Forget vintage think taste

Wine: A tasting of several '94 California chardonnays separates the truly great from the truly weird.

September 01, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

The 1994 vintage has been hailed as one of the greatest ever for California chardonnay. You can file that away wherever you store useless information.

Vintages are hardly even an issue with California chardonnay, except as an indication that it's time to drink up.

With the rare exception of a miserable year such as 1989, the story is about the same: Great producers with great chardonnay vineyards make great wines. The others make chardonnays that are terminally boring or just plain bizarre.

My conservative estimate is that at least one-third of the chardonnay in California is grown on vineyard sites that would be much more suitable for cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, weeds or cactus.

How else could can you explain the oddball flavors you encounter whenever you taste through a group of California chardonnays? Peppermint, wet hay, charcoal, pine cones, pineapple -- is this somebody's idea of a joke?

The 1994 vintage was one of low grape yields, a factor that usually means greater concentration of flavors in the wines. Based on a tasting of a baker's dozen of 1994 California chardonnays (all under $25), I found that the good are even better than usual and the weird a lot weirder.

Among the clear winners in the 1994 chardonnay derby were such ultra-reliable producers as Beringer ($10), Saintsbury ($16), Sanford ($17.49), Chalk Hill ($22) and Robert Mondavi ($16 for the unfiltered Napa Valley bottling).

Of these, the best, most complex and compelling were Chalk Hill's estate-bottled 1994 chardonnay from Sonoma County and the Sanford from Santa Barbara County.

If you favor the classic Burgundian style, go for the Chalk Hill.

If vibrant fruit and racy acidity turn you on, Sanford's the way to go.

Saintsbury's 1994 Carneros chardonnay delivers generous helpings of the flavors chardonnay is supposed to offer: vanilla, apple, toasty oak, yeast and nuts. The Mondavi isn't a flashy chardonnay, but it comes across as exceptionally harmonious and elegant.

The Beringer 1994 Napa Valley has been touted here before, but the recommendation bears repeating. This $10 wine puts most $20 California chardonnays to shame.

A new standout (at least new to me) is Bernardus, whose 1994 Monterey County chardonnay ($16) ranks right up there with the Chalk Hill and Sanford. It's an intensely flavorful wine with nuances of lemon, apple, minerals, peach, nuts and spices.

Talus Vineyards has emerged in recent years as an exceptional producer of low-cost, high-quality red wines. Its creamy, toasty 1994 chardonnay ($9.49) shows that Talus is equally proficient with whites.

A notch or two down the quality ladder is the 1994 Maacama Creek Estate-Bottled Reserve Alexander Valley Chardonnay ($9). It's a good, medium-bodied wine that is California's equivalent of a decent Macon-Villages.

The 1994 St. Francis Chardonnay from Sonoma County is much the same, only it'll cost you $12.

Only one of the 13 wines was flat-out awful. The 1994 Ridge California Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains ($16) was marred by earthy aromas and bitter, charred flavors that clashed with overblown tropical fruit. Perhaps winemaker Paul Draper, a genius with cabernet and zinfandel, should stick to reds.

The remaining wines weren't undrinkable, just strange.

The 1994 Castle Rock Chardonnay ($16) displayed the wet-hay flavor often found in East Coast chardonnays. The Qupe Santa Barbara County Chardonnay from the Sierra Madre Vineyard ($16) was the wine equivalent of Carmen Miranda's headgear -- packed with tropical fruit but more ludicrous than elegant. It's fun, but is it chardonnay?

J. Lohr's chardonnays have consistently been big-shouldered wines, but the 1994 from Monterey County ($13) has all the subtlety of a defensive tackle sacking a quarterback. There's loads of flavor, punctuated by a dollop of residual sugar, but the wine's slightly bitter finish and excessive mint flavor deserve a penalty for unnecessary roughness.

Overall, this admittedly small sampling gives me little reason to complain about the 1994 chardonnay, but no reason to join in the industry's hype.

It seems to be business as usual.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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