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The Wayward Ways of Wine

March 23, 1995|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Fred Brander, owner of Brander Winery in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley, has for years made one of the state's most long-lived Sauvignon Blancs, a wine that, like some of the wines of Sancerre, seems lean and angular when young.

What few people know is that both Sancerre and Brander Sauvignon Blanc age beautifully. I recently tasted through every Sauvignon Blanc Fred has made since 1977, the year before his own winery opened; the 1977 was made at Santa Ynez Valley Winery. Each was excellent, and a few were exceptional.

Surprisingly, each one was fresher than you would imagine for its age. Among the younger wines, I especially loved the 1987, so if you get lucky and see a bottle, grab it!

The new 1994 Brander Sauvignon Blanc ($9.75) has a stylish herbal, lemon-pepper and melon aroma and a marvelous texture that is both creamy and tart. The secret to its texture--and Brander hopes its aging potential--is aging 20% of the wine on the grape skins. This used to be done quite regularly with Chardonnay, but it was finally abandoned because the method can make wine bitter and hurt its aging potential.

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Brander says the portion left on the skins exhibits less fruit in aroma, "but the wine is more complex and seems to have a better mouth feel."

How it will age remains to be seen, though Brander says his experimental batches haven't seemed to suffer at all.

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The area in which a grape is grown should dictate a great measure of its character, but this is more true of some grapes than others. That was never more evident than back-to-back blind tastings I did a week ago.

The first tasting was of Pinot Noir, and the 13 wines showed characteristics of the regions where the grapes were grown. In a later tasting of 18 Merlots, however, little regional character was detectable.

Because so many people are making Merlot, blending is commonplace and regional character is not valued as much. But Pinot Noir is still the winemaker's Holy Grail and regionality is prized.

The winners of the Pinot Noir tasting were 1991 Bouchaine Vineyards "Reserve" ($20), with loads of fruit and silky texture that show its Carneros heritage, and 1993 Brindiamo "Limited Bottling" ($10). This second label from Thornton Winery is a bit richer than the Bouchaine and shows the Central Coast (Edna Valley) aroma clearly. It's a tad coarser, however.

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Also excellent and worth trying is the 1992 Bouchaine Vineyards Pinot Noir ($15), a stylish wine with cherry and tea aroma and a lovely texture.

The best of the Merlots was 1992 Shafer ($21), with a ripe cherry and spice aroma, a trace of jam and tea and lively acidity. This wine's charm is a joy, though the only hint that it was grown in the Stag's Leap area of the Napa Valley was its velvety texture.

Other fine Merlots included 1990 Conn Creek Vineyards ($14): ripe cherry/violet aroma, a trace of jam, and a toasty note from oak aging; 1991 Sinskey ($18): mature, earthy aroma with concentration; 1992 Dry Creek Vineyards ($15): ripe, jammy aroma with a note of herbal tea; chewy fruit with lots of richness.

Wine of the Week

1993 Hawk Crest Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50) --Herbal, lemon and melon aroma with a lot of fruit in the mouth, no sugar or overt oak to confuse the issue, and a graceful aftertaste. This second label of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is usually a good value, and here it's as good as most wineries' primary version. Often found under $6.

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