California offerings disappoint

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Many of states chardonnays are downright unattractive, and high priced, to boot.

September 05, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

The state of California chardonnay is depressing.

I don't write this lightly. I've been reviewing wine for almost two decades and have witnessed enormous prog-ress in the wine industry worldwide. Mostly, the trends have been good for consumers: better wines, more choices and a continuing stream of values for buyers who will seek them out.

But the progress in California chardonnay, taken as a whole, seems to have stopped about a decade ago and even regressed. All over the state, wineries with celebrated names are bottling merely pleasant to downright unattractive chardonnays and charging $20 and up for the privilege of being bored by them.

This harsh conclusion is the result of a month of tasting dozens of California chardonnays from all parts of the state and at different price levels.

Most of the wines I tasted were not obviously flawed. But relatively few displayed individuality, verve and excitement. A significant number were poorly made wines fit only for making sangria.

This is not the state of California wine in general. In my experience, there's no lack of pleasure in the state's cabernet sauvignons, sauvignon blancs and red zinfandels - to cite just three examples.

So why does chardonnay remain so overwhelmingly popular, apart from the ease of pronouncing it? Beats me.

Chardonnay is the classic white-wine grape of Burgundy but it is also a somewhat bland varietal. It lacks the clarity and vibrant acidity of riesling, the spice of gewurztraminer, the food-friendliness of sauvignon blanc, the silky texture of pinot gris or the exotic fruit flavors of Viognier. Chardonnay's chief virtues are its geographical adaptability, its natural structure and the positive chemistry it can have with oak barrels when they are used judiciously.

But oak is no substitute for fruit. Much of the chardonnay juice I tasted would have benefited more from being blended with chenin blanc or riesling than being subjected to heavy oak influence. But California wineries seem stuck in a single-varietal rut where chardonnay is concerned.

Most of the wines I tasted were from 1999, a perfectly fine vintage, so there was no question of poor climatic conditions skewing the result.

A long list of tasting notes would be repetitive, but here is a description of 1999 Composite California Chardonnay:

Medium-bodied, pleasant flavors of apple and lemon, distinct oak influence with a hint of vanilla, no obvious flaws but lacks grip and intensity, short and somewhat disappointing finish.

Taste that wine once, it won't bother you. Taste it dozens of times under dozens of different labels and you'll want to swear off California chardonnay for life.

Some high-priced wines are so substandard that consumers should be warned.

How on earth could the folks at Flora Springs have let their harsh 1999 Napa Valley chardonnay out of the winery to sell for $24? What were the folks at La Crema thinking when they inflicted their brutish $30 1998 Russian River chardonnay on the world? Why would a winery like Shafer, which makes such wonderful Napa Valley red wines, release a 1999 chardonnay from Red Shoulder Ranch with a preposterous 14.9 percent alcohol and the grace of a dancing bear?

Credit is due to those wineries that bucked the trend and produced highly individual, complex chardonnays that can stand tall alongside any white wine in the world.

Sanford, take a bow for your vibrant and thrilling 1999 Santa Barbara Chardonnay. It's a bargain at $23. Newton, your toasty, complex, yeasty Naturally Fermented 1999 Chardonnay (27 percent Napa County, 73 percent Sonoma County) is a worthy rival to the finest Burgundies. You have every right to charge $27 for it. Lambert Bridge, way to go on that intensely flavorful, barrel-fermented 1999 from Sonoma County ($20).

Praise should also go to Morgan Vineyards for its rich and complex 1999 regular and reserve chardonnays from Monterey County.

Kudos should go to those who produced wines with complexity and character at moderate prices. Consumers should be delighted to find wines such as the 1999 Eshcol Ranch chardonnay for about $13 and ecstatic to find a $9 wine with the pure fruity delight of the 2000 Bogle.

But overall, consumers should be suspicious of California chardonnay as a category. More promising alternatives can be found in Chilean or Washington state chardonnays, California sauvignon blancs and Alsace wines.

Meanwhile, we can hope California winemakers will pause and reflect about the quality of their chardonnays, taking the time to taste them alongside the world's other dry white wines. Many would find it a profoundly humbling experience.

Salsa Roja Ranchera

Makes 1 1/2 cups

2 chilies (habanero or milder), seeded, deveined and coarsely chopped (wear rubber gloves)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1/2 medium white onion, coarsely chopped

2 to 4 medium-size (10-12 ounce) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

4 to 6 cilantro sprigs, chopped

Using a mortar and pestle, mash the chilies to a paste with the salt. (Watch your eyes). Add the garlic and continue pounding and mashing.

When the garlic is thoroughly incorporated, add the onion and mash as fine as possible. Mash in the tomatoes. The more tomatoes you use, the less fiery the sauce.

Pour the sauce into a serving bowl, sprinkle with cilantro, and serve at once.-- Adapted from Zarela's Veracruz: Cooking and Culture in Mexico's Tropical Melting Pot (Houghton Mifflin, $35)

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