Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Best Wines of 2000
The first year of the new millennium (or the last year of the old, as some might insist) was a grand year for wine enthusiasts. In all my years as a wine writer-- going back to the late 1980s -- I've never encountered such a vast number oftruly superb new releases in the space of one year. Most of these wereCalifornia wines.
Not only were there hundreds of such wines in 2000, but also quantity wasfinally up after a three-year string of slim harvests -- 1994, '95 and '96 --that tantalized consumers with the prospect of acquiring highly touted Cabs,Pinots, Zins and Chardonnays, only to dash those hopes in the cold light oftight supply.
This was the bounty of the 1997 harvest, which was certainly the best of the decade both in terms of outstanding quality and prodigious quantity,
particularly for North Coast reds. The Napa Valley harvest, for example, was 144,000 tons compared to the 10-year average for the region of 121,000 tons.
Beringer's winemaster, Ed Sbraiga, a Napa Valley veteran of more than 20 years, characterizes vintage 1997 as simply stellar. "From the 1990s, I consider this vintage equaled only by the great 1991 vintage -- virtually every wine I've tasted from 1997 has been remarkable."
Tim Mondavi, managing director and winegrower at Robert Mondavi Winery concurs: "It's a great year," he asserts. "I liken it in some ways to the 1974 vintage in terms of crop size, power of tannins and richness of flavor."
Late & Light 1998 Harvest
The vintage that followed, however, was not so rosy, especially for its red
wines, which began to join the 97s on the shelves in 2000. Consumers should approach vintage 1998 wines with caution.
In Napa Valley, as throughout California, 1998 was an unusual year for weather thanks to the phenomenon known as El Nino. The growing season was punctuated with extremes -- twice the normal rainfall, 18 days of frost, cold weather at bloom and record heat spells. Fortunately, the weather turned glorious as harvest approached, which allowed the grapes to ripen quite fully, at lower sugar levels in some cases, than in 1997.
Overall, the 1998 harvest, one of the latest and smallest of the decade,
provided vibrant, fresh wines -- particularly Pinot Noir -- if not as powerful as the year before. Cabs and Zins are a mixed lot, with many coming across as lacking depth and concentration, although it bears observing that 1998 was a better vintage for Zinfandel in Mendocino than was 1997. Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays fared better than most reds, but were not as rich and opulent as those of 1997, exhibiting bright, crisp acidity and a certain leanness. And, unlike years past, there wasn't much regional variation, with 1998 South-Central Coast Chards no more successful in an "off year" than North Coast Chards.
Vintage 1999 -- a La Nina year -- was represented in the 2000 market primarily by white wines. By most measures, the last harvest of the decade was one of the decade's most successful in terms of quality, although quantity was down a bit of normal in some regions, and just normal in others. If I had to choose a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay from 1998 or 1999, the latter would generally be preferable for richness and better acid balance. In fact, 1999 Sauvignon Blancs across the board are the best I've seen since those from 1991. The reds and other white varietals should follow suit.
Here, then, listed in each category in order of personal preference, are my top picks for 2000, culled from hundreds of tasting notes I've assembled throughout the year from regular Vintners Club panel tastings, wine competition judgings, winery visits and trade and media events grand and small. Of the hundreds of wine samples I received in the course of the year, many went into the Vintners Club program and tastings of other wine appreciation groups, while others were evaluated against each other and then with food at the dinner table.
