviere, which inexplicably seems to frequently end up being dumped on the market at near-giveaway prices. La Louviere's 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1992 have all been superb wines, and none has cost me more than $20. For an especially fine value, try the chateau's "second" wine, L de la Louviere, for about $12.

Once you get beyond the top dozen or so chateaux, the reliability of white Bordeaux takes a tumble. There are occasional hidden gems and many utter disappointments.

There are some fine white wines that still carry the Graves appellation. They include Chateau Lamouroux, which typically releases a very fruity, pleasant wine earlier that virtually anyone else in Bordeaux. The 1992 was quite good at $9, but the 1993 is already on the market. Another fine example is the 1992 Comtesse Thibier ($9), a refreshing wine with a pleasant interplay of mineral, herb and pear flavors.

Consumers should be especially wary of white wines carrying the simple appellation "Bordeaux controllee" label. Many of these wines are seductively priced, but few deliver the goods. Most are thin, watery wines that obviously come from vineyards that carried far too heavy a crop.

Every rule has its exception, however. In this case, it's the 1992 Chateau Bauduc "Les Trois Hectares" Bordeaux Sec, a rich, smoky, silky wine with excellent complexity for its modest price of about $8.

As good as the 1992 dry white Bordeaux are, there is no reason to hype them. It's not a vintage of the century or even of the decade, but they are well-structured, generous wines at modest prices. Value-conscious consumers should strike when opportunity presents itself.

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