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New Blancs Show Greatest Promise : Brothers' Modernizing Brings Dramatic Winery Changes

December 04, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Nathan Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

With more than 1,200 acres of choice vineyards it has always been a mystery to me why the Christian Brothers did not make the finest, most exciting wines in the Napa Valley. Instead, they chose to produce very good, not necessarily great, wines in volume to support their institutions of education.

The new wine-making team of enologist Tom Eddy and Brother David Brennan is methodically changing the Brothers' direction by modernizing winery equipment and isolating grapes from high quality vineyards in an exciting, overdue, upscale wine-making program.

New releases and barrel samples confirm the Brothers ability to make wines of superb quality. Foremost is a still-in-the-barrel Cabernet Sauvignon, 1985, from Oakville, a charmer with a big, assertive, minty nose and a deep, rich taste of considerable depth and length. In a soft, early-maturing mode with no hard-edged tannins, this wine will be released within two years at about $8 a bottle. Definitely a steal, it ranks with other '85 California Cabs that will sell for two to three times that price. An immense wine and a sign of things to come.

Dramatic Change

Not blending Cabernet grapes from all of the Brother's Napa Valley vineyards represents a dramatic change of wine-making policy. The grapes are from a superb vineyard known as the Money Road Vineyard, which is just across the river from the Mondavi-Rothschild Opus Vineyard.

Already showing as a benchmark Napa Valley vintage, the 1985s are primed for future marketing and hailed as at least an equal to the vaunted cab vintage of 1974. Frankly, at the same stage of maturation, the '85s are showing better--more lush with fruit and less hardness--yet with an obvious ability to age long and well.

For today's consumption, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1982 is in a lighter, leaner, yet full-fruited style but without the depth and substance of the '85. More by vintage than design, the wine needs early drinking to take advantage of its no hard-edged character and simple, one-dimensional taste. It is not likely to be a hot collector's item like the '85 but is a good value at around $7 to $8.

Other releases at a recent tasting at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel included a Chardonnay, 1984, which will sell for a modest $7.99. It represents the Brothers' characteristic common sense in comparison to the many overpriced Chardonnays in the $12 to $15 range. Aged six months in French Limousin oak, the wine is in a lighter, crisper style, with an attractive, apple-like accent with a tad higher acidity. It should age for an additional two or three years but is eminently drinkable now.

Another New Twist

The Chardonnay, 1985 Reserve, another in the Brothers' new direction (priced at around $10) will be released next year. It follows the same theme but has greater fruit and complexity derived from an outstanding harvest. Ultimately it will be a blend of wines with some barrel fermentation and the use of two different French oaks, Nevers and Voges. Little of the latter is used in the Napa Valley, but more use is likely in the future as it seems to make a richer style wine than the Nevers with less domination of floral, fruit character. Apparently the Brothers are on to something fascinating.

Two other new releases worth tasting are Fume Blanc, 1985 and Chenin Blanc, 1985. The former is, thankfully, not in a grassy, currently fashionable style, but rather a wine with excellent fruit, in a grapefruit-like mode that comes across with a texture of fine Chardonnay. With nonintrusive 13.1% alcohol and six weeks in French oak, the wine at $5.99 is definitely a good value.

As good, if not better, is the Chenin Blanc. Not dry at 1.5% residual sugar, it has an extraordinary melon-like taste and a fatter texture. Eddy decribes this wine as having been picked under veritable ideal conditions with a surprisingly high acid that should allow the wine to age well. As an aperitif, and for fans who favor slightly sweet wines, it is more than a fine value at $4.99.

Two popular blush-styled wines, from the recent vintage of 1986, are another indication that the Brothers are moving with the times. Both are in the current popular mode of finishing sweet and are priced right at $4.99. I prefer the Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc, 1986, over the Zinfandel Blanc, 1986; the latter at 3% sugar is rounder, a bit more sweet, and shows a pleasant fragrant style.

"Conditions were slightly less than ideal for Zinfandel in the valley," said Eddy, "and it was a hard struggle to keep ours as delicate and light as it is. This is only our second effort at white Zinfandel."

Crisp Taste, Finish

Much the better, the Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc benefited from fruit maturing evenly and early picking. Color extraction was not excessive while the wine fermented to a very pleasant 9% alcohol. The first the Brothers have produced, it is sweet, clean and high in acidity, which makes for an attractive, crisp taste and finish.

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