The Wine Cellar: Great dry wines of the world
by Rene Corton
The dry white wines I tasted this past summer were unusually stimulating. My wine buddies pulled the best from their cellars and we had a wonderful go at it with three tastings in June, July, and August.
Of course, nearly all the wines were rated 90 or above by Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate. As with dry whites in general, most were chardonnay-based wines, but the other varietals elicited the most excitement and controversy. Overall, the world's greatest dry whites were well represented.
The 1990 Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive by Zind Humbrecht from the Heimbourg Vineyard was the outstanding wine at the first tasting. This deep gold-colored wine was viscous in the glass with a huge intense floral nose which had only a hint of the lychee nut smell typical of Gewurztraminer. The finish or aftertaste lasted several minutes. Mr. Parker rated this 95, as did I. The tasting group uniformly agreed. This was also the only off-dry wine in the group.
Vendange tardive wines from Alsace are harvested late with very high sugar levels and, even though completely fermented, have significant residual sugar with a distinctly sweet taste. They are not sweet enough for desserts, but make excellent aperitif wines alone or accompanied by rich foods such as foie gras.
Two other wines from Alsace scored well. The 1994 Riesling Brand from Zind Humbrecht (92) and the 1991 Gewurztraminer Mambourg from Sparr (92) were both lovely. The Riesling was quite spicy in taste and smell, and I guessed it was Gewurztraminer and loved its richness and substance. The latter wine was classic Gewurztraminer with a spicy lychee nut character and no mid or finishing bitterness common in this varietal.
The Heimbourg, Brand, and Mambourg are all classified as grand cru vineyards and cost $25-$50 per bottle. Expensive, yes, but not excessive for truly world-class wines which can age and improve for five to 15 years.
Next were four California chardonnays (rated 90-92 by Mr. Parker), representing four quite distinct styles and locations.
The 1994 Chardonnay Private Reserve from Beringer (91) was classic rich buttery Napa Valley with well-integrated French oak. This is the style recognized by most tasters as California chardonnay: wonderful when young and generally best drunk before five years of age, after which they tend to lose their lush fruit character.
The 1990 Chardonnay Napa Valley from Montelena (90) is made in a quite different style with part or all of the malolactic fermentation blocked resulting in a wine which is initially more austere and acidic. These wines age more gracefully and are best between five and 10 years of age, when they develop a rich complex taste with a less pronounced oak tone.
The 1992 Sanford Barrel Select Chardonnay (90) from Santa Barbara and the 1988 Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay (91) from the Santa Cruz mountains demonstrate two additional styles. While both generally undergo complete malolactic fermentation, the grapes have higher acid at harvest and the resultant wines have both lush fruit and good balancing acidity.
Mt. Eden wines in particular seem to age very well, and I noted deep yellow color with good viscosity and a rich mature smell and taste with much substance and a solid acid backbone. This style is very similar to French burgundy and half of the tasters guessed it was. The Santa Barbara chardonnays have lush tropical fruit often with a touch of lime and this wine had prominent oakiness with big fruit to match.
The last wine in the first tasting, from one of my favorite winemakers, was rated 91 by Parker upon release. I'm sure I agreed when I put away a case in the cellar.
But the 1990 Woodward Canyon Chardonnay from Walla Walla is now past its prime, with a fully gold color, prominent and very pretty French oak nose but very little fruit left. My 85 score may have been for sentimental reasons, as I was certain that I recognized the wine.
Washington chardonnays tend to have low acid levels and are easily over-oaked, resulting in wines which age poorly due to loss of fruit. Although I think the fruit-to-oak balance is better in the past several years, they are delicious young and I drink them early.
In my next column, I'll cover the dry whites of Puligny-Montrachet, the world's greatest and most expensive wines.