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TASTING NOTES

Those 'Mouth-Filling' Whites

April 04, 2001|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rich, full-bodied white wines may no longer be in fashion, but I suspect many of us who started learning about wine in the early '70s still harbor an affection for them. I know I do.

Many of the first "serious" white wines made in California-Chardonnays by the likes of Spring Mountain, Mayacamas, Freemark Abbey and Martin Ray-are either no longer with us or no longer recognized as the top of the heap. But, back then, those wines were among the most co llectible-the equivalents of Marcassin or Peter Michaels today.

I remember when the leading critics of that day would pronounce a wine "mouth-filling," and we would all rush out to buy it. Now, of course, every Chardonnay worth its salt has plenty of body, and the big wines of today would obliterate those early versions in any comparison of size and stuffing.

In fact, a large number of wine drinkers now proclaim California Chardonnay, and those versions of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier in the same style, to be "too big." There is something to be said for that argument. Some wines are so high in alcohol, oak and buttery and roasted grain character that their varietal character is obscured.

Admittedly, those wines are not easy to drink. But, I'm not ready to give up entirely on this style simply because of the sins of a few. I happen to like big, rich, full-bodied, fleshy wines, but they need to have fruit and underlying acidity for balance, and I am not fond of white wines with searing alcohol.

The following wines are not a shy lot, and some folks would, I guess, say they are over the top. But they shine like no others when tasted with rich or spicy foods. In the right setting, "full" and "deep" are four-letter words we shouldn't be afraid of.

Chardonnay

* * 1997 Byron Vineyard "Estate Bottling," Santa Maria Valley, $27. For the past decade, this winery has been among the leaders in California Chardonnay, and while its wines are not giveaways, neither are they overpriced. Rare is the affordable "reserve-type" Chardonnay these days, but here is one that is reasonably priced and delivers the goods in terms of rich, complex, oak and lees-aged character, while still having a very clear and vital center of fruit.

* * 1998 Gainey Vineyard "Limited Selection," Santa Barbara County, $28. I love the sweet, rich, succulent fruit that lies at the very heart of this outgoing, full-bodied wine, so you can imagine my surprise when another wine writer referred to it as "oak juice'. Maybe he got a bad bottle, because while it is certainly blessed with plenty of oak, the flavor of the grape is what makes it so enjoyable.

* * * 1998 Kistler Vineyards "Durell Vineyard," Sonoma Valley, $80. "Why would he recommend an $80 wine?" you must be asking. The answer is simple. Kistler Chardonnays, of which this is my favorite in this vintage, are the best examples of how to make deep and involving wines that still have balance and sufficient respect for the grape. They are also so much in demand that the winery can charge very high prices, but you can't talk about this type of Chardonnay without recognizing Kistler for its accomplishments.

* * 1999 Lewis Cellars, Napa Valley, $35. This very solid effort displays the richness and fruit density that have come to be the hallmarks of this winery, and it is made even more appealing by its lush, viscous mouth-feel. Quite ripe, and admittedly with a bit of heat in the finish, it more than compensates for that minor annoyance with loads of sweet apple that holds at the end as well.

$ * * 1999, Lincourt Cellars, Santa Barbara County, $20. So toasty are its initial aromas that all but a few woodchucks would be put off, but this deep and very well-filled Chardonnay unfolds to show an increasing measure of rich fruit as its guiding force. It is fairly mouth-filling and full in body, yet it has finely honed underlying acidity to keep its richness in check. Not a wine for the faint of heart; it will go nicely with garlicky seafood.

Sauvignon Blanc

* 1999 Baileyana Winery, San Luis Obispo County, $12. This wine delivers a full-bodied but bracing California look at Sauvignon Blanc with a mix of weight and firming acidity tied to tart, citrusy flavors and a youthfully energetic yet tight finish.

* 1998 Beringer Vineyards "Alluvium Blanc," Knights Valley, $15. The addition of Semillon, Chardonnay and Viognier to a Sauvignon Blanc base brings an attractive bit of plumpness to this wine. At once full on the palate and ripe in flavor, it is still firm and a little bit tight in the finish. Like so many of these wines, it proves that size does not have to come at the expense of balance.

$* * * 1999 Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc "La Petite Etoile Vineyard," Russian River Valley, $20. This ripe, rich Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding from first sniff to long and intense aftertaste. It dazzles the palate with its concentrated ripe melon and fig fruitiness and its supporting and enriching layers of creme caramel and roasted vanilla bean. It is lush and full and certainly could be considered overdone by some, but I am charmed by its stunningly complex mix of intense flavors that are so wonderfully well balanced by bright, firming acidity.

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