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Of fires and whites

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After a long, cool Spring marked by record frosts, Summer has arrived in California with a vengeance. Now they’re saying there’s more than 1,000 fires raging across the state. A few days ago, it was “only” 800. The weather has cooled off, but it’s supposed to heat up again, and the weatherman said there’s a strong possibility of more lightning this weekend. Lightning is what caused most of the existing fires.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the heat’s on and it’s T-shirt time: backyard barbecues, picnics and the beach. Which means white wines. I find it harder to appreciate a red wine, even a very good one, when it’s hot. The body craves wines that are lighter, crisper and cleaner — and colder.

Fortunately California abounds with great whites (sharks as well as wines), and many are usually cheaper than reds (not always). Here are some of the best summer sippers I’ve tasted recently.

Ehren Jordan made a fantastic 2006 Chardonnay ($42) from his Failla estate vineyard. It’s way up and way out in the wild, remote Sonoma Coast mountains, and you can taste a tang of the sea in it.

An equally stunning, but different, 2006 Chardonnay was crafted by John Falcone at Rusack ($32). It’s from the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, a sometimes overlooked source of great Chard and Pinot Noir. (Santa Maria is where the Bien Nacido Vineyard is.)

Up in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino, Ted Bennett made the best Muscat Blanc I’ve ever had, the 2006 Navarro ($19). It performs the magical act of tasting honey-sweet but finishing bone dry. Too bad more white wines aren’t this good, and this affordable.

Signorello’s 2006 Seta ($25) is a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It has the weight and density of a fine Chardonnay, but the flavor profile is rich in citrus fruits and melons. I’ve always wondered why there aren’t more of these white Bordeaux- or Graves-style blends made in California.

For pure Sauvignon Blanc, you can’t beat Matanzas Creek’s 2006 ($24). It was partially barrel-fermented, which adds some creamy, yeasty notes, but it’s the acidity and grassy, lemony taste that really stars. The addition of a little of the Musqué clone adds complexity.

Made along similar lines is Chateau St. Jean’s rich, savory 2006 La Petite Etoile Fumé Blanc. This variety is the same as Sauvignon Blanc; the late, great Robert Mondavi dubbed it Fumé Blanc back in the Sixties. When people call a Sauvignon Blanc Fumé Blanc, it usually means the wine was barrel fermented.

Then there’s Handley’s 2006 Gewurztraminer ($18). Anderson Valley is making a name for itself with Alsatian varieties, and Milla Handley shows a deft touch with this spicy, just off-dry wine. Perfect with veggies with guacamole or cold cuts, especially ham.

Twisted Oak is a bunch of guys up in the rugged Sierra Foothills of Calaveras County. They made a wine whose name is unpronounceable and I won’t even try. It’s their 2006 %@#$! ($24) and it’s a Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Rolle and Viognier. A truly interesting and different kind of white wine.

Finally, there’s Casa Nuestra’s 2007 Home Vineyard Old Vines Dry Chenin Blanc ($24). I am decidedly not a Chenin Blanc fan, but Casa Nuestra makes a dependably dry, appley one from their vineyard in St. Helena. There’s no legal definition of “old vines” although there should be (but who wants more government intervention in the wine biz?). In this case, the vineyard dates to the 1960s.

Enjoy your weekend, and if you’re in a fire zone, be safe.

  1. “Fortunately California abounds with great whites…” Wow, when I think of places that make great white wines, California never pops into my head. Yes there are some, but, in general? Not at all, to me. Too warm here. Great whites come from Friuli/Brda, Alto Adige, Germany, Austria, Alsace, The Loire, Burgundy and Jura.

    “When people call a Sauvignon Blanc Fumé Blanc, it usually means the wine was barrel fermented.” … some of us think of this as simply ruining and dumbing-down the wine. Whenever there’s more than a hint of oak in sauvignon blanc, esp. in California and NZ, you can’t help but think the winery is trying to make it chardonnay-like. The great sauvignon blancs of the world are not oaky.

  2. Learned all about what to buy to get a good Chardonnay (my favorite).l You’re a good writer; a good communicator and a great cousin!

  3. Natalie Guinovart says:

    Jack said, “The great sauvignon blancs of the world are not oaky.”
    Clearly Jack is unfamiliar with great white Bordeaux and Loire Sauv Blanc! You should give ‘em a try, Jack!

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    Irrespective of variety, the mention of a Navarro white wine on a hot day makes my parched mouth water. When looking for summertime Calif. whites I always seem to end up closer to the sea and usually in the Anderson Valley. But more often, with pocketbook in mind, I look overseas. My first stop is Santorini for Assyrtiko. I can taste the fresh salt air. And then on to Peloponnese for Moschofilero or Malogousia. I think the Greeks know Summer and have begun to make their whites accordingly. Hard to find, but to die for, is dry rose from Moschofilero.

    Jack, I know what you are saying about oak in California S.B., but don’t forget Haut Brion Blanc, Domaine de Chevalier, Carbonneiux, Laville Haut Brion and others. It may be that the best S.B.s are still made with a significant oak component. It’s just there is only one Graves.

  5. richard says:

    I often recommend your reviews to my friends in the trade as a counterweight to Laube’s heavy-handed pallet. That said, you don’t like Chenin? Have you never had Savennierres such as d’Epire or Baumard, or the Vouvray’s of Bourillon or Domaine du Viking? Maybe you have, and it’s not your thing.

    Also, you wonder why California doesn’t produce more wines like Seta. Have you ever talked to a retailer about how hard it is to sell wines such as this at that price point? In whatever accounts Seta has been placed in the past, I can assure you it’s now a dusty back-vintage.

  6. Richard, I do like French Chenin Blanc, but I don’t get to drink it very often. And I understand the difficulty of selling wines like Seta, which is why more wineries don’t make them. I’ve heard people say, “If I want a full-bodied, oaky white wine from California, I’ll drink Chardonnay.” I guess that’s why more people don’t make those types of wines.

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