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Best of the Best 2008: Domestic White Wines

Brett Anderson

Fine winemaking in Washington State began in earnest with Chateau Ste. Michelle, which owns the oldest vineyards in the Columbia Valley, now a significant wine destination. Like many of California’s older wineries, this venerable producer was established in the wake of Prohibition to slake the thirst of a parched nation. Originally known as the Pomerelle Wine Company (and later, after merging with another local producer, as American Wine Growers), Chateau Ste. Michelle produced predominantly fortified, portlike wines; however, under the supervision of legendary vintner and consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, the winery ventured with astounding success into the realm of Bordeaux-style wine production, setting the standards of quality for red wine in the region. Nevertheless, winemaker Bob Bertheau’s white wines, for many, define the essence of Chateau Ste. Michelle—in particular, the Rieslings, including Eroica, which is made in collaboration with German winemaker Ernst Loosen, and the late-harvest Ethos. The Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Ethos Late Harvest White Riesling Columbia Valley (www.ste-michelle?.com, $40 per half bottle) is an entrancing confection of dried apricot, lime blossom, hard lemon candy, and spicy nutmeg.

While one might argue that the winery at Domaine Carneros—a magnificent brick-and-stone French château in the 18th-century style set among the rolling hills of Napa Valley’s Carneros region—is a somewhat jarring non sequitur, one could argue with equal conviction that this architectural feat is not ersatz, but an entirely authentic embodiment of the philosophy of the estate. Founded by Champagne Taittinger (the winery is inspired by Taittinger’s famed Château de la Marquetterie), this unique project combines the French passion for fine sparkling wines with state-of-the-art technology in rendering the character of Carneros, renowned like Champagne for the quality of its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the Domaine Carneros 2001 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs Carneros (www.domainecarneros.com, $75), winemaker Eileen Crane has again worked her miraculous magic with Chardonnay. This spectacular sparkling wine is as light and airy as a meringue, yet rich with flavors of citrus, Asian pear, and buttery pastry.

The 2005 vintage was an almost universally great one, though in California success did not appear imminent during the long growing season. In both Sonoma County and Napa Valley, vintners were beset by heavier-than-normal rainfall in spring and an exceptionally cool summer. In many cases, harvests were completed as late as November. Nevertheless, the protracted hanging time paid off for white fruit as well as red, as is demonstrated by the outstanding 2005 Chardonnays released by DuMol, an exceptional producer of Burgundian-style wines located in Sebastopol, Calif. Founded in 1996 by Kerry Murphy and Michael Verlander, DuMol produces a modest 4,000 cases of Chardonnay each year; fortunately, while quantity may be lacking, quality exists in abundance. The DuMol 2005 Chardonnay Isobel Sonoma Green Valley (www.dumol.com, $60) makes one’s mouth water with its sensuous mélange of summer peaches, crisp citrus-driven acidity, and creamy custard flavors.

Too many people regard Viognier as an acquired taste. This fragrant, concentrated, nectarlike white Rhône varietal offers an engaging and complex alternative to the more linear profile of Chardonnay and the more austere character of Sauvignon Blanc. Moreover, Viognier is extremely food-friendly, pairing beautifully with everything from prosciutto with melon to a triple-cream brie. While Paso Robles winemaker McPrice Myers, who launched his own label in 2002, is perhaps best known for his L’Ange Rouge Syrah, his Viognier from the Santa Ynez Valley is just as angelic. The McPrice Myers 2005 Viognier Larner Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley (www.mcpricemyers.com, $25) gradually unfolds its silky layers of orchard fruit—nectarine, peach—before moving into the tropics: Pineapple, passion fruit, even a touch of coconut abound beneath swirling aromas of honeysuckle.

Merry Edwards never ceases to surprise. Few winemakers bring to their craft her level of passion, and few producers of Pinot Noir—a notoriously finicky and difficult-to-manage grape—boast such a broad portfolio of complex and distinctive wines. Not unlike a master impresario, Edwards coaxes from her vineyards jaw-dropping performances: From the powerhouse Klopp Ranch single-vineyard Pinot Noir to the suave Russian River Valley blend, her range ?of reds runs from Cabernet-like grandeur to Burgundian subtlety. Now she brings the same measure of winemaking wizardry to the first white wine under her eponymous label: The Merry Edwards 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley (www.merryedwards.com, $27), made primarily from the singular Sauvignon Musqué clone, dances on the palate, dipping and gliding through flavors of honeydew melon, pear, jasmine, and fresh ginger.

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