Choosing a great chardonnay just got easier. Whether you opt for nothing but the best or plan to set your limit at $10 or less, recent releases from the outstanding 1985 California vintage now arriving at area shops are offering the opportunity for exceptional wine drinking pleasure.
The best '85s are unusually well structured, intensely flavored and remarkably age-worthy, given the Golden State's penchant for producing ready-to-drink wines. Most of the top wines are higher-priced reserve bottlings, which are select lots held back at the winery for additional aging. In '85, many have the potential for two or more years of additional improvement in the bottle if properly stored.
Just as remarkable, given the price, are the many excellent under-$10 offerings. In blind tastings against the pricier chardonnays, several proved they could compete in quality with the best '85 reserves. Others excelled simply by being fine wines for the money.
Though the Golden State's mastery of chardonnay is such that one is hard pressed to point to any recent vintage that would not be rated at least very good, 1985 stakes a strong claim as the best of the decade. If the much acclaimed '84s stood out because of their opulent, forward fruit and the '81s for their richness, the '85s stand out even more by virtue of their aggressive brilliance.
If there is any complaint about the vintage at all it is that some of the reserve wines clearly have been released too soon. Though all can be drunk with pleasure now, their sheer power and tight structure -- the result of a long, cool, almost burgundian growing season -- beg for additional time in the cellar to fully realize their potential. (Cellaring recommendations, where appropriate, are included with the tasting notes.)
The Top Chardonnays The following 1985 chardonnays are listed in order of quality, without regard to prices, which are approximate. Wines were tasted blind. Note that this is an elite group, screened for the tasting based on favorable reviews, personal recommendations, and experience with the winery. Even wines near the bottom offer very good quality. Note also that some of the best is yet to come, as many top '85s, for example those from Long and Cronin, are yet to be released. Your retailer can order a wine from the wholesaler listed in parenthesis, except for those that are exclusives at the shop indicated:
Matanzas Creek "Sonoma County" ($15): Top-flight, perfumed, appley bouquet. Very concentrated, exuberent fresh fruit flavors lightly seasoned with vanilla oak. Superb effort that will improve for a year or more, but delightful now. (Exclusive at MacArthur Liquor Shop)
La Crema Reserve (California; $17): Captivating spicy, powerful new oak bouquet. On the palate, marvelously full fruit flavors overlayed with very toasty oak and buttery notes. Knockout French-style chardonnay that is ready to drink now. (International Wine Exchange, Bethesda)
Burgess Cellars "Vintage Reserve" (Napa; $10-$11): Recalls a good Mersault. Intriguing earthy, burgundian nose. Much toasty oak and complex fruit on the palate. Just beginning to open. Even better in 6-12 months. (Vintage)
Beaulieu "Los Carneros Reserve" (Napa; $11-$12): Finally realizing the potential of its superb Carneros vineyards, Beaulieu has given us this marvelously complex, refined chardonnay loaded with soft fruit, and with a long finish. A charmer. (Beitzell)
Pine Ridge "Knollside Cuve'e " (Napa; $13-$14): Exceedingly well made, distinctive smoky bouquet and intriguing gingery notes on the palate. Excellent for current drinking. (DOPS/Quality Beverage)
Beringer "Napa Valley" ($9-$10, See below).
William Hill "Reserve" (Napa; $13-$18; September release): Refined, complex, understated style of chardonnay with the balance to age well. Tasted previously in Napa, the fruit was up much more, suggesting slight travel-sickness at this tasting. One or more years cellaring suggested. (Washington Wholesale)
Meridian "Charles Ortman" (Napa; $13-$14): Impressive debut for this new winery; ripe, distinctive, cinnamon and spice bouquet. Full, but austere flavors, faintly resiny, with a touch of toasty oak. Very intriguing wine. (DOPS/Quality Beverage)
Kalin Cellars "Cuve'e LV" (Sonoma; $18): Attractive, yeasty, citrus nose. Tangy style on the palate, long finish. Just beginning to open up and show its stuff. (Exclusive at MacArthur Liquor Shop.)
Raymond "Napa Valley" ($12): Effusive vanilla and citrus bouquet, rich, buttery style. Impressive effort that harkens back to full-bodied style of the not-too-distant past. (Forman)
Clos Du Bois Proprietor's Reserve (Alexander Valley; $25-$30): Still tight, fine ripe style with well integrated fruit and vanilla oak. Good, but pricey, given the alternatives. (Kronheim)
Hanna (Sonoma; $15): Pleasing vanilla and apple notes in bouquet. Copious, forward, slightly simple fruit jumps out on the palate; light oak notes. (DOPS/Quality Beverage)
Hacienda "Clair de Lune" ($10; See below).