For those looking for bargain wines, I've designated a "Best Value" in each
BEST CABERNET SAUVIGNONS
1) 1997 Beaulieu Vineyard, Georges de Latour Private Reserve, Napa Valley -- $100: Fragrant, deep, intense nose of blackfruits, vanilla, cedar and a mixture of brown spices (clove, ginger and allspice) that could well be the famous "Rutherford dust." Quite rich and succulent, with ripe, medium tannins, this extraordinary wine offers layers of cassis, plum, black cherry, mineral, anise and spice wrapped within a plush, smooth texture. Great focus and structure. An amazing feat of winemaking given the quantity produced. (17,000 cases)
2) 1997 Etude, Napa Valley -- $70: An even more outstanding study in opulent texture than the superb 1996 version, the 1997 Etude offers fragrant, appealing aromas of creamy oak, mocha, white chocolate and ripe berry-cassis fruit that are replicated with a dash of allspice on the palate, where the flavors are deep and superbly concentrated, lingering into the extended, mocha-tinged, black cherry finish. Plush, round and layered, with ripe, supple tannins, the wine impresses more with elegance and finesse than power, and is a joy to drink now. Cellaring for three to five years will certainly bring out even more depth and complexity. (2,000 cases)
3) 1996 Shafer, Hillside Select, Stags Leap District -- $125: Appealing, wonderfully aromatic nose of ripe cassis, dried lavender, leather, sweet oak and a note of mineral. Powerful and concentrated on the palate, with rich, complex flavors that replicate the nose, enhanced by spice and a hint of chocolate, the wine exhibits Shafer's characteristic plush texture and the signature velvety tannins of the Stags Leap District. Full-bodied and superbly concentrated with balance and finesse, this is a hillside classic of purity and power. (2,400 cases)
4) 1997 Far Niente, Napa Valley -- $100: Deeply aromatic nose of dried sage, berries and cassis, and new French oak. Smooth and very rich with medium tannins, the full-bodied wine is immensely flavorful, offering ripe, concentrated cassis fruit, dried herbs and mocha. Great length. (14,000 cases)
5) 1997 Dalla Valle, Napa Valley -- $80: Forward scents of bright, berry-cassis fruit, dried savory, anise, cedar and a mineral note. On the palate, the wine is both lush and powerful, delivering lots of black cherry-cassis fruit tinged with blueberry. Focused and exquisitely balanced with medium-full tannins, this exciting hillside Cab finishes with an intriguing impression of black current liqueur and warm spice. (2,400 cases)
BEST VALUE CAB
1997 Guenoc, North Coast -- $17: Enticing fragrance of currants,
dark chocolate and a hint of cumin. Luscious and mouthfilling, with deep,
delicious flavors of blackberries and chocolate; easy, medium tannins. (14,382 cases)
BEST PROPRIETARY BLENDS
1) 1997 Joseph Phelps, Insignia, Napa Valley -- $120: Forward, intense nose of cassis, wonderful fruitcake-like spice from the Petit Verdot, vanilla and sweet oak. Full-bodied and concentrated with medium-full tannins, the wine's palate is enormous and very rich, yet superbly balanced, with deep, lingering, slightly cedary flavors of rich, ripe cassis and black cherry fruit and an intriguing hint of red meat. Harmonious now and sure to gain complexity over the next 5 to 10 years. (18,000 cases)
2) 1996 Harlan, Estate, Napa Valley -- $175: Cedar and deep, ripe,
blackberry-cassis define the fragrant nose, which is embellished by notes of smoky oak, dried lavender, leather and a floral component of white flowers or heather. Full-bodied with substantial, ripe, supple tannins, the Harlan impresses with its great depth and layers of black fruits intertwined with lavender and brown spice, and its rich, smooth texture, finishing with a vanilla custard flourish. Awesome. (1,325 cases)
3) 1997 Opus One, Napa Valley -- $140: Even more impressive than the fabulous 1996 Opus, offering wonderfully fragrant aromas of licorice, vanilla, toasty oak, clove and ripe blackberry-cassis. The vanilla is quite evident on the palate now, with blackberry-cassis extract and brown spice swirling below. Silky smooth and seamless on the palate with flavor-enhancing acidity, medium-full, supple tannins and a firm, tight structure. (27,000 cases)
