'94 pinot noir deserves a toast Wines: The latest vintage is one of the best ever from California. Central Coast, from Sanford Winery, leads the way.

November 10, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

It should come as no surprise that the 1994 vintage has been hyped as the greatest ever for pinot noir in California. That's the vintage the majority of California pinot producers have to sell.

What is amazing is that for once the hype is true. California pinot noir producers have realized their equivalent of 1961 or 1982 in Bordeaux and of 1990 in Burgundy.

For decades, pinot noir was the laughingstock of the California wine industry. Some of the state's greatest winemakers fumbled badly in their attempts to replicate the red wines of Burgundy. Many dropped pinot noir from their offerings and proceeded to rip out pinot noir vineyards.

The quality of California pinot noir has been on the upswing since the late 1980s, but 1994 is the first vintage to bring together advanced human skills and near-perfect growing conditions. James Laube hailed it in the Wine Spectator as a "breakthrough vintage."

My recent tastings have put me squarely in Laube's amen corner on that one. Yes, a few of the wines were disappointing, but there's always some genius who figures how to mess up a great vintage. But overall, the consistency and depth of the wines are astonishing.

It couldn't happen to a nicer grape. Pinot noir seems to combine many of the finer aspects of red and white wine, and thus is extremely versatile at the dinner table. It can be stretched to pair with foods as different as roast beef and grilled salmon.

California pinot noir isn't cheap, unfortunately, but what is in these days of massive grape shortages?

I gave excellent ratings to five of the 11 1994 pinot noirs I tasted lately; two others were knocking at the door. That's a first-rate performance in any sampling of that size.

Not surprisingly, Santa Barbara County's Sanford Winery led the parade. Frequent readers may have noticed my admiration for this winery's products crossing the line to fawning adoration. Its 1994 Central Coast pinot noir ($23) will only aggravate the problem with its staggering intensity, effortless grace and pure flavors of black cherry, herbs and smoked meat.

You can take me now, Lord.

Just a stutter-step behind was the 1994 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($29). Its strong herbal component suggested a Bandol from Provence as much as it did Burgundy, but who's complaining?

The 1994 Morgan California Pinot Noir ($18) is just as well made as the Farrell at a much more attractive price. It was a surprise to find such complexity and pure pinot fruit in a wine without a prestigious regional appellation. A touch of tannin suggests this wine might be even better with three or four years in the cellar.

The 1994 Beaulieu Vineyard Carneros Reserve Pinot Noir ($20) might not appeal to everyone, but I was thrilled by its earthy, barnyard character so reminiscent of fine Burgundy. It's a full-bodied, meaty wine with hints of chocolate and herbs. Give it four or five years if you're aiming for a peak, but it's delicious now.

The 1994 La Crema Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($18) isn't the most massive wine you'll come across, but it has a haunting beauty all its own. It wins big points for its elegance, length and penetrating flavors of black cherry, black raspberry and herbs.

It seems petty to put the 1994 Acacia Carneros Pinot Noir ($19) in a slightly lower quality bracket, because it really is an extremely fine wine. It is one of the most faithful replications of Burgundian style I have tasted from California. Time might bring out an even greater quality in it.

The 1994 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir ($19) is a medium-bodied wine with extremely pure, penetrating black cherry flavor. You could criticize it as a Johnny-one-note wine, but what a note it is!

For sheer value, recognition should go to the 1994 Merdian Vineyards Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($14). Here's a wine that demonstrates pinot noir need not be complex to be excellent.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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