Add Chardonnay to the California wines that will continue to age and improve in the bottle

The Editor's Vineyard

When we first started cellaring wines in the late 1970s and early 1980s it soon became apparent that California chardonnays did not age well. Which was strange since we knew from personal experience that the varietal when produced in Burgundy did age well producing superior wine after some years in the bottle.

However we are delighted to note that this has all changed as California growers, vintners and winemakers discovered the best terroir for the varietal and winemakers sharpened their skills with this aristocrat among white wines.

Recent vintages of California chardonnay often carry a note from the winemaker stating that the wine will hold well and perhaps improve with anywhere from two to four years in the bottle.

To this end we are cellaring some chardonnays and will impatiently wait for the results a few years down the road.

Two recently chardonnays are candidates for this scenario. Trinchero has released its 2000 Mario's Reserve Chardonnay produced from grapes grown in the northern end of Napa Valley. The wine had nine months of sur lie aging almost all in new French oak barrels. The Trinchero winemaking team can be properly proud of this vintage. We liked it fresh fruit flavors and the hint of oak both in aroma and flavor. Certainly a proper candidate for cellaring a few years.

Winemaker Dan Karlsen at Chalone Vineyard tells all by predicting that Chalone 2001 Chardonnay will continued to improve in the bottle for the "next two to five years."

We couldn't wait that long and found a wine with lovely flavors of fruit and richness in the mouth that asked for more. We must add that we loved the label filled with information including "Estate Grown, number of French oak barrels used, number of bottles produced and with each bottle numbered and grown, produced and bottled by Chalone Vineyard." The wine is 100 per cent chardonnay and with all French oak aging.

We should add that this most informative label also appears on Chalone's 2001 Pinot Noir. This vintage is from Burgundian clones, now mature, on Chalone's own vineyards. This is a superior Pinot Noir with rich fruit aromas and explosive flavors. The vintage was open top fermented and enjoyed 10 months in French oak. A winner at $25 and with the promise of further development in the bottle.

We realize that aging chardonnay or any wine is of limited interest to the vast majority of wine drinkers since surveys show that most wines are consumed within a few days of being purchased.

However it does demonstrate the vast strides California winemakers have made in producing ever better wines in the past two decades, not just chardonnay but almost every varietal.

Unaccountably in its native Rhone Valley Viognier is used mainly as a blending wine added to red vintages and only rarely is bottled as a true Viognier. However in California this varietal has achieved some status, at least with this Writer. The first California Viognier we ever tasted was by Callaway Vineyards. Since then there have been more plantings and several vintners now produce this as a true varietal. We recently opened a bottle of Silver Ridge Viognier which retails for about $10. We loved the wine and used it in the making of our (famous we like to think) Osso Bucco and enjoyed the rest of the bottle with dinner. Light, friuity and at 12.5 per cent alcohol mild for pleasant drinking. Also a great picnic wine.

Rutherford Ranch proves that drinking Napa Valley wines does not require a second mortgage on the family homestead. Produced by Round Hill Winery as an upscale brand, in quality not price, we recently tasted some of Winemaker Mark Swain's vintages and was awed with the value they offered. We recall that Rutherford Ranch was one of the first California brands to offer Merlot as a distinct varietal. So we first reached for the 2000 Rutherford Ranch Napa Valley Merlot. From grapes harvested at Rutherford, St. Helena and Atlas Peak the wine has enjoyed 15 months in French and American oak. Lush in aroma and honest in varietal flavors this wine will spoil the buyer and impress the guests. And all for $12 a bottle.

Also for that $12 price tag you can enjoy Rutherford Ranch 2001 Chardonnay produced from grapes grown in Carneros and St. Helena. This vintage was barrel fermented sur lies for 11 months in French and American oak. The result is a crisp, clean wine with buttery flavors typical of the varietal. Excellent with a variety of foods but we served our bottle as a cocktail wine with guest approval.

We have never made a secret of our partiality for Zinfandel since it was the grape of choice when my family was making wines eons ago. We loved the Rutherford Ranch Napa Valley 2000 Zin. This is a big wine at 15.5 per cent alcohol, with a huge aroma and flavors to match. The grapes were from mostly old vines located on hillsides above the Valley. After l7 months in American and French oak the wine is ready now but could become a blockbuster with a few years in the cellar. And priced at $14.

Reynolds Vineyards in New South Wales, Australia, is staking its claim to fame on the Orange appellation where the hillside vineyards are at an altitude of 2,000 feet. Heading the Reynolds team of winemakers is Jon Reynolds, a thirty year veteran of Australian winemaking and viticulture.

