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News From Carneros: Merlot


By law, wine makers in Bordeaux don't make Riesling.

This is the way things are in most regions of France, Germany and Italy. The location of a winery dictates what kind of grapes it uses. And when you visit a wine maker in, say, Burgundy, it's likely that all the grapes may be seen from the estate's patio. Obviously, this means that the wine maker can keep a closer eye on the grapes.

In California, wine makers are allowed to make any wine they want from grapes growing anywhere they want to get them. Sometimes that's hundreds of miles away. This is especially true for large producers; Sutter Home couldn't make the millions of cases of White Zinfandel it does were it to rely solely on Napa Valley grapes.

But a number of smaller wineries also grow grapes in regions many miles from the winery, and for totally different reasons. Consider Cuvaison and Ferrari-Carano.

The similarities between these otherwise unrelated wineries are striking. Both are located in the northern reaches of their respective counties (Cuvaison in Napa and Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma), yet both make stunningly fine Chardonnays from grapes grown miles from their wineries.

Winemakers George Bursick of Ferrari-Carano and John Thacher of Cuvaison seem to be of like mind in terms of style. Ferrari-Carano Chardonnays are richer, with more tropical fruit flavors. Cuvaison makes a tighter, more complex and spicy Chardonnay. In recent vintages, both have sought to make complexity and fruit dominant without heaviness. (Both wineries' Chardonnays sell for about $18 a bottle--not cheap, but season after season, they are contenders for best Chardonnay of the year.)

Both wineries now make Reserve Chardonnays that are even richer than their regular bottlings. Of the two, the Ferrari-Carano seems leaner, spicier, although quite concentrated in flavor. The Cuvaison Reserve is a richer, more forward wine.

Both wineries make excellent Cabernets. And both are now gaining reputations for making sensational Merlots. More importantly, both are growing their Merlot grapes in the same region--which is many miles from either winery.

The Carneros region, which is in a cooler climate than that in which either the Ferrari-Carano or the Cuvaison winery is located, is famous for Burgundian varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But both Thacher and Bursick are convinced that it will soon be famous for Merlot as well. (Tom Rinaldi, wine maker for Duckhorn, one of the Napa Valley's most respected makers of Merlot, also favors the Carneros region. Although Duckhorn's Three Palms Merlot is made from warm-climate grapes, Rinaldi admitted last week that he was a bigger fan of the colder-climate fruit.)

Thacher gets his Merlot from Cuvaison's ranch south of Highway 121; Bursick is using fruit from the adjacent land. The 1987 Ferrari-Carano Merlot ($15) has a soft cherry aroma with a hint of raspberry and spice. It is approachable but will be better after a few more years in the bottle. The '87 Cuvaison Merlot ($18) is more dense with a herbal note over cherries. It needs at least five years to develop fully. But both are superb drinking now.

Moreover, both wineries made spectacular 1988 Merlots. Cuvaison's, to be released Jan. 1, is a powerhouse, a rival to the winery's great 1984. A faint herbal tea note combines with cherry and raspberry aromas and a trace of a toastiness from the French oak in which it was aged.

Bursick's 1988 (to be released next June) is bigger, richer and bolder than his '87, but it has an equally impressive structure.

I mentioned to Bursick the other day that I saw a parallel in their style of wine and that of Cuvaison. "I do too," said Bursick. "I consider them a competitor." He said Thacher must like the kind of grapes he likes.

These include varieties not now being produced. Ferrari-Carano is seriously interested in the Italian grape variety Sangiovese, which produces Chianti. (Barney Fernandez, vineyard manager, is planting it in his warmer ranches.) Meanwhile, Thacher is doing experimental work with Pinot Noir from the Carneros, and his first effort (not to be released) is amazingly fine.

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