Saintsbury "Carneros" ($12-$13): Restrained, medium body on palate, earthy burgundian nose; skillful integration of fruit and oak flavors; French in style, confirms Saintsbury's reputation as a versatile match with most foods. (DOPS/Quality Beverage)
Mark West Reserve "Le Beau Vineyards" (Russian River; $14): Impressive, full, herbal, buttery flavors. A rich, big style wine that would work particularly well with cream sauces.
Monticello "Corley Reserve" (Napa; $13-$14): Still tight, but plenty of pure, complex fruit behind the structure. Well- made. (International)
Mazzocco Vineyards (Sonoma; $10-$12): Earthy, pungent, extroverted style; heavy toasted oak; well constituted and full of flavor. (Vintage)
De Loach "Russian River" ($13): Pineapple, citrus nose. Very full, almost thick flavors. Strong finish. Good, but atypical style for the vintage. (Washington Wholesale)
Sanford "Santa Barbara County" ($15): Very ripe, butterscotch nose, full rich style on palate. Fully mature. (Forman)
Fetzer Barrel Select ($8-$9, see below).
Kendall-Jackson Proprietor's Reserve (California; $15): Nice touch of oak, appley fruit, slightly low acidity, good but the less pricey Vintner's Reserve ($9-$10) seems just as tasty and offers better value.
Top $10-or-Under Chardonnays A delightful surprise was the strong showing of the under-$10 wines when tasted blind against the top reserves. The Beringer Napa Valley finished near the top, Hacienda and Fetzer earned inclusion in the top group (note placements, above), and the other listed wines also acquitted themselves well. And please don't overlook the third-place Burgess, above, which is just a trifle over $10:
Beringer "Napa Valley" ($9-$10): Tasted against the finest chardonnays, this 40-percent barrel fermented wine didn't betray its modest price in the least. Spicy, yeasty bouquet. Well structured, savory fruit and lively acidity. Long finish. Definite short-term aging potential. (Forman)
Hacienda "Clair de Lune" (Sonoma; $10): Sweet oak, floral bouquet, complex mineral, lemony, spicy flavors in a subtle, lighter style; crisp finish. Fine wine, fine value. (International)
Fetzer Barrel Select (California; $8-$9): A full-flavored, toasty, oaky, style of chardonnay from one of California's most reliable mid-price wineries. (Kronheim)
Callaway "Calla-Lees" (Temecula; $9-$10): Yeasty bouquet, cleanly made, crisp, lively style, distinctive in that it sees no oak aging, but is left for an extended period on the lees after fermentation. Candidate for short-term cellaring. (Forman)
Piedmont Vineyards (Virginia; $8): Thrown in as ringer in the blind tasting, held its own in some fine company. Aromatic, with good, tart acidity and excellent varietal flavor, will shock those who dismiss Virginia wines as mere curiosities.
St. Francis (Sonoma; $9.50): Exotic, very ripe fruit, butterscotch notes; loose-knit structure, good for near-term drinking. (International)
Wente "Arroyo Seco" Reserve (Livermore; $10): Rich, herbal bouquet and full, soft, buttery flavors. Solid value. (Forman)
Concannon "Selected Vineyards" (Santa Clara and Santa Maria $9): Interesting caramel and buttery aromas and flavors, but a bit tart in the finish. By the way, if you see a bottle of this winery's superb, powerful '84 or '85 sauvignon blancs ($9), grab it. (Forman).
And, the Rest The following wines were also tasted. All offered less value than the wines above, but most would qualify as respectable offerings in their price category. Listed alphabetically:
Alexander Valley Vineyards ($11); Bonny Doon "La Reina" ($12-$14); Caymus "Napa Valley" ($14); Charles F. Shaw "Napa Valley" (off bottle, not rated; $13); Cha~teau St. Jean "Sonoma County"; Clos du Bois "Flintwood" ($24); Cuvaison "Napa Valley" ($12); Edna Valley ($15); Felton Empire "Talmage County" ($13); Gundlach-Bundschu ($9); Karly $(11); Lambert Bridge "Sonoma County" ($11); Robert Mondavi Reserve (corked sample, not rated; $22); Monticello "Jefferson Ranch" ($9); Rombauer "Napa Valley" ($12); Shafer "Napa Valley" ($12); Silverado Vineyards ($12); Stag's Leap Wine Cellars ($18).