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Best Wines of 1997

by Steve Pitcher

With the passing of the last tasting on the 1997 schedule, the traditional pre-Christmas tasting of Vintage Ports with Stilton cheese and walnuts on December 18th, now's a good time to take a look at the most impressive wines I've encountered in Club panel tastings this year. Turns out there are 22 of them.

As I reviewed my notes and the official panel results, it was apparent that in several cases my top-ranked wine wasn't the same as the panel's top choice in a particular tasting. Such a circumstance is to be expected in any group judging forum, since excellent wines appeal to wine tasters in many ways, and there is no absolute right answer to the question, "Which of these 12 wines is unquestionably the very best one." Much depends on an individual taster's preference for certain styles of winemaking, such as finding a bit of herbaceousness very appealing in Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux reds, or looking for grassy or bell pepper notes in Sauvignon Blancs.

So, for this "Vintner's Choice" column, I've approached the task as a wine critic, instead of a wine reporter. The listing of all the "Vintner's Choice" columns that have appeared in Sally's Place since May 1995 will give the reader immediate, hyperlink access to commentary on a broader scale.

Best Zinfandels

The Club "adopted" Zinfandel as its favorite varietal for 1997, primarily because most of the Zins from the excellent, back-to- back harvests of 1994 and 1995 were released this year, and secondarily because the panelists really love wines made from California's own special winegrape.

Consequently, there was a Zinfandel tasting every month and, overall, the wines tasted proved to be the most exciting wines as a group in the Club's schedule.

1. 1995 St. Francis Reserve Zinfandel, Pagani Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($28) -- my choice for ZINFANDEL OF THE YEAR. St. Francis Winery has had two back-to-back winners from this special vineyard, and this 1995 bottling is certainly as stunning as was its predecessor, which was the Vintners Club Zinfandel Taste-Off winner in 1997. Either wine could be THE ZIN of the year; the two are almost indistinguishable, except that the 1995 is more expensive. Wonderfully fragrant aromas of ripe, plumy, black raspberry-black cherry fruit enhanced by vanillin oak, warm spice and a hint of smoke. On the palate, the wine is silky smooth, very rich and voluptuous, and fairly bursting with concentrated, extracted anise-tinged black fruits exhibiting fine depth of flavor. Generous and complex with medium-full tannins and superb balance and flair.

2. 1995 Saddleback Cellars "Old Vines" Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($18) -- Very much like the outstanding 1994 version, but even better; an extraordinary, blockbuster Zin bursting with yummy black raspberry fruit and immense character. Distinctive, forward, smoky nose carries through to the palate, where the highly extracted, plumy fruit is enhanced by complex spicy notes of cinnamon and allspice. Mouthfilling and delicious.

3. 1995 De Loach "O.F.S." Zinfandel, Russian River Valley ($25) -- Fragrant, appealing scents of black fruits, freshly cracked black pepper and vanillin oak. Rich and viscous in the mouth with excellent acidity buoying intensely fruity berry flavors enhanced by peppery spice. Medium-full tannins are balanced by luscious, deeply extracted fruit.

Best Cabernet Sauvignons and Cab-based Blends

1. 1991 Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains ($75) -- Ridge Monte Bello would be considered a "First Growth" in the Bordeaux tradition if we organized our wines the way the French do. This was the wine that won the Club's Cabernet Sauvignon Taste-Off this year, and was the successor to the superb 1990 Monte Bello, which took top honors in an all-star Vintners Club tasting of California Meritage wines and Bordeaux First and Second Growths, including Mouton-Rothschild, Chate’u Margaux, Opus One, Lafite-Rothschild, Haut-Brion and Clos du Val Reserve. Not a bad track record. Incidentally, I had occasion in November to taste the 1993 Monte Bello at the big annual tasting put on by Family Winemakers of California, and was equally impressed with that wine, finding it very similar to the 1991 version.

The 1991 Monte Bello offers forward, quite fragrant scents of blackberries, cassis, tobacco leaf, cedar, toasty oak and vanilla. Smooth, round and supple in the mouth offering lots of concentrated black fruits accented by notes of chocolate and mild herbaceousness. An elegant and generous wine exhibiting great finesse.

2. 1994 Chate’u Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac ($39) -- 1994 was a good, but spotty vintage because harvest-time rains made it necessary for the top estates to carefully sort out rot-infected cabernet sauvignon grapes to maintain high quality. Chate’u Pichon Lalande's quality-control efforts, plus the fact that the estate's blend traditionally includes a larger-than average (35%) percentage of merlot, which was harvested before the rains came, accounts for the stunning success of this spectacular wine. Deep, dark color and a wonderfully appealing nose of black cherries, cassis, plum and vanilla, plus notes of tobacco leaf and violets. Luscious and mouthfilling, offering lots of plumy cassis fruit with excellent depth and concentration, a hint of herbaceousness and evident new oak. Superbly elegant in every way.

