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Burg Pretenders Perform

(March 12, 2000) If you want to incite a minor riot over dinner, just suggest to a Burgundy lover that American West Coast efforts are anywhere near as good.

     But let me tell you, after tasting through some of America’s best young Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs...

     Wait. Put down that rock. I’m not going to say that most American Chards and Pinots are better than most Burgundy. Nor am I even going to claim that America’s best is better than Burgundy’s best.

     But I am convinced now that America’s tippy top tier can blow all but the very finest Burgundies off the table. In particular, watch the Sonoma Coast.

     Here’s the evidence that we tasted tonight...

     WHITES:

**+1991 Lafon Meursault-Charmes. Our benchmark from Burgundy, this wine wallops the Yanks -- for a while. It’s pungent, packed with creamy flavor, and has a penetrating acidity that the others lack. But then something unexpected happens. An hour later, the Lafon has thinned out and the others are still expanding. It retains a lovely elegance and a good finish, but on the whole, I’d have to say that it’s knocked off its perch by the following...

***+1995 Kistler Chardonnay Cuvée Cathleen. A broad, fat, powerful wine, it seems a little clumsy at first when compared to the Lafon. That’s the usual stereotype of California versus Burgundy, so I’m not awfully surprised. But guess what? This wine then proceeds to do what only Burgundy is supposed to be capable of -- gathers strength, fans out and turns wonderfully complex. Most of us at the table start to admit they prefer it to the Lafon. Tremendous performance! WHITE OF THE EVENING.

**+1995 Flowers Chardonnay "Camp Meeting Ridge." This favorite of mine is running in fast company tonight. For about the first 15 minutes, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Kistler. Same flavor profile, same power, similar alcohol. You could swap the glasses and no one would notice. However, as the minutes tick by, the Kistler slowly edges ahead and shows nuances lacking in the Flowers. Comes in second among the Californians by a head. I’d rank it about equal to the Lafon.

**1997 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay. May suffer from being a youngster in the company of more integrated and mature wines. Shows the most perfumed oak. Doesn’t seem as unctuous as the Kistler and Flowers. But it’s got quite a powerful finish, and it steadily improves as the evening wears on. So I would guess that in a year or two this wine may perform even better.

REDS:

***1995 Hubert Lignier Morey St. Denis "Les Chaffots." Like the white Lafon, this red Burgundy is inserted to remind us of the French competition. It’s a great wine. Some feel it’s the night’s best. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but this lush young blockbuster ought to please both Burgundy purists and California fruit worshippers. The dense, concentrated raspberry flavors pull you into the glass. It doesn’t seem as alcoholic as the California contenders, which will please some folks. The acidity is correct but not overwhelming. Okay, I love it, but not as much as a couple of the other wines below.

***1994 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir. One thing that pleases me about the West Coast wines tonight is how each region offers a distinctive flavor all its own. This, our lone Oregon wine, definitely stands by itself -- with its deep, no, make that bottomless pool of blackberry flavors. It’s so rich and rewarding that I have to say I prefer it even to the Lignier, although the two wines are admittedly very different, and the Lignier is a more food-friendly wine.

1995 Ponsot Morey St. Denis "Cuvee des Grives". Wine and critic (and friend) Pierre Rovani has awarded this wine a dismal 69 points. Gee Pierre, I think it deserves at least 78. But yeah, it’s a terrible flop -- especially from a producer with a great vineyard site in an outstanding year. Watery, thin, somewhat vegetal. But not totally undrinkable.

***1995 Kistler Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard. This begins a Hirsch horizontal (or maybe I should say zig-zag, since the wines are from two different years). And what a tough wine to beat! It’s so loaded with Pinot Noir berry essence, it practically stains your olfactory nerves. Some tannin on the palate, but not enough to stop the flavor. Clearly the best Hirsch here and tied for second (with the ‘94 Beaux Frères) among all the Pinots.

**+1997 Flowers Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard. This is also amazingly good, and tastes a lot like the Kistler. Yet it’s a little more tannic and (perhaps because of that) seems to have a little less stuffing.

*+1997 Siduri Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard. The most forward wine of the bunch, it would be lovely by itself but is clearly overshadowed by its competitors. Someone remarks that it’s too acidic. I don’t agree it all -- seems just the opposite. If anything, this wine is strung too loosely.

***1995 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard. Close in quality to the Kistler, this wine is clearly made in a different style. Seems less alcoholic and the fruit seems a tad less ripe. The result is that it’s closer to the Lignier in mouthfeel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic. But I rank it a point or two under the Kistler Hirsch.

*+1995 Kistler Pinot Noir "Cuvée Catherine". Here’s where I depart from the group. I hear more than one taster oohing and ahhing and naming this wine-of-the-evening. To me, the style is over the top. I think they must have waited too long to pick -- because the flavors are over-ripe, verging on pruney. No question that it’s enormous, deep and long. One taster says it reminds him of an Amarone. I agree, but is that what you want in a Pinot Noir?

***+1996 Kistler Pinot Noir Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard. Now this is an awesome Pinot Noir. Much better balanced than the Cuvee Catherine -- and seemingly in need of another few years still. Huge fruit behind some tannin and the oak is still showing a bit too much, but everything’s in proportion and all the wine needs is some time. This is my favorite Pinot Noir of the tasting. Glorious!

***1997 Flowers Pinot Noir Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard "Moon Select." Very close in quality and flavor to the Kistler. The glass overflows with raspberries. Slightly less massive in scale, and less tannic and oaky as well. I’d give this one a year or two more in the cellar too.

**Lynmar Pinot Noir "Quail Hill Reserve". Overawed by the Sonoma Coast wines, this is still a very tasty Pinot Noir, with the fruit tending more to cherries than raspberries. Once again, I’m struck by how the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Oregon wines each have a very distinct flavor profile.

     DESSERT WINES:

***+1977 Fonseca Port. To quote friend of mine, woo-woo-woo! Just when you were loving Pinot Noir, along comes a great Port and turns your head totally. This stuff is on top of its game, tannins shed, swarming with red fruits, alcohol way to the back. Tied with the next for WINE OF THE EVENING.

***+"Raspberry Diet Snapple." Actually a mystery wine that one of us decanted into a Snapple Bottle. I taste minerals, huge, grapey flavors and would guess the alcohol is about 19%. Tremendous finish on the wine, despite substantial tannins. I’m not awfully surprised when it is revealed to be 1994 Fonseca Port but am intrigued by how drinkable it is. Tied with the ‘77 for WINE OF THE EVENING.

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