Stephen Tanzer’s    May/June 2000      Issue 90

International Wine Cellar

Focus on California

Kalin Cellars. Could any other winery in the world count among its current releases two sparkling wines from 1988, a Semillon and a Chardonnay from 1993, and Pinot Noir from 1980? "When it tastes good we release it," was Terry Leighton’s Confucian pronouncement over a dish of Szechuan spicy crab at Uncle Yu’s in San Ramon, CA, where he was pairing his various new offerings with a range of Chinese dishes. (The restaurant’s food, incidentally is worth a detour, and it’s wine list is as good as that of any Asian restaurant of my experience with the exception of Tan Dinh in Paris.) More than once during our meal and tasting, Leighton and his wife Frances, who also own a couple of parcels in Burgundy and recently began making wine there, bemoaned the heavy, high-alcohol, oak bombs from California that overwhelm rather than complement food. "If anything, alcohol levels are going higher today," said Leighton. "Going for bigger wines here is like telling Shaquille O’Neal to work on his slam-dunking."

1988 Cuvée Blanche California Sparkling Wine ($70; 100% Chardonnay from the Lorenzo Vineyard; kept on the lees for seven years, then bottled with no dosage and held back for another 30 months prior to release): Leesy aromas of candied apple, honey, white chocolate and minerals. Very dry but creamy and rich on the palate. Ginger and mineral notes, not to mention strong acidity, keep it vibrant and fresh. "Like Salon on steroids" is how Leighton describes it. The Leightons made this wine in ’89 but then stopped because they felt the yields in this vineyard were getting too high. 89.

1988 Reserve Cuvée Rose California Sparkling Wine ($70): Pale orange. Complex aromas of strawberry, raspberry and citrus skin. Crisper and drier in the mouth than the above, with notes of orange peel, apricot and strawberry. High-pitched and uncompromising, but fresh and rich. Bracing and very persistent on the aftertaste. The Cuvée Blanche is creamier today, but this Rosé may ultimately surpass it. 88(+?).

1993 Chardonnay Cuvée LV Sonoma ($34): Pale orange-tinted gold. Superripe, slightly confituré aromas of caramelized apple, tarte tatin and strawberry preserves; in a distinctly vendange tardive style. Rich and thick, with superripe apple and spice flavors. Shows a sherry-like nut suggestion of oxidation and rather developed flavors yet somehow remains fresh and brisk. Finishes with sneaky length and a dry edge that worked wonders with unadorned lobster. 90.

1993 Semillon Livermore Valley ($24; with 20% Sauvignon Blanc): Pale yellow-straw. Wonderfully nuanced, laidback nose combines smoke, minerals, lemon, pineapple, honey and lanolin. Rich, dry and very deep, with bright lemon and fig flavors. The Sauvignon component adds verve to the very rich Semillon. A California Semillon with the complexity, flavor and structure of a great white Graves. "It takes spicy food to bring out the Semillon," said Leighton, before this wine absorbed the spice in those Szechuan crabs like a white hole. 93.

1980 Pinot Noir Cuvée JL Sonoma ($125; from Warren Dutton’s original home vineyard): Full deep red. Ineffable aromas of roasted redcurrant, framboise, mocha, leather, dried flowers, dried herbs and molasses. Smoky and penetrating in the mouth, with noteworthy weight and uncanny brightness given its deep, mature flavors of mocha, roast coffee and tomato. Finishes with big, dusty, even tannins and palate-staining length. This wine, which spent a full four weeks in the fermenter, was undrinkable for the last ten years, noted Frances Leighton. "More like the wines made in the ‘20s and ‘30s," added Terry, who mentioned the 1938 Clos des Lambrays in the same sentence. 91.