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Style Remains Same at Vichon : Mondavi Keeps French Subtlety With Wines That Go With Food

July 10, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

When Robert Mondavi purchased Napa Valley's small Vichon Winery it was widely believed that its austere French-like style would give way to a dominating California fruity Mondavian mode. Much to the delight of Vichon fans who prefer its early-access subtle wines, rather than long-to-age overpowering types, he has not made any substantial changes in style.

Initially, Vichon was the creation of then George Vierra, wine maker, and some of the nation's leading restaurateurs who believed that their patrons wanted early-to-drink, yet complex wines as an alternative to raw, robust wines that infinitely sat on wine lists waiting for maturity. Wine-making reins, with the assistance of Mondavi, have been turned over to Michael Weis and Karen Culler, University of California, Davis Department of Enology graduates.

While the style is French in design, the goal is not to produce just another California-French wine. Employing wine-making practices different from other California wineries, the aim, according to Culler, is to produce white wines of lively fruit complexity and delicate richness, and reds of subtle finesse, all designed to complement a wide range of food tastes.

The most frequent question posed at the winery is whether or not the wine goes well with food. Presently, it is a question concerning the many California wineries suffering from declining sales of so-called big-styled, hard-to-drink wines. The term "food wine" is fast becoming a key sales pitch to attract consumers who are bored with overpowering tannins, high alcohol and excessive fruit. Pointedly, Vichon is showing the way with some new to California wine-making techniques.

A prime example is the application of sur lie aging to the winery's Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. This is essentially a French practice followed variously in the Loire Valley and Burgundy, where the wines are allowed to age in small barrels in contact with the yeast and then drawn off the lees for bottling so as to retain a natural complex, grape fruitness. Lees are the sediments or dregs consisting of tartrates left at the bottom of the wine cask after racking a wine from one barrel to another. "The puncheons," Culler said, "complex the fruitness of the grape while the sur lie , aging gives the wine a nutty creaminess in bouquet and flavor as well as an added roundness and softness."

Characteristics of the sur lie style are highlighted in Vichon's Chevrignon, 1984, (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) which reflects a ripe, easy-access taste in a clean desirably high-acid style. There is no grassy overtone, here, just softness, fatness in a medium-bodied assertive mode. Generous at 12.7% alcohol, the wine makes an excellent table mate at $9.50.

The '83 at the same price is not as lively as the '84, with a gentle nose suggesting ripe figs, melons and a bit more fatness. The emphasis here is the continuity of style, especially its easy access produced from ripe grapes composed of 53% Sauvignon Blanc and 47% Semillon. The blend of the two grapes in virtual equal proportions is a unique Vichon innovation by which the Semillon produces a smell of ripe figs and taste, full and soft; while the Sauvignon Blanc tends to provide greater definition of character, crispness and tartness.

For the Chardonnay the sur lie practice attempts to provide wines that are full-bodied with a silky mouth feel and a clean finish. Vichon addes the wrinkle of stirring the wines every two weeks during the aging period to increase the extraction of desirable flavor and aroma components. Apparently, more effective in its Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 1983, there is rich texture here and lusciousness with considerably deep flavor, but definitely adhering to a more neutral, austere style. A slight oily character helps give the wine easy access and a long, long finish in good balance and with only a hint of oak.

The 1984 features a good appley Chardonnay nose with wood scent overtones, which some may perceive as the nuttiness associated with sur lie aging. This is a lively spritely, slightly petillant wine that should go well with seafood and should be enjoyed early for forward flavor and gentle crispness. Apparently, it will not be a long-lived wine.

Another new-to-California technique is prolonged maceration for Vichon's Cabernets, a technique used extensively in Bordeaux, and at the winery since 1980.

"We really like the maceration process," Culler explained, "because we believe the macerated Cabernet has lost that pungent youthful fruitiness and become more complex and wine-like--more like a young Cabernet that has been aged in the barrel for several months.

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