3. 1994 Geyser Peak Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($28) -- Forward, fragrant, appealing scents of ripe black cherry and cassis, accented by subtle notes of green olive. Rich and smooth in the mouth with medium tannins, the wine offers nicely concentrated fruit that replicates the nose and is eminently tasty. in 1997, this wine won gold medals in two major competitions, plus four silver medals from other competitions.

Best Syrahs

The Syrahs of California, the RhÙne Valley in France and Australia, where the wine is commonly referred to as Shiraz, have proved to be extremely popular with the Vintners Club panel this year, and will doubtless continue to entice in the years to come. Here are my favorites listed in order of preference.

1. 1994 Havens Syrah, Carneros ($18) -- Classic Syrah scents of leather, ripe blackberry-black cherry fruit, cedar and minerals, accented by whiffs of tobacco leaf, smoky oak, vanilla, black pepper and violets -- lots going on in the nose! On the palate, the wine is generous, with lots of ripe, almost extractive berry-cassis fruit and ripe, chewy tannins. A rich, delicious wine with fine depth of flavor, good acidity and medium tannins.

2. 1995 Foxen Syrah, Morehouse Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley ($25) -- Very forward, fragrant, spicy, chocolatey, meaty nose of blackberries, clove and toasty oak with a pleasant note of roasted coffee beans. In the mouth the wine is moderately rich with medium-full tannins, offering lots of ripe, brambly blackberry fruit with good depth and concentration, accented by a just the faintest hint of green olive herbaceousness.

3. 1994 Rosemount Estate Balmoral Syrah, McLaren Vale ($40) -- Rosemount Estate Winery of Australia is the leading seller of Shiraz in the United States, and Balmoral is the company's top wine. Drawn primarily from vines more than 100 years old, the wine exhibits an intense depth of varietal flavor (plumy black fruits) plus lots of vanilla from ageing in American oak barrels, along with complex, black pepper nuances balanced by fine acidity and ripe, medium tannins.

4. 1995 Cline Syrah, Carneros ($18) -- Exhibiting the same bright, intense fruit and smoky-tarry characteristics one finds in the best examples of Hermitage, this hillside Syrah opens with a wonderfully fragrant and appealing nose of blackberry fruit, cinnamon-clove spice, green olive and dried herbs, toasty oak and vanilla. Smooth, rich and generous in the mouth with ripe, jammy berry fruit, green olive herbaceousness and a hint of black pepper. A complex and delicious wine with ripe, medium tannins.

Best Cabernet Francs

Cabernet Franc has emerged in California as favorite blending grape for Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. On its own, it can be somewhat angular and lack a mid-palate. Occasionally, however, a winery has access to wonderful fruit and can fashion a remarkable, subtly different, red wine. Here are the two I liked best.

1. 1994 Carmenet Cabernet Franc, Sonoma Valley ($20) -- Pleasant, appealing scents of moderately toasty oak and deep berry-cassis fruit. Smooth with medium-full tannins, the wine is bursting with delicious black cherry-black raspberry fruit accented by dried herb flavors and a touch of vanillin oak. Rich, spicy and moderately complex, this is a wine to present concealed to your wine-loving guests to see what that think. I bet they'll say a fabulous, expensive Cabernet Sauvignon.

2. 1994 Jarvis Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley ($45) -- Fragrant varietal nose of cherries, violets and blueberries enhanced by a touch of leather and toasty oak. The vibrant, intensely concentrated flavors replicate the nose and are delicious. Moderately complex with medium-full tannins.

Best Chardonnays

Once again, the Chardonnays of the South-Central Coast most impressed the Club panel with their generous fruit, exquisite structure and balance and superb winemaking. Here are my favorites.

1. 1995 Byron Reserve Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County ($24) -- My candidate for CHARDONNAY OF THE YEAR. California Chardonnay doesn't get better than this. In fact, it dominated a Vintners Club blind tasting of six stellar South Central Coast Chards (Au Bon Climat Sanford & Benedict, Zaca Mesa Chapel Vineyard, Sanford Barrel Select, Talley Rosemary's Vineyard, Cambria Katherine's Vineyard) versus six excellent white Burgundies (Puligny- Montrachet premier crus from Colin-Deleger, Verget and Pernot and Chassagne-Montrachet premier crus from Amiot, Verget and Gagnard) -- all from the superb 1995 vintage, a level playing field for both wine regions. The '95 Byron Reserve went on to win the Club's Chardonnay Taste-Off a few weeks later. Fragrant, complex nose of ripe, juicy tropical fruit plus creamy citrus and pear, enhanced by toasty oak, freshly baked bread scents from batonage treatment, a hint of honey, vanilla and warm spice. Rich, creamy, luscious and smooth in the mouth with deep, concentrated flavors that replicate the nose. A superb wine in every way and a terrific bargain at $24. 3800 cases produced. A wine worth searching for.

