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WINE

Winnowing Through the Pinot Noirs

June 29, 1995|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

The French writer and gourmet Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, asked whether he preferred Bordeaux or Burgundy, replied: "That is a question I take so much pleasure investigating that I postpone from week to week the pronouncement of a verdict."

Odd, then, that most wine lovers, though they appreciate the former, lavish praise and poetry on the latter.

Robert Finigan, in his 1987 book "Essentials of Wine," notes that Bordeaux is the patrician: "Visiting Bordeaux is a bit like visiting London." But, he adds, Burgundy, despite its more earthy and carnal nature, "at its best is unexcelled for sheer sensual pleasure among the world's wines," though he cautions that "winnowing such treasures from the mass of mediocrities is a challenge."

Unlike many of the world's wines that show their colors early and proceed fairly predictably, Pinot Noir (the grape that makes red Burgundy) is reticent when young, and though it's enjoyable, it won't be at its best (or worst--you're never sure) for at least two years after bottling, and preferably five to six years after the vintage.

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Wine columnist Jerry Mead, who says he's a libertarian on most issues, not entirely jokingly suggests a law that prohibits Pinot Noir from being sold until it's 5 years old.

In the absence of such a law, and since winery economics require that wine be sold as soon as possible, we are now seeing a lot of 1993 Pinot Noirs being released to market, with 1991s and 1992s still available. After tasting about 75 of them, I find that California and Oregon are making major inroads into territory previously the sole dominion of the French.

A decade ago, tasting through 75 Pinot Noirs would be a task justifying a Purple Heart. Today it's a joy. No longer are winemakers bent on making deep, dark, brooding wines from this grape. (In days gone by, some winemakers actually added Petite Sirah to give color and body to the grape.) Grace now is perfectly acceptable, and it's the mode most Pinots like best.

Yet pitfalls for the buyer still exist. Details to follow. The following list contains wines I highly recommend, both for sampling now and for stashing in a closet for two years.

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Among the wines below are some that finished very close to the winner of a major tasting of Pinot Noir I staged in late April. The winner of that event, the 1993 Olivet Lane Estate Pinot Noir ($13), was mentioned here last week. Here are the others in order of preference:

* 1992 Davis Bynum Winery "Limited Edition" ($22): Complex aroma of black cherry, wild strawberries, a note of clove and racy fruit; deep "sweet" flavors, no rough tannins. Bynum's best Pinot to date. Another smashing effort by winemaker Gary Farrell. To be released July 1.

* 1993 Acacia Winery ($15): Wonderfully rich fruit, delicate texture, then a long and complex finish. A wine to cellar. Better than Acacia's '92 "St. Clair" ($24), which is a bit too tannic.

* 1993 Gary Farrell Wines, Russian River Valley ($17): Lighter than some past vintages, but very complex cherry fruit and elegant, soft-textured flavors. There will be no '93 single-vineyard Sonoma County wines from Farrell, who beefed up his "regular" wine with those richer wines. To be released July 1.

* 1993 Gary Farrell "Bien Nacido" ($28): Classic Central Coast aroma of cherry, tobacco and red currants, with an overlay of cinnamon. A rich and complex wine that will be better in a few years. To be released July 1.

* 1993 Williams & Selyem Winery, Russian River Valley ($22): Lighter than some Pinots of the past, but a good example of this well-respected producer. Red currant and cinnamon, elegant texture, with a note of smoke in the finish.

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The following wines are excellent and worth trying to see if they're for you.

* 1991 Van Duzer Reserve ($22): Smoke and intriguing blueberrylike fruit mingle for an exotic aroma; the taste is deep and rich, showing potential. This wine is from William Hill's Eola Hills property in Oregon .

* 1992 Columbia Crest Winery ($15): Rich, spicy fruit, big-bodied taste, and a lot of tannin, but ample stuffing to age. A rare Oregon (Willamette Valley) red wine from a south Washington winery.

* 1991 Bouchaine Vineyards "Limited Bottling" ($14): Controversial aroma of fresh tobacco leaf and herbs, fresh tomato and cherries. A distinctive wine that may appeal to some people.

* 1992 Fetzer Vineyards "Bien Nacido Reserve" ($17): Another wine that has strong, weedy notes, but ample fruit and a lot of complexity. Tasty and loaded with flavor.

* 1991 Buena Vista Vineyards ($10): Nice mint and spiced cherry fruit in a more delicate package. Tasty, but a bit lean; better in another year.

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Wine of the Week

1994 Davis Bynum Fume Blanc, "Shone Farm" ($8.50)-- Winemaker Gary Farrell made a good amount (4,500 cases) of this stylish, lightly herbal, spicy and complex Sauvignon Blanc with a marvelous fruity finish.

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