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ON WINE

'An Infinitely Delicate Affair' : The Art and Science of Translating Grapes--Especially Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir--Into Wine

October 18, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

ACCORDING TO THE celebrated vintner Peter M. F. Sichel, "The production of great wine is an infinitely delicate affair." Add to this the years-long scrutiny of the enological science by its American master, professor emeritus of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, Maynard Amerine: "Making wine is an art. Mastering such an art requires not only experience, but also a thorough knowledge of its principles." Through such observations, it is reasonable to expect aesthetic differences in wines, though made from the same grape or grapes, even in top categories. Art and the artist reflect only each other.

Before us for consideration are three bottles of white wine--Sauvignon Blanc from three highly respected wine makers. The first has never touched wood; it was skillfully fermented in stainless steel to preserve its varietal character. It contains 100% of the sometimes audaciously sauvage grape, with a herbaceous scent, crisp acidity, clean and appetizing taste. The second, from a different region, has been barrel-fermented in French oak, allowed to rest upon the lees, and has the incense of wood in its bouquet, a toastiness in scent and taste and a complex sophistication in its overall character--still 100% of the one grape. The third, partially barrel-fermented, finished in oak after starting in stainless steel, has 15% Semillon in its makeup to soften the intensity of the Sauvignon Blanc character. It is a gentle wine; it has gold medals from statewide competitions from each vintage. Which is the best? Is one better than another? All are fine wines. Which rose, in a garden of well-tended roses, is the most beautiful? Does it not come down to a matter of personal taste?

In the wine game, far from being "odious," comparison is a joyous learning experience, and it is one of the reasons for multiple service of wines on even the most informal occasions.

And now, we face two bottles of California Pinot Noir. Only within the last few years has this Burgundian grape variety achieved significant vinification in this country. There are, even in its Cote d'Or homeland, many different clones. Wine-making consultant Andre Tchelistcheff has called it "an unruly child" because of its almost unpredictable behavior in both field and cellar. One thing is certain: It reacts unfavorably to rough handling while it is undergoing its transformation from grape to wine. Pursuit of excellence with this noble varietal has amounted to a lifetime quest among many California wine makers, notably Josh Jensen of Calera, Robert Mondavi of the Napa Valley and Dick Grall of Chalone; disciples such as Gary Mosby of Edna Valley and Bruno d'Alfonso of the Sanford Winery are graduates of the Chalone disciplines. The late controversial wine maker Martin Ray, known for creating fine, French-styled Pinot Noirs, said of the grape, "The less you do, the better the wine will be."

And here are those two bottles of Pinot Noir: The 1984 Sanford Central Coast Pinot Noir and 1983 Edna Valley Pinot Noir. The Sanford wine is holding the "Best of Show" award, beyond its 1986 gold medal in Atlanta, for having won out over all the other wines in that competition numbering thousands. Both have the translucent ruby-red hue identifying the breed's reluctance to give up color during the most gentle fermentation, and both are free of the abusing roughness of de-stemming in a crusher, going into their vats with full, undamaged clusters. Both are superb wines, but the Sanford seems to have greater body and viscosity. They are nearly the same in price, about $12. But a jury of my student tasters gives the edge to the Sanford wine by a small margin of preference.

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