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How to Feel Comfortable Adopting an Unwanted Orphan Vintage

May 12, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Orphan wines are those I define as having no home, such as Charbono, Petite Sirah, Pinot Blanc and Semillon. They are grape varieties that people don't take into their homes, so they sit idle on store shelves, unloved and alone.

Call me strange, but I have always liked the orphan wines, and sympathy is not involved here. I like them because they offer a change of pace from the humdrum. Not that there's anything wrong with drinking great Chardonnays and Burgundies and Cabernet Sauvignons and First Growth Bordeaux every night, but after a while it gets old. Orphan wines provide an entertaining diversion, often with grand results.

But this fascination for orphan wines can become addictive. I have been known to go off on a weekend bender with Charbono, losing my head in the process. I once was seen on hands and knees scouring the bottom rack of a dusty wine shop for a promised final bottle of a Petite Sirah. And of course I write love notes to them at 2 a.m. (They're called wine columns.)

Why, heck, just last week I spent 25 bucks on a magnum of Bandol, an orphan if I ever saw one, prompting a colleague to ask if I needed to see my shrink again.

Lots of Sugar

My recent infatuation, lasting more than a year (it must be serious) is with Semillon, a variety known by most Americans to be blended into Sauvignon Blanc to add lushness, or occasionally made as a dessert wine, with enough residual sugar to give a diabetic the willies. But Semillon is more respected than that, especially in France.

Semillon is a great grape variety, the French long ago decreed. They planted it heavily in regions of Bordeaux where white Graves and Sauternes are produced. In the former, the wine often is an intriguing blend of steely and buttery aromas; in the latter area it most often makes opulent dessert wines (the famed Chateau d'Yquem is 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc).

But Semillon treated expertly as a dry wine (such as is done at the sister properties Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Laville-Haut-Brion) can make an intense, powerful, complex statement. Two of the greatest white wines I have ever had were from these properties. Even Yquem makes a dry wine once in a while, Chateau Y, and it's usually a marvelous treat--all the rich aroma of the dessert wine in a dry package.

Jancis Robinson, in her book "Vines, Grapes and Wines," comments that Semillon is a strange duck in that it can be very similar in aroma and taste characteristics to Sauvignon Blanc if grown in cold climates, but can be neutral and flat tasting if grown in too hot a climate.

In most vineyards where it grows around the world, she wrote, the grape "sits around sullenly like an overweight schoolgirl, showing awkward fatness or just plain dullness in the wines it produces. In odd places, though, as if under the spell of a fairy godmother, it can be transformed into a raving beauty."

Some of those regions are the Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Saratoga (south of San Francisco), and other moderate growing areas. I have tracked the variety through viticultural forests and jungles, annually doing a major blind tasting of every Semillon I could find.

Merchants fear my foraging. "Oh, no, here he comes again, looking for Semillon. Try to sell him the Pinot Blanc and hope he'll go away."

What prompted this column is one of those tastings, a wide-ranging excursion with 24 of them at one sitting, followed by another five a week later. And the results of those experiences were nothing short of mind-boggling.

My tastings of Semillon in the recent past (until two years ago) were predictable. Tasting notes always showed the wines to be fairly rich, full-bodied and with a typically fig-like or lanolin kind of aroma, which must be close to what Robinson refers to as a "waxy" aroma.

Yet in this tasting I just concluded, our panel of three Semillon lovers (all I could find after a few dozen phone calls) agreed that the most interesting thing was the light, lean, delicate quality of the fruit in so many of the wines. Almost all of them clearly were on their way to greatness with bottle age, a surprise from past tastings.

So Many Good Ones

It is hard to rate the best wines of the tasting because there were so many good ones, but tied for the top spot on a cumulative list were 1986 Merlion Chevrier (the latter word is the French synonym for Semillon); 1986 Stony Hill; 1985 Merlion; 1985 Clos du Val; 1986 R.H. Phillips Reserve, and the two overall highest point getters, 1986 Clos du Val and 1986 Gravion by Inglenook, a blended wine.

Prices for all of the above wines are between $7 and $9. All but the Stony Hill should be available in better wine shops (there aren't too many crazies like me who run out to buy this orphan), and all are clearly worthy of cellaring for more depth and complexity, notably the Phillips, Clos du Val and Merlion wines.

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