Showing now in the U.S. for the first time are Reynolds Reserve wines, all from the Orange appellation and all priced at $15 in the marketplace. Of some interest is that while California growers and winemakers are branching out to many new varietals, the Aussies, at least at this point in time, continue to stay with the traditional market leaders, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and of course Shiraz.

The first Reserve Reynolds wine we tasted was the 2001 Shiraz. The classic purple color, full aroma and oak tinted flavors of Shiraz are all present in this vintage. Reynolds stresses long oak aging for its wines, this Shiraz had 20 months in French oak, as well as some cellar time in the bottle.

Jon Reynolds compares the climate of the Orange appellation with that of Bordeaux which perhaps explains why we thought the Reserve 2002 Sauvignon Blanc resembles French vintages of this grape rather than California Sauvignon Blancs. Tart, crisp, dry, intense are words to describe this vintage which was made in stainless steel and includes small amounts of Semillon and Verdelho.

Pinot Grigio, that popular dry white wine of northern Italy, is showing more and more among California vintners. Actually we like California versions of this varietal more than the Italian which tend to be drier and show less fruit in aroma and flavor. In California the grape shows intense fruit with crisp flavors.

We were not disappointed when we opened a bottle of Montevina 2002 Pinot Grigio. We used one half cup of the wine in our famed (or ill famed) Chicken Cacciatori and enjoyed the rest with dinner which besides the Cacciatori included fresh made linguini. The grapes were from the Lodi region and the wine was stored in stainless steel. Pure enjoyment for $10 a bottle.

With a curiosity that knows no bounds when it comes to wine we also opened Trinity Oaks 2002 Pinot Grigio. We wanted to compare it with the above Montevina bottling since the Trinity Oaks was from grapes grown in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. Again the wine was made in stainless steel. Both brands are owned by Trinchero Family Estates. We though the Trinity Oaks offered a slightly sweeter flavor while retaining the crispness of the varietal. The Trinity Oaks bottling sells for $9.

Bob Stashak, winemaker for Napa Ridge, can be justifiably proud of two wines that recently garnered honored at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Both are Napa Valley appellation, the 2000 Napa Ridge Merlot and 2000 Napa Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. Smooth is the word we thought best describes the Merlot with its soft flavors and clean finish.

Bob Stashak used all American oak in aging the Cabernet Sauvignon. We have always liked the tannins and unmasked fruit and vanilla flavors that American oak gives a vintage. All these are present in this bottling of Cabernet. Both wines priced at $12.

Like Napa Ridge the ForestVille label is owned by Bronco Wine Company. With the 2001 ForestVille Zinfandel Winemaker Michael Donich has created a hearty, everyday Zinfandel that will go well with a variety of foods. This wine belongs on the kitchen dinner table and at $5.99 a bottle, why not? For another $5.99 you can add some variety to the dinner table with Michael's 2002 ForestVille Sauvignon Blanc. Light, smooth and if some is left in the bottle use it in one of your favorite recipes.

Echelon Vineyards in a short six year history has developed into a brand that consistently produces quality wines at modest prices. With the winery in the Central Coast Winemaker Tom Westberg has a choice of several appellations for chosing the grapes for his varietals. We were impressed with the Echelon 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. For a young wine it showed good flavors and unusual full body. Tom Westberg used 77 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 16 per cent syrah, 4 per cent melot and 3 per cent cinsault in this vintage. This is a wine marked to age well. At $12 a bottle anyone can afford to tuck some extra bottles in the cellar for aging.

Benches above the Salinas Valley grew the grapes for this Echelon 2001 Merlot. Again Winemaker Tom Westberg promises that this wine will age well but no need to wait. Smooth, elegant in both nose and palate this wine is ready for enjoying now and again at $12 as easy on the pocketbook as in the glass.

Echelon 2001 Syrah is from Clarksburg which we always have trouble placing. It is in the Sacramento Delta country and if this vintage is an example a very good area for syrah. Westberg used mostly French oak in this wine which was blended with other Rhone varietals including Grenache, Viognier, Alicante and Mouvedre. The result is a very hearty vintage rich with full flavors and body. At $10 quality and value.

Sageland Vineyard in Washington State's Columbia Valley is one of the wineries giving that state it ever increasing reputation for quality wines. Winemaker Frederique Spencer knows the region so well that he generally choses grapes from several areas for his vintages. The 2001 Sageland Merlot was made from grapes chosen from four regions with a small amount of cabernet added. It is very much a food wine with full but soft flavors and a long finish. Retails for $12.

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Last Update:9/15/03

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