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Beaujolais: A Great Beginning

Times Wine Writer

The first of the 1988 vintage Beaujolais has begun arriving on U.S. shores, and the wines are of generally more classic quality than the 1987 Beaujolais.

Unfortunately, prices are slightly higher too.

The first wine of the new vintage, nouveau Beaujolais, is released in November each year and consumed before spring. The more traditional Beaujolais, made to last at least a year in the bottle, is released in spring and usually has more substance and richness.

Didier Mommessin of the Beaujolais house of Mommessin, said the harvest of 1988 was better than that of ’87, with much more natural ripeness in the fruit. He said the wines have exceptional color and more body than the ’87 wines, with possibly a little less fragrance, but more richness in taste.

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Mommessin annually releases single-vineyard wines from the 10 different cru (top-quality) regions of Beaujolais, and in 1988 the best wines from Mommessin are from St. Amour and Fleurie.

The St. Amour ($12) is a bigger wine than usual, with an intriguing clove/spice aroma and rich, mouth-watering finish. The Fleurie ($13.25) has a refined fruitiness in aroma, but rich, luscious, complete flavors.

The least expensive wine in the line is superb. The Mommessin Beaujolais-Villages, at $7.25, offers striking fruit and balance. It’s a bargain.

The other wines in the Mommessin Beaujolais line are also extremely well made, but slightly higher in price than last year, based on the franc/dollar conversion.

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Ferrari-Carano Winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, which made a splash last year with its 1986 Chardonnay, is releasing two new wines that are even better than last year’s.

The better of the two, a 1986 Reserve Chardonnay, is unfortunately fairly expensive ($28) and also in very limited supply.

However, wine maker George Bursick has fashioned a fantastic wine with a panoply of flavors rarely found in many overblown Chardonnays that are dominated by oak and residual sugar. This one has a California-like fruitiness and amazing richness without harshness in the aftertaste.

Produced from a newly acquired 39-acre vineyard in the cool Carneros region, this wine is stylishly built without overt “buttery” scents and should age well for a number of years.

The second wine, a 1986 Merlot, is in better supply (1,250 cases) and is less dear: $18. To be released only in some key major markets, this handsome wine has softer tannins than you’d expect from an initial red release, but its classic tarragon spiciness is enhanced by hints of cedar. It is a silky masterpiece.

Dick Arrowood’s second release from his new winery in Sonoma Valley is slightly bigger than the first, but just as stylish.

Arrowood, wine maker since 1975 at Chateau St. Jean, put wine out under his own label last year and his initial release, a 1986 Chardonnay, was a fruity, crisp, extremely well made wine, distinctly different from the St. Jean Chardonnays.

Now Arrowood’s second wine, a 1987 Chardonnay, is to be released in a month, and it’s a slightly richer, a bit more complex than the ’86. At present it shows a touch more lemony quality and a deeper, richer finish. It will sell for $17.50.

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Wineries in California’s northern counties are nervous about the lack of rainfall in the last three years, which could create drought conditions as bad as those experienced more than a decade ago that produced bizarre vintages.

Rainfall in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties was well below the seasonal averages in 1987 and 1988, and from July 1, 1988, to mid-February this year total precipitation was less than 13 inches, about half of normal.

Other freak weather conditions caused small wine-grape crop sizes in 1987 and 1988; some areas of the state’s fine wine growing districts reported crops only 50% of normal.

Now, with less rain than normal, some wine makers fear growing conditions similar to those faced in 1976 and 1977 when ripening was irregular and the resulting wines were not only in short supply, but of erratic quality.

Weather forecasters, however, are predicting a wetter-than-usual spring, and they feel this will ward off serious problems for the vines.

Still, reservoirs in the northern half of the state at the end of February were only 65% of maximum capacity, and should spring rains be only normal, grapes could be affected.


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