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A Look Back at Some Sparkling Alternatives


Wine is a great stimulus of conversation, which is why I like being told I'm wrong about a wine. The discussion nearly always leads to better understanding--for one or the other of us.

The fact is, you can't be wrong about what you like. If you like sweet red wine from Macedonia, fine--enjoy. It's not my cup of tea, but I'm not going to tell you you're wrong to like it.

But I know what I like too, and being opinionated, I make some wine makers grit their teeth over their morning coffee when I say I like certain wines and not others. They may feel I base my opinions on assumptions that miss the point. This has led to phone calls during which I am called a bozo, among less delicate terms.

Greg Fowler of Mumm Napa Valley was one of those who was blunt not long ago. I had tasted a sparkling wine I thought I liked. He said it was not well made.

A few months later another sparkling wine maker, who asked to remain anonymous, also expressed irritation about my liking that same wine, and asked me whether I realized what I was praising and why. At their behest, I re-examined the wine in both open and blind tastings with experts in sparkling wine production.

I included some other wines as well, wines I thought I liked. I found out I didn't like them so much--after finding out why I'd thought I liked them.

For example, what I had felt was toastiness in the controversial sparkling wine turned out to be an aroma like chicken soup. Though some people like that aroma, I realized that it is not complex but merely dull and fruitless.

So I decided to make a real test of my ability to judge sparkling wine. In a blind tasting, with an expert in sparkling wine production present, I preferred the 1985 Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne ($65) because of a delicate yeasty quality in the aroma that combines with a citrusy fragrance that is enticing.

It is a great wine and was miles better (to me) than the 1982 Dom Perignon ($75), which I found to be fat, clumsy and excessively yeasty. Dom Perignon, famed the world over, is made in a style the British love, huge and weighty but with all the delicacy of a bowling ball. I prefer more delicate sparkling wines.

The wine maker agreed, pointing out that what some feel is appealing about Dom Perignon is exactly what some wine makers feel is wrong with wine evaluation today: simplicity mistaken for complexity.

Second on my list of top wines were two lighter-styled efforts, both non-vintage Napa Valley wines. The Mumm Cuvee Napa ($15) was fresh and spicy with a faint dry grass aroma, and the Domaine Carneros ($18) was even fresher with citrus as a main element and superb richness in a more austere style.

The non-vintage Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut ($22) also was a treat, though not as appealing as the above trio. Finishing a distant last behind the Dom Perignon was Moet's White Star, which had a fat, clumsy finish and was too soft to go with many foods.

Within days of my sparkling wine experience, I visited Simi Winery in Healdsburg. Its Chardonnays have traditionally scored well in competitions, but I was always a non-fan, finding the wines a trifle fat. Simi general manager Zelma Long had asked me to take another look.

Tasting all of the Simi Chardonnays made in the 1980s showed me an evolution of style I had missed. The 1980 and 1982 wines, from warmer vintages, were big and rich (as I had remembered them, though they had taken on luster from the additional age in bottle). The 1983 had begun to peak, and the 1984 simply lacked flavor.

Starting in 1985, however, things changed, both in terms of vintage quality and wine making technique. The '85 vintage, unlike most of the previous few years, was a great one for Chardonnay in California. Also, in that year Long and Simi wine maker Paul Hobbs began a succession of experiments (initiated earlier with David Ramey as Long's assistant) in which the wine was made with less and less contact with the skins of the grapes. The idea was to get flavor from the juice rather than from the skins, which might risk bitterness and oxidation.

By the time of the 1988 harvest, the new style was in full effect. The 1988 Simi Chardonnay ($15) accents a rich, slightly buttery aroma, but it's lighter than past vintages, with a fragrant, citrusy fruit character still evident over the complexity. The complexity comes from the use of different clones of Chardonnay as well as the new, lighter technique that accents the fruit.

Similarly, I had never been a true fan of the Chardonnays of Matanzas Creek, though they were always fun to drink. So when owners Sandra and Bill MacIver asked me to have another look, I was eager.

Though the older Chardonnays (especially the 1983 and 1984) seemed a little past their peak of drinkability, 1985 again signaled a change in tempo, both in vintage quality and wine quality. The 1985 Chardonnay from Matanzas Creek offers superb drinking, and the 1986 is even better, with even more spice and potential to develop.

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