A Repeat Performance : In The Times' 18th Annual Tasting, West Coast Varietals Again Dominate

The first Los Angeles Times Magazine Wine Tasting in 1974 of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Riesling was a triumph for West Coast wineries. Reprising that daring event of 17 years ago, we recently convened a distinguished panel to taste and rate the 70 wines selected from front-runners of the same four categories, again including all origins and price levels. The goal? Discovering the "best of the Best." The results? Another triumph for California and Washington state wines. In competition with some of Europe's finest products, these Pacific Rim wines reaffirmed their world-class character.

Six of this year's panelists also took part in the 1974 tasting: wine consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, winemaker Robert Mondavi, winemaker Rodney Strong, wine and food critic Lois Dwan, wine importer Peter M.F. Sichel and myself. Wine master Richard Arrowood, Dr. William Bond, winemaker Jill Davis, wine broker Ben Lane, winemaker Elaine Wellesley and wine merchant Steve Wallace joined us this year. The tasting was produced by Gricel Fernandez-Sanabria and James Willett. Here are the wines that garnered the top five scores in each category:

CHARDONNAY

Although the French have made Chardonnay for centuries, Americans only started producing Chardonnay 200 years ago, and historically our wines did not merit high regard. But things changed in the 1970s, when California Chardonnay won two landmark tasting victories over Burgundian icons. Nevertheless, significant and valid criticisms were made about the over-oaky, too big (high in alcohol) California Chardonnays, sometimes called "monsters." They did win gold medals in competitions but were clumsy when matched with food. Style finally became important, and today's elegance in high-ranking Chardonnay wines is a result of modified and sophisticated technology. Today's top vineyards, such as Fisher and Kendall-Jackson, harvest their grapes based on maturity, rather than on mere sugar readings. It's a risky process. Once the moment of ripeness has passed, the grape may "dump acid" and become characterless. But in this tasting, daring technique paid off.

FISHER VINEYARDS 1989 Sonoma County Chardonnay Coach Insignia. $18. Silky, golden wine of extraordinary delicacy and balance. Suggestions of ripe pears and melon plus buttery richness. 16.9 points of a maximum 20 points.

KENDALL-JACKSON 1989 California Chardonnay The Proprietor's Grand Reserve. $20. A wine of outstanding character with oak accents ahead of the ripe fruit in the bouquet. A long creamy taste, benign and friendly. 16.5

STERLING VINEYARD 1989 Napa Valley Chardonnay-Estate. $15. Subtle and supple with a luscious bouquet and complex flavors. Hints of citrus in the finish and aftertaste. 16.5

FRANCISCAN 1989 Oakville Estate Chardonnay Cuvee Sauvage. $18. Reminiscent of a Corton-Charlemagne in elegant styling through daring and successful use of "wild yeasts." Super wine, balanced oak and fruit. 16.2

ROBERT MONDAVI 1989 Napa Valley Chardonnay--Reserve. $27.50. Silvery-golden wine, opening slowly to almost-tropical fruit scents with gentle, toasty oak backgrounds. 16.2

BUENA VISTA 1988 Carneros Estate Chardonnay Private Reserve. $16.50. Understated bouquet of clean, ripe fruit before any hint of oak in this straight-forward Chardonnay of uncomplicated finesse. 16.0

GRGICH-HILLS 1988 Napa Valley Chardonnay. $22. Ripe Chardonnay-fruit scents and tastes in harmonious balance from Mike Grgich, "Mr. Chardonnay" of the Napa Valley. Text-book bouquet. 15.9

RODNEY STRONG 1989 Chalk Hill Chardonnay. $13. Clean, ripe fruit flavors and savors emerge in pleasing bouquet of this splendidly supple and complex classic varietal. 15.9