4) 1997 Chateau St. Jean, Cinq Cepages, Sonoma County -- $50: In a complete vertical of Cinq Cepages from the first in 1990, the 1997 version compared favorably with the stunning 1994 bottling for its depth and richness. Somewhat restrained nose of chocolate and berry-cassis fruit with a hint of leather. Concentrated and extracted on the palate, with ripe, luscious black fruits and an evident note of chocolate that persisted into the long finish, as well as a subtle element of dried herbs, which should expand as the wine ages -- a characteristic shared by all these wines. (13,000 cases)
5) 1997 Robert Craig, Affinity, Napa Valley -- $44: Very fragrant, appealing, leather-tinged bouquet of blackberry, cassis and dark cherry fruit, vanilla and hints of dried sage and cedar. Rich, luscious, silky and supple on the palate with concentrated, layered flavors that match the nose, plus some mocha and a long, vanilla-tinged flourish at the end. Superb in every respect. (2,400 cases)
BEST VALUE BLEND
1998 Preston of Dry Creek, Faux, Dry Creek Valley -- $12:
Aromatically enticing with fruity scents reminiscent of ripe raspberries, black cherries and strawberries accented by white pepper, roasted spices and a note of smoked meat. Smooth, round and luscious in the mouth with flavors that replicate the nose, this is not a powerhouse even with 31 percent estate Mourvedre in the blend, but rather a supple, complex, proprietary Rhone blend in the style of Chateauneuf du Pape. (3,000 cases)
1) 1997 Duckhorn, Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley -- $60: Complex, deeply fragrant nose of black cherries, anise, tobacco leaf, white pepper and a leathery note. Rich and expressive on the palate, medium-full bodied, with juicy black cherry and blackberry fruit enhanced by mocha and dried lavender. Duckhorn knows this renowned vineyard's secrets and exploits that knowledge fully in this magnificent Merlot. (3,309 cases)
2) 1997 Ridge, Monte Bello Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains -- $40: Mildly herbaceous nose showing black cherry fruit, lead pencil, loamy earth and brown spice. Rich and powerful in the mouth with great concentration, this wine exhibits the purity of fruit that comes from the same vineyard that produces Ridge's greatest wine, Monte Bello, accented by a lovely dried herb note. Medium-full tannins argue for cellaring. (1,285 cases)
3) 1997 Sterling Vineyards, Three Palms Vineyard, Napa Valley -- $50: The best Sterling Merlot from this great vineyard in years, this wine shares many traits in common with the Duckhorn Three Palms, including the hint of dried herbs or tobacco leaf and ripe blackberry-black cherry fruit, here accented by French oak vanilla. Luscious and juicy on the palate and a bit more accessible than the Duckhorn now, with flavors that replicate the nose; medium-full tannins. (3,500 cases)
4) 1997 Matanzas Creek, Sonoma Valley -- $48: Forward, appealing scents of black cherries, dried herbs, light vanilla and white chocolate, with hints of roasted meat and chopped wild mushrooms. Smooth, elegant and supple on the palate with medium tannins, offering luscious, succulent, well-focused blackfruit flavors. (8,606 cases)
BEST VALUE MERLOT
1997 Beringer, Founders' Estates, California -- $10: Forward,
plummy, black cherry nose with notes of mint and toasty oak. Well-defined flavors of ripe, black cherry fruit, good balance and easy tannins; round, smooth texture. (150,000 cases)
BEST PINOT NOIRS
1) 1997 Goldeneye, Anderson Valley -- $42: Attractive, forward, intense, spicy aromas of black cherry and blackberry fruit compote, toasty, new French oak, coffee bean and smoked meat that developed with airing. Rich, velvety and supple on the palate, with ripe flavors of black cherry, black raspberry and plum enhanced by exotic spices, toasted oak and vanilla, which extend into the long finish. A bold wine that's full and satisfying rather than complex and nuanced, yet superbly balanced. (375 cases)
