AT LAST COUNT, I tasted over 1,700 wine in 1981; and that total does not include numerous barrel samples. These wines provided some splendid memories, including as they did some unique and unusual wines, along with plenty of mediocre wines and a fair share of disappointments. As I reviewed by tasting notes, several trends became apparent.
In California, the quality of chardonnays continues to be impressive. The finest chardonnays I tasted in the last year included the new releases from Sterling, Chalone, Cha teau Montelena from Napa, Robert Mondavi, Quail Ridge, St. Clement, Acacia from Napa, Raymond and Flora Springs.
While chardonnay continues to be a California white wine most demanded by wine enthusiasts, the quality of sauvignon or fum'e blanc merits interest as well. I have fond memories of Caymus, Sterling and Robert Mondavi, although I also remember vividly many wines from this variety that are overbearingly grassy and herbaceous, with no sense of style or balance.
From among the less-expensive California white varietal wines, who could ask for more than a delicate, crisp, dry-styled chenin blanc like the 1980 Dry Creek, 1980 Cassayre-Dorni or the 1980 Shown and Sons. For aficionados of slightly sweet chenin blancs, the 1980 Robert Mondavi will please the palate without offending the purse.
With regard to the big red wines of California, there has been a definite trend among winemakers to lighten up their cabernets. The result is a less tannic style of wine which can be drunk immediately. This trend is particularly evident with many of the 1977 and 1978 cabernet sauvignons that are now on the market.
Among the seemingly endless number of cabernets I tasted during the last year, the high-quality new releases from Cha teau Montelena, Heitz, Ridge, Caymus, Beaulieu, Stag's Leap and the "reserve" cabernets from Robert Mondavi are vividly recalled, though hardly at bargain prices. For value, consider the lovely bottles of 1979 cabernet from Fetzer under the Lake and Mendocino County appellations and the surprisingly good 1978 Beaulieu Beautour. Some auspicious newcomers to the Washington, D.C., market included the stunning new cabernet and merlot from Duckhorn, the tannic, age-worthy cabernet from William Hill and the supple, savory, moderately priced cabernet from Pine Ridge.
While California seems to get all the publicity today, Italy controls the bulk of the imported wine market. Though much of this wine is the ubiquitous lambrusco, Italy has been increasingly represented in Washington, D.C., by some of that country's finest wines. Much of this credit has to go to Sidney Moore of Mayflower Wines and Spirits, and Tom Hanna of A & A Liquors. Both shops feature splendid Italian wines which certainly deserve a great deal more attention from wine consumers.
Italy's biggest and most robust wines are its barolos from Piedmont. These wines are not for the fainthearted. They are big, intense, rich, tannic wines that coat the palate with a multitude of flavors. My finest barolo memories of 1981 are a result of a vertical tasting of barolos from a small, high quality grower/producer by the name of Giacomo Conterno. His wines are not cheap -- $20 or more is not an unusual price to pay for a Conterno barolo -- but his specific barolos from the Monfortino vineyard are simply extraordinary. If you enjoy the style of barolo wine, you must try the 1971, 1970, 1969, 1967 and 1964 Monfortino barolos, which are only available at A & A.
Barolo was not the only Italian wine to get high marks from me over the last year. There are numerous fine chiantis on the market. Some of the best chiantis tasted over the last year included the finely crafted wines from the Tuscan estates of Monsanto, Fonterutoli, Badia a Coltibuono, Monte Vertine, and Capannelle. Unlike barolos, chiantis are much more approachable in their youth. Examples of these fine wines can be found at Mayflower and A & A.
French wine sales have been increasing during the last year, as most French wine prices have dropped. My finest vinous memory of the French kind in 1981 had its origins last winter when I attended a three-day tasting of wines from Cha teau Latour in Bordeaux. After having tasted Latours from the period 1921 to 1976, I remain to this day convinced that the closest one could come to perfection in wine is either the 1959 or 1961 Latour.
I confess to being a bordeaux fanatic; thus, I am probably over-critical when these wines do not meet my expectations. However, after tasting through most of the 1978 bordeaux, I am firmly convinced that there are so many potential superstars that purchasers of these wines will be dancing in their cellars circa 1988. French burgundies continue to perplex me with their shockingly high prices and frequently sloppy quality. However, numerous estates do make great wine, which can be had if you are willing to put a second mortgage on your house. My wine notebooks are sprinkled with some great tasting notes of wines from producers such as Ponsot in Morey St. Denis, Rosseau and Pernot-Fourier in Gevrey-Chambertin, Roulot in Meursault, Mongeard-Mugneret in Vosne-Romane'e and Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet.
Lastly, I can't forget my biggest surprises of the last year. My nominations for sleepers of the year include the remarkably concentrated, well-made cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from Taltarni Vineyards in Australia, the locally produced chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from Frederick County's Byrd Vineyards, and a surprisingly intense cabernet sauvignon from Allegro Vineyards in York County, Pa. Stand by for 1982!