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Why California Rieslings Won't Grow Up


Dessert wines don't sell.

Despite the fact that Americans are well known for a vinous "sweet tooth" that prompts many makers of dry wines to leave a tad of residual sugar after fermenting, the sad fact is that wines made to be sweet have few fans. That includes opulent late-harvest Rieslings from such producers as Firestone Vineyards, Chateau St. Jean, Navarro Vineyards and Joseph Phelps Vineyard, all of whom annually make luscious and deeply flavored Rieslings.

The classic late-harvest Riesling is from Germany, where the wines are graded by the government in ascending order according to how much sugar they contain. The very finest, or Trockenbeerenauslese , are made only in years when a particular fungus, Botrytis cinerea --sometimes known as "noble rot"--infects the grapes and shrivels them, concentrating the flavors into a honeyed richness. The best of these sweet wines, balanced with acidity high enough so they're not cloying and can age for decades, become more and more complex.

Because of Germany's success in aging Riesling, there has been a belief that California's top late-harvest Rieslings would age just as well. But a tasting I attended two weeks ago shattered that myth most emphatically.

Tasting through 76 sweet wines, most of them older, with wine author Bob Thompson and Phelps winemaker Craig Williams, I discovered that California's top Rieslings rarely improve with age. And even when they do, they offer a different kind of experience from the sublime character we get from Germany's best.

The message from this tasting was clear: If you have older late-harvest California Rieslings, consider tasting them soon to see whether they are still in good shape. And if you find one on a restaurant wine list, be cautious about paying a lot of money for it.

The following older Rieslings were judged to be worth drinking. Should you find a bottle, consider yourself lucky:

* 1986 Navarro "Late Harvest"--Stunning pear-peach aroma with wonderful fruit and spice.

* 1986 Santino "Dry Berry Select"--Very sweet but amazingly rich and apricot-scented.

* 1986 Chateau Ste. Chapelle (Idaho) "Late Harvest"--Still lively fruit, not very sweet or complex, but wonderful with fruit-based desserts.

* 1985 Navarro "Cluster Selected"--Complex vanilla and apricot notes; wonderful.

* 1983 Navarro "Late Harvest"--Vanilla and sherry notes, a bit mature but enjoyable.

* 1986 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Late Harvest"--Youthful apricot and peach, with plenty of acid to balance sweetness.

The sad point of the tasting was that so many of the wines were judged to be over the hill, including the following (all designated "Late Harvest" unless otherwise noted):

1986 Joseph Phelps; 1986 Firestone; 1985 Bargetto Winery "Christmas Cuvee"; 1985 Chateau St. Jean "Select Late Harvest"; 1985 Kendall-Jackson Vineyards "Select Late Harvest"; 1985 Renaissance Winery "Special Select Late Harvest"; 1983 Mark West Vineyards; 1983 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars; 1983 Clos du Bois; 1982 Mark West Vineyards; 1982 Clos du Bois; 1982 Mirassou Vineyards; 1982 Firestone "Select Late Harvest"; 1981 Clos du Bois; 1981 Hidden Cellars; 1979 Felton-Empire; 1977 Charles Lefranc Cellars.

Two wines worth considering despite their odd, very dark color, were 1985 Shenandoah Vineyards "TBA" and 1978 Phelps "Select Late Harvest." Despite marked sherry-like aromas, both are very complex and interesting.

We tasted a range of older Gewurztraminers too, and the best was 1983 Navarro "Late Harvest," a gorgeous wine. Sadly, we learned that such late-harvest Gewurztraminers as 1984 Mark West, 1985 Monticello Cellars, 1985 Inglenook-Napa Valley and 1986 Grand Cru Vineyards all had faded.

Two older Gewurztraminers that continue to impress are 1986 Field Stone Winery "Individual Bunch Selected" and 1986 De Loach Vineyards "Late Harvest."

And of the younger sweet Gewurztraminers we tasted, the best were 1989 Navarro "Cluster Select" and 1991 De Loach Vineyards.

The tasting included late-harvest Semillons as well. Our conclusions were similar: Most of the older wines had faded; only the best were still alive, and those just barely.

Wines as fabled as 1982 "Chateau M" from Monticello Vineyards have faded. Even the 1987 version of that wine now has a burnt sugar aroma that was not terribly exciting. Other Semillon/Sauvignon wines that came across as tired included those from Vichon Winery and Renaissance.

Among the younger wines, the best late-harvest Semillons were 1989 "Dolce" from Far Niente Winery ($50) and 1989 Phelps "Delice du Semillon" ($18). And though we didn't taste one at our marathon event, "Nightingale" from Beringer Vineyards typically ages very well.

Why don't the others? Williams says some of the wines we tasted were products of an earlier era, when winemakers didn't know as much as they know today.

"In the late 1970s, we thought that if some sugar was good then a lot was better, and we went through a phase where whoever had the most sugar won the game," he says.

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