THE YEAR'S BEST
  Each issue Wine & Spirits focuses on one variety or group of related wines and selects the best wines in that category for the year.

August 2004

Over the last twelve months,
Wine & Spirits tasted 349 sauvignon blancs, fumé blancs, pinot gris, marsannes, roussannes & viogniers.

The following 25 wines received the strongest praise from our critics. A list of all merlots wines tasted, with the recommended wines highlighted, is available on www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com.

Sauvignon & Fumé Blanc
92 I Davis Bynum $15
2002 Russian River Valley Shone Farm Fumé Blanc

The aroma gives an impression that these grapes captured the cool scent of the ocean from the winds of the Russian River Valley. It's a deep scent of minerals, balanced in the end by a crisp and lasting fragrance of beeswax and honey. Harmonious and savory, this offers complex layers of flavor to pair with sand dabs. (712 cases) Davis Bynum Winery, Healdsburg, CA
 

 
92 I Hess $16
2003 Lake County Small Block Series Sauvignon Blanc

Floral scents of rosewater make this nearly as perfumed as a viognier, while the narrow structure and sharp green fruit cast it as a classic sauvignon. It's gained a mineral aspect and slightly unctuous texture from aging on the lees, and while it feels restrained for now, it should expand as it ages. Suited to meaty roast fish, or grilled langoustines. This is only available direct from the winery or through Hess' wine club. The Hess Collection Winery, Napa, CA
 

 
92 I Rancho Zabaco $20
2002 Russian River Valley Reserve Sauvignon Blanc

The pungent scent of lime keeps this wine cool and tight, even as the flavor is rich as nectarine jam. It has a deep sauvignon scent and flavor, with an edge of green that sharpens it for food. Chill this for bay scallops sautéed with leeks. Zabaco Vintners, Healdsburg, CA
 

 
91 I Frog's Leap $16.50
2002 Napa Valley - Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc

Firmly stated scents of ripe apple and pear fill up the body of this wine, while a clean cut of acidity slices through the ripeness. The lashings of fruit have enough structure to embolden the wine with food — a robust match for a chicken roasted with sage, or a veal chop encrusted with herbs. Frog's Leap, Rutherford, CA
 

 
91 I Peter Michael $38
2002 Sonoma County L'Apres Midi Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

Nobody's home when you knock on the door, just a reverb of oak. Then there's a hint of what's behind the oak at the very end of the taste. Wait, and the oak recedes, the wine opening up to a clean, elegant flavor, somewhere between flowers and the nuttiness of fresh pea shoots. Green and fresh, this is a great choice for a classic Cantonese banquet. (1,992 cases) Peter Michael, Calistoga, CA
 

 
91 I Quivira $15
2002 Dry Creek Valley Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

Riper than most sauvignon, this balanced wine shows the warmth of the Dry Creek Valley, well farmed. The fruit flavor is clear pear and apple, moving toward peach, while the aroma has a sharp, pine-like edge. That sharpness, along with the honeyed finish, makes it a mouthwatering match for crab. Quivira Vineyards, Healdsburg, CA
 

 
91 I Wildhurst $11
2003 Lake County Reserve Sauvignon Blanc

This is so pungent it may make your eyes water if you open it now. Give it time to unravel, and it turns a corner from something saline toward fruit. Complex flavors begin to emerge with air, hinting at greener tones of gooseberry and sweeter orange citrus. Rich rather than electric, this is a succulent white for veal sausages. Wildhurst Vineyards, Kelseyville, CA
 

 
91 I Robert Mondavi $18
2002 Napa Valley Fumé Blanc

Mondavi's classic Fumé is richly oaked, its sauvignon fruit offering the fleshiness of green fig and spice to stand up to the wood. Floral aspects come up in the clean finish, acidic and firm. Give this a year or two of age, then serve with roast veal. Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, CA
 

 
Pinot Gris
93 I MacMurray Ranch $23
2002 Russian River Valley Pinot Gris

Gallo makes this wine from grapes grown at Fred MacMurray's ranch, and it continues to be a knock-out (I rated the 2001 with 93 points as well, and it was made the same way — tank fermented, cold-settled, whole-cluster pressed). Here's what I love in a white wine: bright, lifted flavors as clean and creamy as ripe cherimoya, as fresh as nectarine. It's just beautiful. The fruit makes the wine complex and long, a generous accompaniment to cracked crab, or a cooling contrast to Shanghai-style crab soup dumplings. MacMurray Ranch, Healdsburg, CA
 

 
92 I Airlie $10
2001 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris

A few years of bottle age have given this wine the complexity gris rarely achieves, since few can resist drinking it in its frisky youth. This '01 is an argument to wait. Like an older Vouvray, the wine takes its touch of oxidation and melds it with a litany of seductive scents, brioche, fennel, scallion, salt and ozone, all integrated with its gentle cantaloupe and pear fruit. Buy it by the case, and savor its pure flavors all summer long. (1,200 cases) Airlie Winery, Monmouth, OR
 