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

The world's most highly prized red wine grape is responsible for both the classic clarets of Bordeaux and the finest red wines of California. This hardy, late-ripening vinifera offers many challenges to the winemaker. Techniques vary in handling the pomace, the skins, seeds, and stems as fermentation begins the transformation of grape juice into wine. Additional options are to blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere; other options regarding aging can also vary the wine's taste. Of the two wines that tied for first (17 were tasted), the Jordan claret exemplifies the blending of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, whereas the Renanissance wine has achieved its own particular splendor through a solitary devotion to Cabernet Sauvignon, with grapes grown in the mountain vineyards of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

JORDAN VINEYARDS 1986 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. $22.50. Lyrical, flawless wine with a classic bouquet of blackberry/currant perfumes leading to velvet-soft taste. Ready to enjoy or to age. 17.1

RENAISSANCE 1984 North Yuba Cabernet Sauvignon. $40. A superb wine already wreathed with gold medal awards from Europe as well as California competitions. Expect supplies to become scarce. 17.1

THE HESS COLLECTION 1987 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. $17.50. Always a connoisseur's choice, this rich, dark garnet wine hints of roses and luxurious depths of taste. 17.0

LAMBERT BRIDGE 1987 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Library Reserve. $15. Classic bouquet rises from the glass, announcing a big wine with undeniable elegance and varietal character. Subtle wine that will improve with age. 16.8

CRESTON VINEYARDS 1987 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Winemaker's Selection. $16.50. Beautiful ruby-jewel hues greet the eye, berries and plummy scents address the nose and jammy tastes engages the palate. Outstanding claret. 16.6

PINOT NOIR

What is the true taste of classical Burgundy? More than 200 clones of Pinot Noir have been identified. In wine-growing areas of the world where Pinot Noir has been planted--including the revered Cote d'Or of France--tastes differ as the vine-roots reach into different soils.

After two years of research in France, Josh Jensen of the Calera Wine Co. concluded that the finest French Burgundies owe their superiority to limestone subsoil. Fifteen years ago, he found vineyards of the proper limestone base in Hollister, Calif., and planted four separate vineyards: Jenson, Selleck, Reed and Mills, which designate his vintage bottlings. Some have bested the great wines of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti but not in this tasting (even a candidate wine from the revered DRC did not make it). Robert Mondavi's 1988 Reserve took top honors, a position he won in our 1974 tasting with his Robert Mondavi 1970 Napa Valley Pinot Noir. Other winners among the 15 entries include a great Pommard from the Cote d'Or.

ROBERT MONDAVI 1988 Napa Valley Pinot Noir-Reserve. $27.50 True Pinot Noir character with a bouquet reminiscent of faded rose petals, translucent ruby color, long and arresting taste and silky finish. A clean triumph. 17.2

SANFORD WINERY 1989 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. $14.50. A complex wine with an earthy, decadent yet regal bouquet, carrying the richness of ripe fruit to a long, round and eloquent taste. 17.2

BEAULIEU VINEYARDS 1988 Napa Valley Pinot Noir Carneros Reserve. $9.50. Unmistakably a Californian wine, of black cherry tastes; open, fresh and clean red, dissimilar to French burgundies. 16.6

FETZER VINEYARDS 1986 Mendocino County Pinot Noir-Reserve. $17.50. Deep color, eucalyptus hints in the complex bouquet, with toasty oak overpowering the fruit. Substance but again lacking Burgundian style. 16.5

BUENA VISTA 1989 Carneros Pinot Noir. $9. Rated outstanding by all but one of the panelists for its true and regal Pinot Noir bouquet, translucent ruby color and engaging taste complexity. 16.2

BYRON VINEYARD 1988 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir--Reserve. $18. Blackcurrant suggestions in the nose line this up with truly Burgundian-style, classic winemaking. One judge wrote: "Very well done; earthy!" 16.0

PARDUCCI 1987 Mendocino County Pinot Noir--Reserve. $15. The classic ideal of jeweled ruby color, brick-edged. A gentle wine with intriguing hints of anise lingering in the long aftertaste. 16.0

POMMARD 1988 ler Bertins--Laboure-Roi, Nuits-St. George. $57. Almost floral nose, exotic yet delicate. Pleasing finesse in true translation of the Pinot Noir grape of Burgundy into soothing, complex red wine. 16.0

STERLING VINEYARDS 1988 Napa Valley-Carneros Pinot Noir Winery Lake Vineyard. $16. The French style emerges in the elegantly decadent bouquet of this wine from one of Napa's most prized vineyards. Otherwise uncomplicated wine. 16.0

RIESLING

The correct name of this noble grape, the Bacchic symbol of the Rhineland, is Weiss Riesling (white Riesling) but it has become better known in the United States as Johannisberg Riesling--an obvious bow to Schloss Johannisberg, the south-facing castle-estate and monastery above the River Rhine.

