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Cooking & Entertaining With Style : Connoisseurs' Choices

November 08, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER | Balzer writes a wine column for Los Angeles Times Magazine .

Our 14th-annual wine tasting--of Cabernets and Chardonnays at Alexander Valley Vineyards--uncovered some surprising but highly satisfying selections

The pleasures of wine are subjective. Opinions will vary, sparked by taste remembrances, mood, moment and knowledge. Pour a "classic" Cabernet into a delicate, cut-crystal goblet or into the most humble of tumblers and reactions will differ--even among wine professionals and devotees. It's impossible to eliminate wholly personal taste. And that's not a bad thing.

For the Los Angeles Times' 14th annual wine tasting, our jury of wine professionals turned its attention to two notable wines, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, focusing on a carefully screened selection of candidate California wines that included medal-winners from the state's leading competitions and heralded newcomers.

Gathered to evaluate 103 wines at Harry and Maggie Wetzel's Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg were: Heidi Peterson Barrett, wine maker, Buehler Vineyards; William Bond, consumer connoisseur; Alison Green, wine maker, Firestone Vineyards; Eric Hansen, hotel specialist, Robert Mondavi and Vichon wineries; Ben Lane, wine broker, Wine Futures Exchange Inc.; Jean Leon, owner, La Scala Restaurant; Jerry Luper, wine maker, Rutherford Hill Winery; Michael Martini, wine maker, Louis M. Martini Winery; Robert Mondavi, chairman of the board, Robert Mondavi Winery; Philip Togni, owner, Philip Togni Vineyard; Steve Wallace, wine merchant; Elaine Wellesley, owner and wine maker, Quail Ridge; Eric Wente, president, Wente Bros.; Hank Wetzel III, co-owner and wine maker, Alexander Valley Vineyards.

The UC Davis 20-point evaluation system was used: wines considered outstanding were ranked between 17 and 20 points, sound commercial 13 to 16, commercial with noticeable defect 9 to 12, common, poor 6 to 8 and unsatisfactory 1 to 5.

Cabernet Sauvignon is easily the world's most highly prized grape, responsible for the great clarets of Bordeaux and the best red wines of California. The grape grows well in nearly all of our state's wine regions, excelling in areas of moderate warmth and coolness. The wines are astringent in their youth, but with classic aging in 50-gallon oak barrels they soften in taste and develop unique bouquets, at times suggesting rose petals, at others herbal or with hints of cedar. Choice examples have the potential of profound improvement with proper cellar age, arriving at the balanced maturity that justifies the grape's extravagant reputation.

Chardonnay is the most elegant of white-wine grapes, responsible for the great white wines of Burgundy, Le Montrachet and Meursault, all Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse and Champagne. But it is the changing vinification of the grape and the differing theories held by wine makers concerning moment of harvest, fermentation, aging and marketing that is making news. It is a matter of general knowledge in the California wine country that many editions of Chardonnay wines were allowed too much time in new French oak barrels, extracting from the wood excessive amounts of vanillin and other aromatic elements that tended to obliterate the natural fruit qualities of the grape in the wine's taste and bouquet. After serious studies of California and French wines of Chardonnay origins, it was generally believed that those big, blockbuster wines were taking a wrong direction, and a swing towards more gentle wines in the Meursault style set in. The current tasting would indicate that, in many cases, the wines are now too light and gentle.

In no other wine, perhaps, are there so many varying styles. All of the top 10 place winners are "outstanding" in quality but the styles may be quite different . The adventure in Chardonnay is finding the ones you most enjoy. If you're a Chardonnay lover, the future is bright. California examples continue to win in landmark, comparative tastings over fine French titles, and for value, cannot be bested.


(Ties in alphabetical order)

ZACA MESA 1983 American Reserve. $9.75. 16.7. Produced and bottled by Zaca Mesa Winery, Los Olivos. Flowery bouquet, long, elegant and well-balanced wine, very drinkable.

BUEHLER VINEYARDS 1984. $10.50. 16.4. Grown, produced and bottled by Buehler Cellars, St. Helena. Enticingly dark and rich, berries in the bouquet, a wine of positive promise.

JORDAN VINEYARD & WINERY 1983 Alexander Valley Estate Bottling. $22. 16.4. Produced and bottled by Jordan Winery, Healdsburg. Wonderful aromas of black cherry, evergreens, certain to age splendidly.

ROBERT KEENAN 1984 Napa Valley, Estate Bottled. $13.50. 16.4. Produced and bottled by Robert Keenan Winery, St. Helena. Deep garnet color, good breed and substance, smooth and complete.

CHRISTIAN BROTHERS 1984 Napa Valley, Estate. $6.50. 16.3.Produced and bottled by the Christian Brothers, St. Helena. Well-balanced wine of subdued bouquet, and true Cabernet character.

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