2. 1995 Zaca Mesa Chardonnay, Chapel Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($18) -- Close on the heels of the fabulous 1995 Byron Reserve with its moderately forward, very fragrant toasty-leesy nose of tropical fruit plus creamy citrus, butterscotch and vanilla. Rich, smooth and creamy in the mouth offering a seamless texture and ripe tropical fruit-citrus flavors.

Best Sauvignon Blancs and White Blends

In addition to attending the weekly blind tastings of the Vintners Club, I continued to serve as a judge in several prestigious wine competitions in 1997, in two of which I drew Sauvignon Blanc panel assignments. This year, I must have evaluated more than 250 samples as a wine judge, plus those at the Vintners Club, which has reaffirmed my firm appreciation of the true, grassy, crisp interpretation of this varietal. When Semillon is added as a blending wine to Sauvignon Blanc the result is quite often an elegant, noble and delicious wine. Here are my favorites.

1. 1995 Robert Mondavi fumÈ Blanc, To-Kalon Vineyard "I Block," Napa Valley ($50) -- My choice as SAUVIGNON BLANC OF THE YEAR AND BEST SAUVIGNON BLANC EVER MADE IN CALIFORNIA. Very forward, intensely fragrant, varietal scents focus on citrus and tropical fruit, blatant grassy-bell pepper herbaceousness, and exotic spice. Bold, concentrated and exquisitely balanced, the flavors replicate the aromas with the addition of succulent quince and figs. Excellent acidity. Immensely delicious and unique, this is Sauvignon Blanc for the connoisseur who demands purity and distinction; not for every palate.

2. 1995 Robert Mondavi Reserve fumÈ Blanc, To-Kalon Vineyard "Unfiltered," Napa Valley ($22) -- At less than half the price of the "I Block," this Reserve fumÈ contains some of the same fruit and is more easily obtained in the market. Forward, intensely fragrant aromas of grapefruit citrus and freshly cut grass mingle with floral notes suggesting wildflowers. Broad, fruity flavors enhanced by excellent varietal grassiness; great acidity. Rich, complex and delicious. Visually appealing package in the form of a frosted, embossed bottle. Superior quality.

3. 1995 Yorkville Cellars "Eleanor of Aquitane," Yorkville, Mendocino ($16) -- One very classy wine, reminiscent of a fine white Bordeaux. The harmonious and delicious blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc yields slightly honeyed aromas of green apple, white melon, ripe fig and a touch of caramel. Rich generous flavors replicate the nose; excellent acidity. A wine as noble as its name.

4. 1996 Fetzer "Echo Ridge" fumÈ Blanc, California ($8 - BEST BUY) -- A fruity style of Sauvignon Blanc with delicious melony, ripe apple and peachy flavors tinged with subtle notes of tarragon and fresh mint and buoyed by crisp acidity.

Best "Other Whites"

1. 1996 Gunderloch Nackenheimer Rothenberg Riesling sp”lese, Rheinhessen ($24) -- 1996 was another in a long string of very successful German vintages going back to 1988, and this wine, as was its 1995 predecessor, is among the very best of the vintage. It is certainly the best sp”lese Riesling of 1996. Fragrant, appealing nose of ripe apricot fruit enhanced by burnished honeycomb. Generous and enormously impressive on the palate, with deep, concentrated flavors that replicate the nose. Complex with excellent acidity, this Riesling impresses with that singular quality referred to as "filigree," meaning a finely wrought frame that is neither heavy nor ponderous, but rather delicate and intricate.

2. 1995 Joseph Phelps Viognier "Vin du Mistral," Napa Valley ($28) -- The wine tantalizes with scents of spicy peaches, grapefruit citrus, wildflowers and a hint of grassiness. Nicely viscous as Viognier ought to be, the flavors replicate the nose and are moderately deep and concentrated. A delicious Viognier from one the pioneers of RhÙne varietals in California.

3. 1996 Dover Canyon Marrouse, Central Coast ($18) -- "Marrouse" is a contraction of marsanne and roussanne, which make up equal parts of this generously delicious blend. One of the darkest wines in color (probably due to the influence of the marsanne, which produces a deep colored wine), with a salmon hue, Marrouse offers wonderfully fragrant scents of ripe honeydew melon, grapefruit citrus, peaches and apples, which are replicated on the palate. A flavorful, complex wine with good acidity, moderate richness and viscosity and fine structure. Only about 200 cases were made, so it may be hard to find. Dover Canyon Winery in Templeton is owned and operated by Dan Panico, formerly the winemaker at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. The telephone is (805) 434-0319.

4. 1995 Cosentino Gewurztraminer, Napa Valley ($12) -- Beautiful varietal nose of lychee nuts, clove spice and citrus-peach fruit. A delicate, yet persistent, wine with moderate viscosity and good acidity, this is an excellent expression of Gewurz, whose delicious flavors replicate the nose and extend into a long finish.


Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



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