2) 1997 Byron, Estate, Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley -- $32: Turning a "sow's ear" of a vintage for South-Central Coast Pinot into a silk purse of a wine, Byron's skill resulted in a rich, opulent Pinot with a silky, luxuriant texture, copious amounts of rich dark cherry-raspberry-dried cranberry fruit enhanced by Asian spices and a meaty quality, and fine balance. The intense aromas correspond, showing some leather and cedar, as well. (2,394 cases)
3) 1998 Sanford Winery, Barrel Select, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Santa Barbara County -- $42: Forward nose of smoky oak, black cherry, Damson plum and raspberry, accented by black pepper and "good barnyard" forest-floor notes. In the mouth, there's lots of clove spice and white pepper to match the extracted raspberry-wild strawberry fruit, medium tannins, a smooth, plush texture and a long, satisfy finish. A big wine that's also complex and seductive. (1,300 cases)
4) 1997 Signorello, Las Amigas Vineyard, Carneros -- $45: Similar in aroma to the Goldeneye, and just as intense, but with subtle notes of green stems and herbs making a distinction, along with dark chocolate and cinnamon. Concentrated, deep and rich in the mouth showing mocha-tinged, wild strawberry-black cherry fruit, hints of green herb and brown spice. Best paired with robust foods, such as a grilled, thick-cut, T-bone steak. (591 cases)
5) 1998 Chalone Vineyard, Estate, Chalone -- $35: Spicy, aromatic scents of black cherries, clove spice, smoky oak and vanilla. A round, jammy, California-style Pinot loaded with ripe strawberry fruit and vanilla from the French oak, the Chalone impresses with its deep fruit, which excuses the fact that the texture could be a bit silkier. (3,541 cases)
BEST VALUE PINOT
1997 Fetzer, Barrel Select, California -- $15: Aromas of dried
cherries, lots of toasty oak and a leathery note. Moderately rich and velvety in the mouth with delicious, slightly smoky flavors of Bing cherry, strawberry jam and cinnamon spice. An excellent bargain; one rarely encounters such a well-made Pinot at this price. (20,000 cases)
1) 1998 Havens Wine Cellars, Carneros -- $26: Constantly evolving, intriguing, wonderfully inviting nose of dark chocolate, lavender, smoked meat, blackberries and freshly cracked black pepper. Smooth and velvety in the mouth, with medium tannins, offering a broad flavor profile of pepper-tinged dark berry fruit, this Hermitage-like Syrah is almost thick and viscous, yet never overripe or hot. It finishes with a flourish of white pepper and leaves a lingering impression. Consistently one of California's best Syrah producers, Havens has come up with its best Syrah to date. (1,000 cases)
2) 1997 Geyser Peak Shiraz, Reserve, Sonoma County -- $40: A big, bold, rich style accurately labeled Shiraz -- made true to form by an Aussie -- the wine offers deep, complex, fragrant scents of smoky oak, ripe blackberry fruit, white pepper, spice, licorice and plum. Bursting with delicious blackberry fruit accented by spice and vanilla, with medium-full, fine-grained tannins. A show-stopper. (1,250 cases)
3) 1998 Qupe, Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, Santa Barbara County -- $35: Gorgeous, enticing nose of dark berries, roasted meat, vanilla and brown spice. Elegant and complex, the wine exhibits a silky smooth texture and deep flavors that replicate the nose. Great structure and balance, and a long, spicy finish. (1,000 cases)
4) 1997 Swanson, Napa Valley -- $40: Wonderfully aromatic, offering a melange of boysenberry, blueberry and blackberry fruit, smoky oak, black pepper and wild game. Big and powerful, and nicely textured, with deep blackfruit extract, evident oak and substantial tannins that argue for several years of cellaring or service now with hearty meat dishes. (1,180 cases)
5) 1997 Stags' Leap Winery, Napa Valley -- $25: Blended with five percent Petite Sirah, this classic Rhone-like expression of Syrah is fairly bursting with ripe black raspberry-cherry-cassis fruit accented by appealing meaty notes, white pepper, dried rose petals and a hint of tar. Rich and luscious in the mouth with succulent black raspberry fruit tinged with peppery spice and meaty-earthy notes. Complex, with medium tannins. (1,000 cases)
