California pinot noirs are real corkers now Wines: In 10 years, vintners have come a long way from the bad old 'boiled cabbage' days.

March 15, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Sometimes life actually does get better in America. Sometimes now is clearly superior to then. Sometimes progress doesn't exact a horrific price.

Consider beer. A decade ago, foreigners pitied us and our bland national brands. Now it seems that every county seat has a microbrewery that puts the Bavarians to shame.

Consider cars. Fifteen years ago, you bought an American automobile as a patriotic sacrifice. Now you buy them because they're well-made.

In the world of wine, consider California pinot noir. For its transformation is equally dramatic.

This is how British wine writer Jancis Robinson described the typical California pinot noir in a 1986 book:

"Very plummy, sometimes almost burnt and often has an unnerving suggestion of boiled cabbage about it."

At the time, she was indisputably correct. But what a difference a decade makes.

The 1996 California pinot noirs now arriving on the market provide a vivid illustration of how much the state's vintners have learned about growing and handling the temperamental red wine grape of Burgundy.

Yes, you will find an occasional throwback to the bad old days. And the typical $10-$12 "budget" pinot noir displays no more character than the typical red Burgundy in that price range.

But high-quality California pinot noir is no longer a rarity. More and more, winemakers are looking for grapes from the state's cooler growing areas, where pinot noir can reach maturity under con-ditions similar to those in Burgundy.

Astute consumers will note carefully the wine region listed on the label. Among the growing districts with the highest success rates with pinot noir are Carneros, the Sonoma Coast, the Russian River Valley, the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara County. Be wary of a generic California appellation.

To some extent, California pinot noirs are still finding their way. A decade ago, it was difficult to imagine a valid style of pinot noir that did not mimic Burgundy in every detail. But now there are frequent examples of flavorful, well-balanced pinot noirs that are distinctly Californian.

The best in a recent tasting was the 1996 Villa Mount Eden Grand Reserve Pinot Noir ($23) from the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. The class of this piece of ground is apparent in the wine.

This is one of the few 1996s that really is a dead ringer for a fine Burgundy. It's not a big wine in terms of body, nor is it deep in color, but it does show wonderfully pure fruit flavors seasoned with nuances of earth, smoked meat and herbs. What this wine lacks in muscle, it more than makes up in intensity and complexity.

Saintsbury's 1996 Carneros Pinot Noir ($20) represents a grand return to form after a slight slippage in 1995. There's a caressing feel to this silky, sensuous wine that could easily lead to some rather lurid-tasting notes. It comes on with an overt blast of pure black cherry fruit, but further tasting reveals additional levels of flavor and nuances of earth, red meat and cassis.

The 1996 David Bruce Central Coast Pinot Noir ($18) shows that there is such a thing as fine pinot noir in a California style. It's a big, voluptuous, dark-colored wine with lots of black raspberry fruit. It has all the flavors of fine Burgundy, only turned up in volume.

Babcock Vineyards weighed in with an excellent 1996 pinot noir from Santa Barbara County ($22). Like the David Bruce, the Babcock is a bold, take-no-prisoners style of pinot noir, but there's nothing out of balance in this gripping, spicy wine.

The most puzzling of the wines in the tasting was the 1996 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley ($23). It started off with some very funky aromas, but the smell blew off to reveal a dramatic wine with gripping black cherry flavor and a distinct barnyard character -- a property also found in many fine Burgundies. This wine might prove to be too far over the top for many consumers, but bottle age could turn this beast into a beauty.

For a more mainstream California pinot noir, consumers can turn to the 1996 Calera Central Coast bottling ($18). It offers impressively intense black cherry flavors, without the theatrics of the Au Bon Climat.

The following three wines -- though very good -- fell short of the preceding half-dozen.

The 1996 Saintsbury Garnet Pinot Noir from Carneros ($14) was notable for its racy, fruity charm and relative lightness. The DeLoach Pinot Noir ($16) from the Russian River Valley displayed the earthy qualities of fine Burgundy, but lacked a little intensity. The plummy, herbal flavors of the 1996 Estancia Pinnacles Pinot Noir from Monterey County ($13) bear no resemblance to anything from Burgundy, but the wine is fun in its brash way.

And if you're curious about just how awful California pinot noir used to be in the bad old days, pick up a bottle of the 1996 B.V. Beautour Pinot Noir (California, $11). Robinson's description above says it all.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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