Autumn brings best of times for wine lovers

VINTAGE POINT

August 31, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Farewell, summer. You certainly sprinted by in a hurry.

For sun worshipers and schoolchildren, the first breezes of autumn might be an ill wind. Not so for wine enthusiasts. For us it is the vintage -- the best time of the year.

As the summer's heat ebbs, serious wines regain their full appeal. Chardonnays and rieslings hit their stride. Bordeaux and California cabernet sauvignon taste impressive rather than oppressive.

For those who keep wine cellars, it's a good time to take stock. Take note of those wines that are fully mature. Tag them or put an X on the capsule as a signal that this wine should not be here next summer. Hoard not. Your heirs will not appreciate a vinegary inheritance.

For retailers, it's time to take those white zinfandels and California chenin blancs and that wonderfully crisp 1993 Domaine de Pouy Cotes de Gascogne and blow them out the door with eye-catching sale prices. They were wonderful in July, but their season is passing. They're good for a few more warm weekends and then they're little better than expired milk.

For even casual wine lovers, it's a wonderful time to venture into the country and visit a nearby winery. There's something inspiring about the sight of almost-ripe grapes hanging from a vine. The smells of the crush are among the most fragrant you will ever encounter. (As bees know well.)

You don't have to live in the Napa Valley. There are wineries in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states far and wide. A good retailer can recommend the best in the area. Call ahead to make sure they keep visiting hours.

For families, it's a wonderful time to take in a wine festival. Most of these events have plenty of activities for those too young to savor the wine, and a festival is a great opportunity to scope out the hidden gems in your own backyard. Besides, the wine tastes better when you know and like the people who make it.

(The Maryland Wine Festival, set for Sept. 17-18 at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster, is a well-run event. For information, call 410 876-2667.)

For wine buyers, fall is a good time to get re-acquainted with the market after a summer of beer and sangria.

California is where the action is now. Since the ill-fated 1989 vintage, the state has seen little but success. The 1992 %o chardonnays are as fine as any vintage in recent decades. The exceptional 1990 cabernet sauvignons are gradually making way for the excellent 1991s. Early examples of 1992 merlot indicate that reports of another fine vintage for reds are accurate.

It doesn't stop there. Sauvignon blanc is reaching new heights in California. Many vintners are finding that when you blend sauvignon blanc with semillon or chardonnay, it is no longer just a pleasant summer quaff but a wine for all seasons. Not convinced? Try the 1993 Caymus Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley for about $13.

What can you say about zinfandel? Not "white" zinfandel, but the real thing, red and robust. A decade ago, stores could hardly give it away. Now they can't keep it in stock. Wineries such as Robert Mondavi, which bailed out in the 1980s, have seen the light.

The current vintage in stock, 1992, is excellent when the alcohol levels are under control. Usually, zinfandels that creep over 14 percent can taste a bit hot. In many cases, the fruit in 1992 is so enormous that wines over that threshold can keep their balance. But as the alcohol approaches 14.5 percent, caution is in order.

Finally there's California pinot noir -- once a joke but now a gem. Have you noticed that it's far easier to find a good pinot noir from California than it is to find the same from Burgundy? It's also cheaper.

Oregon continues to be the land of hit and miss. Its pinot noirs, at their very best, are as good as any others in the world. But few attain that level, and the whites are notoriously inconsistent. For reliability, the wines of Washington state outclass Oregon's by far.

The import market is a bit more dicey, with a weak dollar pushing prices up at a time when great wines aren't plentiful.

In French wine, the excitement of 1988-1990 has largely passed. What's left from these great vintages has become costly because of scarcity. There were bright spots for the whites of Bordeaux and Burgundy in 1992, but for the most part the vintages after 1990 are spotty, especially for reds.

One import market that is hot is Italian wine. The 1989 and 1990 Barolos and Barbarescos are coming into the market, propelled by a glowing review in The Wine Advocate. Devotees of these wines should move fast to secure some of the best. Some of the stars are already gone. Tuscany, likewise, had a great vintage in 1990.

In Germany, the fat, jovial 1992s will soon give way to the lean, muscular, 1993s. In some cases, the acid levels test the limits of tolerance, but there are many wines of such electricity that they crackle like a bug zapper on a muggy summer night.

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