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Wine: Through the Grapevine

Paul Wasserman

As we rush to complete our ritual holiday shopping, most 2002 harvests in the Northern Hemisphere have been converted into wine. Naturally, these wines are far from finished, and it would be unfair to judge the results so soon, but whispers and rumors of things to come are already and inevitably shaping the trends for the fine wine market in 2003.

After the much-touted 2000 Bordeaux (see “The World of Wine: 2003 Uncorked,” October 2002), the most exciting thing to come from France will be 1996 vintage Champagnes. This is a truly great vintage—the best since 1985. But casual Champagne drinkers beware: The wines are racy and tight, and many will need to sit for at least a couple of years before they are consumed. At a recent Champagne tasting, 1995 and 1996 Roederer Cristal served side by side were so strikingly different you would be hard-pressed to recognize a house signature. The 1995 Cristal tasted pleasant yet very simple, compared to the concentrated but painfully youth-ful 1996.

Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises 1996 is the first of the prestige cuvées to be offered; it should arrive just in time for Christmas. With a pitiful production of 1,500 cases, the Vieilles Vignes Francaises will be the most elusive of the prestige Champagnes: Expect supplies to vanish quickly. Most of your other favorite cuvées—Dom Pérignon, Roederer’s Cristal, and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne—should also be offering their 1996 vintage next year, but you will have to wait for Krug and Salon. Gosset 1996 Grand Millesime, already on the market, is true to the vintage, with great length and flavors of mineral, toast, and citrus.

Also, keep in mind that many of the basic nonvintage Champagnes currently available are blends largely based on the 1996 vintage, and they are stellar. If you have not already, it is time you discovered the smaller house and grower Champagnes, such as Billiot, Cattier’s Clos du Moulin, Jose Donht, Gosset, Henriot, Jacquesson, Larmandier-Bernier, Margaine, Camille Saves, Jean Vesselle, and Vilmart.

Despite a difficult 2002 harvest, Italy has two or three more vintages to look forward to. Currently, Tuscany is releasing the highly anticipated 1999 Chianti Classico Riservas—big, deep, serious, and remarkably food-friendly wines. Felsina’s Rancia is one of the best: a superb chewy wine, with aromas of cherry, spice, smoke, and tons of deep flavors supported by great structure. Monsanto’s Il Poggio, one of the most powerful Riservas, comes from one of the region’s most gifted vineyards.

In California, the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignons continue to capture the limelight. Unfortunately, you will not be able to purchase any of the serious Cabernets before 2004. That is, with the exception of Château Montelena, whose 2001 Cabernet futures are scheduled for release in March.

As to the 2001 vintage for California Pinot Noir, Paul Hobbs, who makes Pinot from the Hyde vineyard in Sonoma, regards this as one of the best vintages he has ever worked with—one boasting crystal-clear purity of fruit, intense focus, and an absence of over-ripeness. Adam Lee from Siduri, who produces wonderful Pinots from as far north as Oregon all the way down to California’s central coast, considers the 2001 vintage outstanding for Pinot Noir in Sonoma and particularly exceptional farther south in the Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Rita Hills. If you have not yet done so, pay particular attention to the Pinot Noir bottlings from the Pisoni and Garys’ vineyards.

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