6) 1997 Beaulieu Vineyard, Signet Collection, North Coast -- $25: Blended with 9 percent Grenache and 2 percent Viognier, BV's Syrah is smooth, round and luscious with a smoke-tinged berry nose showing some white pepper and roasted coffee bean, plus lots of oak. Comparatively elegant for California Syrah, with a medium-full body, medium tannins and a wealth of complex, spicy blackberry fruit. (1,000 cases)
BEST VALUE SYRAH
1998 Echelon, California -- $14.50: A gold medal winner at
this year's San Francisco International Wine Competition, this bargain-priced wine is a spicy, sassy red that's 75 percent Syrah blended with 20 percent Grenache and a 5 percent dollop mixture of Cinsault, Alicante, Petite Sirah and Viognier. All of this results in intriguing aromas of white pepper, strawberry-raspberry fruit, toasty oak and vanilla. Rich and smooth in the mouth with copious bright strawberry fruit, lively black pepper and brown spice. (17,500 cases)
1) 1998 St. Francis, "Old Vines," Sonoma County -- $25: Very aromatic nose of intense blackberry fruit, black pepper, smoky oak and a touch of earthiness. Rich in ancient vine Zin character and texture, there's lots of very ripe (but not overripe), jammy, blackberry fruit on the palate, as well as mocha and briary notes. Full-bodied with medium-full tannins, this bold, generous, unfiltered Zin is a heady delight to drink, finishing with a dark chocolate note. It's stablemate, the 1998 Pagani Vineyard Reserve, is just as impressive in a more elegant style. (35,000 cases)
2) 1998 Limerick Lane Cellars, Collins Vineyard, Russian River Valley -- $26: Forward, spicy aromas of berries, mocha, vanilla and briary oak. Extracted and rich on the palate with jammy berry-red cherry fruit and ginger-clove spice, this wonderfully varietal Zin is smooth and very well balanced, with medium tannins. (2,846 cases)
3) 1997 Dry Creek Vineyard, Reserve, Dry Creek Valley -- $30: Zesty and vibrant, this reserve Zin offers an attractive bouquet of spicy, slightly dusty, berry-red cherry fruit and vanillin oak. Luscious, smooth and concentrated, with firm, medium-full tannins, extracted, ripe, blackberry-raspberry fruit, black pepper, cinnamon and a dried herb component. Expensive, but worth it. (2,700 cases)
4) 1997 Louis M. Martini, Gnarly Vine, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma Valley -- $40: Forward, deep, attractive scents of jammy black cherries and blackberries, lots of vanillin, a touch of white pepper and leathery-cedary notes. Brawny and mouthfilling, this old-vine mountain Zin delivers expressive, sweet blackberry fruit, a gigantic middle palate and tannins that coat the mouth like milk chocolate. (1,034 cases)
5) 1998 Signorello, Napa Valley -- $28: Forward, fragrant, exuberantly fruity nose of ripe blackberries. Rich, luscious and full bodied (13.8% alc.), this outstanding wine offers deep, delicious, black raspberry-cassis fruit accented by subtle oak tones; ripe, medium tannins.
BEST VALUE ZIN
1998 Bayliss & Fortune, Mendocino County -- $13: Made by an
Australian winemaker in the manner of a hearty, Down-Under Shiraz, the wine exhibits a forward, toasty, slightly smoky nose of berry-cassis fruit that opens nicely with airing. Deep, rich and smooth in the mouth with up-front flavors of spice and ripe berry fruit, balanced by soft, supple tannins, giving this delicious Zin length on the palate and a complex finish. (17,000 cases)
1) 1998 Shafer, Red Shoulder Ranch, Carneros -- $35: Fresh, attractive, forward nose of lemon-lime, apple-pear and tropical fruit, vanilla and mineral. Firmly structured and rich, with superb focus and excellent acidity, the wine's deep, creamy flavors focus on exotic tropical fruit tinged with citrus and are fresh, spicy and expressive. Powerful without sacrificing finesse, Shafer's Red Shoulder Ranch sets the standard for non-malolactic Chardonnay in California. (7,500 cases)