Emperor Charlemagne commanded the planting of a vineyard at the site of Schloss Johannisberg. In 1100, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to John the Baptist was built here, and the surrounding village became known as Johannisberg. In 1775, the harvest was delayed when the messenger carrying the harvest order from the ruling Bishop of Fulda was waylaid. Days dragged on and the grapes began to shrivel and rot. At last, the messenger arrived. Apprehensive villagers pressed the rotten grapes anyway . . . and the wine, the first spatlese (German for late-gathered) in history, was a silken wonder because the sugar had concentrated while the grapes were waiting to be picked. This began the system of labeling the wine to indicate sugar content of "late harvesting," especially grapes afflicted with edelfaule or "noble rot."

Vinification of this splendid varietal, is moving towards halb-trocken or "half-dry," less sweet table wines accentuating the food-companion role of this uniquegrape. Surprisingly, four top-flight German wines failed to place in our tasting of 15 Rieslings.

CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE 1990 Johannisberg Riesling Washington State. $7. The first-place winner in 1974, it's again the front-runner in 1991. The last wine tasted in this category, it was easily the best. Clean, floral, delicately dry. Charming. 16.6

KENDALL- JACKSON 1990 Lake County Johannisberg Riesling Vintner's Reserve. $9. An exceptionally pleasing balance of sugar and acidity in a straightforward wine, suitable for almost any kind of food. 16.4

CHATEAU ST. JEAN 1990 Sonoma County Johannisberg Riesling. $9. Non-intrusive, clean, well-made wine, but lacking in depth and complexity. A good quaffing wine for lighter menus. 16.2

BOEGER 1990 El Dorado Riesling--Estate Bottled. $7. From the Sierra gold-mining region, a medal-winner of subdued but well-balanced elements in thirst-quenching, off-dry sequence. 16.1

FETZER VINEYARDS 1990 California Johannisberg Riesling. $6.50. Fresh, fruity, clean, an open bouquet with spicy suggestions. Flowers, oranges, apricots and peaches, all in delicate balance. 16.0

Late Harvest Riesling

FREEMARK ABBEY 1989 Napa Valley Edelwein Gold (375ml) Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling--21.7% Residual sugar. $25. The highest-rated wine in the tasting. A sipping delight with fresh fruit. 17.7

WENTE BROS. 1987 Arroyo Seco Johannisberg Riesling (750ml) Late Harvest Reserve--9.75% Residual Sugar. $17.50. Rich fruit flavors in good sugar/acid balance. Golden wine in non-cloying taste. An outstanding bargain for such luxury. 16.8

CHATEAU ST. JEAN 1988 Johannisberg Riesling (375ml) Alexander Valley--Select Late Harvest--13.0% Residual Sugar. $20. An edge of noble rot gives the suggestions of honey and apricots to this charming, well-made golden dessert wine. 16.7

LLANO ESTACADO 1990 Texas Johannisberg Riesling (375ml) Cellar Select--Late Harvest--9.0% Residual Sugar. $9. Delicate hints of noble rot, giving the rich late harvest character--concentrated sweetness, some honeysuckle, apricot and peach fragrances. Queen Elizabeth II loved it on a visit to Texas in the past year. 16.5

RENAISSANCE 1985 North Yuba White Riesling (375ml) Special Select Late Harvest--13.0% Residual Sugar. $15. Golden wine of sweet complexity, a classic nectar. Dessert-time appeal with fresh fruit. 16.2

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