Oak and alcohol are the most important issues in the California wine industry today. Too much oak. Too much alcohol.
Too much toasty oak masks fruit and blurs individuality in both white and red wines. Too much alcohol can make red wines taste so overripe, you can't tell the difference between a cabernet sauvignon, a merlot and a zinfandel; excessive alcohol can also make wine difficult to match with food.
In a country where drinking wine with meals is not the natural occurrence it is in Europe, people constantly come to wine as something new in their lives. It's a shame that too often their experience will be marred by excessively oaky and alcoholic wines that give a false impression of what a type of wine should be like, even accounting for matters of style and differences among vineyards, climates and other factors.
It's especially disheartening to see the big oak-big alcohol phenomenon show up in products that in the past were more balanced and sensibly proportioned. This tendency indicates pushing oak and alcohol to their limits is a fashion, even a fad, and that California winemakers are willing to follow trends at the expense of the integrity of their wines.
What's truly sad is that red wines from Europe, particularly Bordeaux and Tuscany, are beginning to show up in this so-called "international style" - meaning the wines adhere to no regional characteristics. Even the former upholders of tradition are not, it seems, immune to the vagaries of faddishness in their attempts to make even expensive wines homogenous and indistinctive.
The following producers in the Napa Valley are immune, however, and the following group of wines focuses on balance between structure and power, represented by oak and tannin, and elegance, represented by suave fruit and often gorgeous textures. The order is almost by ascending price - and they do ascend here, sorry. Rollicking, toasty oak and gushing alcohol or not, California wines are getting more expensive.
Modeled perhaps on the wines of the Bordeaux commune of St. Julien, the Newlan Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Napa Valley, displays classic touches of cedar, coffee and tobacco, black olive and dried thyme over tightly held currant and black cherry fruit; dusty, tannic and oaky, the wine, while thoughtfully conceived, could convey more personality and dimension. Try again in three to six years. Very good. About $25.
Two merlots from Markham:
- The very attractive Markham Merlot 1999, Napa Valley, is rich and warm, solid yet generous; intense scents and flavors of cassis and black cherry swarm with cedar and lead pencil, smoke and violets, brambles and minerals, all capped with a touch of dried thyme. These nestle in a structure of polished oak and tannin; it could age three or four years. Excellent. About $21.
- Cut from the same mold as its younger cousin, the Markham Reserve Merlot 1998, Napa Valley, intensifies the mineral and oak elements but not at the expense of luscious, ripe black fruit flavors; it offers tremendous substance, and it fleshes out nicely in the glass but austerity creeps in behind the fruit, and it becomes a bit unyielding. Give it three to six years. Excellent. About $36.
Two from Sterling Vineyards:
- Rousing oak and tannin characterize the Sterling Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Napa Valley, produced from grapes grown at elevations of 1,500 to 1,700 feet. Still, the wine is rich and luscious once it pulls up intense cassis and black cherry flavors and hints of cedar, mocha and spice. Blended with 9 percent merlot. Four to six years. Excellent. About $40.
- With 12 percent cabernet sauvignon and 9 percent petit verdot, the Sterling Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 1999, Napa Valley, hangs velvety succulence over structure that hints at sternness. Fresh and bright with black cherry, raspberry and currant fruit, seductive with violets, minerals and touches of mint, spice, vanilla and new leather, this wine is delightful to drink now but could age three or four years. Excellent. About $55.
And a few pricey others:
- Open, broad and generous, the Ilona 1999, Howell Mountain, from a vineyard at 1,800-feet elevation, bursts with notes of cedar and cigar box, lavender and violets and new leather; it is, however, very dry and permeated with polished grainy tannins that give marked austerity to the finish. This first-release wine is primarily merlot with dollops of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. It needs four to six years. Very good now, could be excellent. About $70.
- The Richard Partridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Napa Valley, is characterized by seductive heft and gravity. It's a beautifully cushiony mouthful of wine, blossoming with black currant and black cherry scents and flavors and back tones of lavender and bittersweet chocolate; it begins to pick up clean, earthy bark and moss, mushrooms and underbrush on the finish, though these elements only add to the wine's character. It really needs four to six years. Excellent. 581 cases. About $75.
- The Livingston Moffett Gemstone Vineyard Red Wine 1999, Napa Valley, is a dark, pliant, minerally thing of huge presence and momentum, incredibly smooth and flowing. Broad and generous, full-bodied and complete, ample with fine detail; the balance here among sweet oak and tannin, a powerful mineral element, taut acid and succulent black fruit flavors is wonderful. The blend is 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent each merlot and petit verdot. Exceptional. About $80.
- Robert Mondavi Winery turned out a spectacular Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 that feels as if it dredged up all the character of the famous valley itself through the vines. It's tremendously huge, but completely integrated and balanced around generous currant, cherry and raspberry flavors resting on layers of polished, shapely minerals and tannin. Loads of character and personality, but it needs five to eight years. The blend includes 10 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent each merlot and petit verdot and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $125.
Picks of the week
Now. Mark as "delightful" each of these great, buoyant summer wines from a reliable producer in Sonoma County. The fresh and appealing Chateau St. Jean Johannisberg Riesling 2001 offers melon and peach scents and flavors, a lovely silken texture, an off-dry entry but a dry finish and a crisp, lively character that revolves, somehow, around an almost languid center. Classic scents of rose petal, lime and lychee (and a touch of petrol) emanate from the Chateau St. Jean Gewurztraminer 2001, a crisp, spicy and lively wine whose touch of bitterness on the grapefruit finish is both bracing and thirst-quenching. Each about $15.
Later. Well-modulated oak doesn't keep the Merryvale Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Napa Valley, from opening with some barky brusqueness. Swarming up, however, from the polished grainy tannins and underbrushy oak come lovely scents of macerated currants and black cherries, lavender and smoke and intense, plummy cassis and plum flavors. Primarily centered on structure now, it promises great potential in four to seven years. About $39.
Spirit. Grappa is made from the garbage of wine. What's left after fermentation is a debris of grape skins, stems, seeds and pulp, dead yeast cells and traces of alcohol; it's called pomace. In the time-honored "waste-not, want-not" culture of rural societies, this detritus is distilled into a rough-and-ready brandy called grappa in Italy and marc in France.
Increasingly, however, grappa is being made in more refined and elegant fashion, if such a thing is possible, and marketed in delicate, artistic bottles at high prices. Is it the grappa of old, the kind that tears your heart out and gives Italian workers, who start their day with espresso and a shot of grappa, a jump-start? Investigate the possibility with Castello di Barbaresco Grappa Darmagi, made from cabernet pomace for the Gaja company. Think of something profoundly earthy and minerally; something as dusty and "grainy" as freshly harvested wheat; something as lively and oddly appealing as bitter herbs or the stalks of rosemary without the leaves; something resinous; something that goes down like fire.
There you have it. If that sounds attractive - and it is, sort of - the price is about $37.50 for a half-bottle.