2) 1998 Beringer, Private Reserve, Napa Valley -- $36: Attractive, intense scents of toasty, smoky oak, shy green olive herbaceousness, tropical fruit and caramel. Creamy and smooth with luscious tropical, citrus and apple-pear fruit flavors, this full-blown Chardonnay is spicy and moderately buttery, with excellent balance and a lingering, caramel-tinged finish. (23,000 cases)
3) 1998 Far Niente, Napa Valley -- $48: Lightly toasted hazelnuts, citrus and tropical fruit and heather define the nose, which expands with airing to show some spice and mineral tones. Smooth and viscous with good acidity, this stylish, non-malolactic Chardonnay delivers intense flavors that echo the nose and have a spicy oak edge. (24,000 cases)
4) 1998 Merryvale, Silhouette, Napa Valley -- $55: Pleasant, appealing scents of tropical fruit and succulent pears, toasty oak and a yeasty note. Smooth, seamless and rich with delicious flavors of pear-peach-citrus and spice. An elegant and lavish Chardonnay appropriate for celebratory occasions. (1,280 cases)
5) 1998 Guenoc, Unfiltered Reserve, Genevieve Magoon Vineyard, Guenoc Valley -- $30: Complex nose of pears, creamy citrus, tropical fruit, baked apple, mineral and smoky oak. Smooth and creamy with deep, rich flavors that replicate the nose; elegant and refined. (3,327 cases)
BEST VALUE CHARDONNAY
1999 Fetzer, Barrel Select, Mendocino County -- $13:
Fragrant, appealing scents of creme brulee, lemon zest, toasty hazelnut and ripe pear accented by a spicy note. Rich and smooth on the palate with good acidity, this bargain-priced Chardonnay delivers full, ripe fruit flavors that replicate the nose and delight the palate. (62,000 cases)
BEST SAUVIGNON BLANCS
1) 1999 Voss Vineyards, Napa Valley -- $16: Forward, intense, uncompromisingly varietal nose of grapefruit, honeydew melon, lime, freshly chopped green chiles and bell pepper, white flowers and minerals. Mouthfilling with a smooth texture and rich entry, this New Zealand-inspired effort delivers lots of grassy flavors backed by melon and citrus fruit; excellent acidity; lean, crisp finish. (3,400 cases)
2) 1999 Sanford, Central Coast -- $14.50: Made from fruit sourced mostly from the renowned Ventana Vineyard in Monterey County, this fairly priced Sauvignon Blanc offers an extravagant, decidedly varietal nose of freshly chopped Anaheim chiles and green olives. Moderately rich and round on the palate with excellent acidity, the wine's herbaceous character is nicely accentuated by grapefruit citrus and white melon fruit. (6,000 cases)
3) 1999 Mason Cellars, Napa Valley -- $15: Extremely fragrant, appealing nose of grapefruit and white melon, orange blossoms, freshly cut grass and shy fig. Moderately rich and fleshy, with crisp acidity and grassy flavors of grapefruit, melon and citrus. (8,000 cases)
4) 1999 Babcock Vineyards, Eleven Oaks, Santa Barbara County -- $22.50: Very grassy -- almost extreme -- aromas suggesting pink grapefruit, gooseberries, green apples, honeydew melon and Jalapeno peppers. Much like an intense Sancerre, exhibiting minerals on entry, a rich middle of melon and citrus with grassy tones, a touch of oak and excellent acidity. (1,211 cases)
5) 1998 Robert Mondavi, Stags Leap District -- $18: Another bold Sauvignon on the Sancerre model, with aromas of asparagus, lemongrass, green olives and flint enhancing ripe citrus, melon and apricot fruit, topped off with some oak. Intriguing texture that's both creamy and tart at the same time, and deep, intense flavors that replicate the nose. (over 1000 cases)
6) 1999 St. Supery, Napa Valley -- $15: Hint of toast in the nose, along with lime, grapefruit, passion fruit and orange zest enhanced by subtle grass and mineral elements. Juicy and moderately rich with excellent acidity, offering flavors that are full and vibrant, focusing on ripe melon and grapefruit-like citrus. (19,314 cases)
BEST VALUE SAUVIGNON
1999 Dry Creek Vineyard Fume Blanc, Sonoma County -- $12:
Really exciting Sauvignon Blanc, offering a deep, enticing perfume of
lemongrass, freshly chopped tarragon and grapefruit-like citrus. Smooth and nicely weighty on the palate with lots of green herb-tinged citrus and melon fruit, and a trace of oak. An intense and very appealing wine. (26,000 cases)
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.