Even Baltimore July won't wilt pinot noirs Wines: A few timely suggestions that might help smooth out a hot summer's eve

Vintage Points

July 01, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

July is a wonderful time for enjoying wines that don't demand anything as burdensome as thought.

There are few frivolous pleasures quite as satisfying as a crisp rose or a racy chenin blanc -- served well-chilled on a warm summer evening.

But sometimes food insists we be at least half-serious.

Consider, for instance, a tuna steak -- marinated in oil and herbs and grilled carefully to leave just a tinge of pink at the center. Some poor fish paid a heavy price for us to enjoy such a meal. The least we can do is pay homage with a worthy wine.

This is the type of situation in which pinot noir excels.

In the hands of a skilled winemaker, Burgundy's famous red wine grape can produce complex wines that somehow make sense in the ridiculous climate of Baltimore in July.

It's mostly a matter of the finish -- the way a wine lingers on the palate after you swallow.

A well-made, young cabernet sauvignon or a classic Rhone will finish with a strong impression of drying tannin and a relatively muted acidity. Pinot noirs generally show less tannin and more acidity -- a virtue in hot weather.

Now it just so happens that grilled foods enjoy an affinity with wines with relatively high-acid finish and vibrant fruit. Many pinot noirs fit that description.

A recent tasting of 1996s from Oregon and California found a high overall level of quality -- if you're willing to pay above $15. There are a few pleasant pinot noirs in the neighborhood of $10, but not many.

The wine I rated highest was the 1996 Fess Parker Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County ($18). The finish on this extravagantly fruity, complex, Burgundian wine must have lasted the palate for a full minute. (Yes, the winery is named after the Fess Parker, of "Daniel Boone" fame.)

Almost equally impressive was the 1996 Chalone Pinot Noir ($27), from a part of California so isolated that Chalone is the regional name as well. It's a much more Californian wine than the Fess Parker -- with smoked meat and black raspberry flavors reminiscent of a fine Rhone. It's a big, rich wine that nevertheless finishes with pinot-noir style.

Other impressive 1996 California pinot noirs, all of which to some degree approximated the style of a good Burgundy, included the Saintsbury ($20, Carneros); David Bruce ($18, Central Coast); Acacia ($21, Carneros); Robert Mondavi ($26, Carneros) and Calera ($19, Central Coast).

Oregon's most impressive entry was the ethereal but penetrating 1996 Ponzi Pinot Noir ($23). From its pale red color, you might expect a weak, watery wine, but the black cherry and herb flavors are quite gripping. The 1996 Adelsheim Pinot Noir ($23) was weightier but not quite in the same class.

In the budget bracket, the only pinot noir that offered good value was Oregon's 1996 Firesteed ($10). It's a light, uncomplicated wine with plenty of racy fruit -- somewhat similar to a red Burgundy from the village of Santenay.

As in any tasting of American pinot noirs, there was the obligatory grotesque failure. My rather intemperate notes on the crude, harsh, overblown 1996 Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Pinot Noir ($17) use the words "pig slop" to describe the wine. That was out of line. It's not quite that bad.

Worth begging for

Devotees of fine chardonnay should employ bribes, flattery, obsequious begging or whatever it takes to persuade your local retailer to sell you a bottle of the new wine from the folks at Sutter Home. That's right. The family that launched the giant Sutter Home brand has launched a premium line of wines under the M. Trinchero label, and its debut 1996 Napa Valley chardonnay is nothing short of spectacular.

The wine, named in honor of Sutter Home founder Mario Trinchero, is one of those chardonnays with so many layers of fruit, toast and yeast flavors that you can get lost in the glass.

There is also an M. Trinchero 1995 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It's definitely a high-quality cabernet, and it might improve dramatically as the new oak flavors are better integrated.

The wines should sell in the $25-$35 range. The quantities available are very slim, according to the wholesaler. But even if you can't get your hands on this vintage, remember the name and look for it on wine lists at fine restaurants.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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