 
92 I Etude $20
2002 Carneros Pinot Gris

A formidable white grown at Hudson Vineyard, this luscious gris offers firm apple and pear flavors that last. Fresh acidity gives it the prickle of a Brittany pear cider, balancing the richer tones of the fruit grown in Carneros clay. Serve with anything on which you might drizzle lemon, from clams on the half-shell to baba ganoush. (860 cases) Etude Wines, Rutherford, CA
 

 
92 I Handley $16
2002 Anderson Valley Pinot Gris

The Anderson Valley has an aptitude for pinot gris, here presented as clean and pure as some of the best from Friuli. It tastes like a ripe, dewy pear glistening in the sun. The freshness and fragrance is captured and lasts as if preserved in a pear eau de vie without the warmth of alcohol. Serve this fresh, just slightly chilled, with any white-fleshed fish. (676 cases) Handley Cellars, Philo, CA
 

 
92 I King Estate $20
2002 Oregon Reserve Pinot Gris

A wine that defies categories; with its clean quince flavors and the silty tang of its texture, King Estate's Reserve possesses a completeness, a purity of expression that feels elegant and simply ‘right.' At the same time, it's far from complete; one senses a nervousness, a tension in the glass suggesting that the wine is still months away from its peak of expression, and that some time in the bottle will yield greater harmony. Winemaker Ray Walsh blends his Reserve from select lots, some aged in steel tanks, some aged in botte, and his deft touch is evident in this vintage. King Estate Winery, Eugene, OR
 

 
92 I Rancho Zabaco $20
2002 Sonoma Coast Reserve Pinot Gris

A simple beauty, this pinot gris has an intriguing transparency. The round flavors of fresh apples are edged by a pink grapefruit acidity, spicy and full without feeling heavy or thick. Its bright, spicy finish will lift any simply prepared shellfish, from razor clams to scallops. Zabaco Vintners, Healdsburg, CA
 

 
91 I Adelsheim $17
2003 Oregon Pinot Gris

Youthful gris from Oregon can possess salinity that works almost like a fining agent on your palate, clarifying the flavors into something pristine and beautiful. So it is with this gris, with its precise aromas of quinine and lime. Yet there's an unexpected richness pushing through its citrusy, slightly herb-tinged flavors and a finish that brings fine riverbank soil to mind. Match that rich cut of citrus with grilled calamari. Adelsheim Vineyard, Newberg, OR
 

 
91 I Chehalem $16
2003 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris

A little dull and hoppy at first, this wine gained its footing with air, transformed from blunt to detailed. Those ethereal elements of sea air that gris can sometimes provide become vividly present. Tasting the wine together, both Josh Greene and I were struck by its clarity; he described it as ‘glassy'— something here feels pure and clear and transparent. (3,100 cases) Chehalem, Newberg, OR
 

 
91 I King Estate $15
2002 Oregon Pinot Gris

Fresh and flinty, this wine's racy green apple aromas are laced with smoke and talc. Not quite as rich or lasting as King Estate's Reserve, this still has a stony, cleanly drawn elegance, and it will continue to meld over the next half-year or longer. Chill down and serve with roast chicken à la Zuni Café. King Estate Winery, Eugene, OR
 

 
Marsanne, Roussanne & Viognier
94 I Qupé $25
2002 Santa Ynez Valley Ibarra-Young Vineyard Viognier

It's rare to find a California viognier with the textural depth and stature of a great Condrieu. Yet that's here in this supple, nervous wine, the succulence of the texture extended by the complex fresh peach flavors that burst in the finish. It grows at a relatively cool site, on rootstock planted in 1972 (budded to viognier in '87). The low-yielding vines give a high-toned grape-skin spice, as well as a mineral character that places it with clams, whether a bowl of steamers or a platter of geoduck sashimi. (174 cases) Qupé Wine Cellars, Santa Maria, CA
 

 
93 I Qupé $15
2002 Santa Ynez Valley Marsanne

Grab a few bottles of this intensely rich marsanne, then try to describe just what's so delicious about the wine. Is it the combination of quince and flint, the freshness of rainwater, the acidity of yellow heirloom apples keeping the fruit delineated rather than blunt? It's more beautiful a day after first opened, predicting a long life ahead as the flavors unfold with age. (788 cases) Qupé Wine Cellars, Santa Maria, CA
 

 
93 I Columbia Winery $25
2002 Yakima Valley Signature Series Viognier

Powerfully fruited yet clean, the flavors of this wine last for over a minute after each taste. The complex fruit beams with light rather than heat, speaking more of freshness than perfume. Walk past an antique rose in the summer and you may get a sense of the aroma; taste an exotic tropical fruit and it may not reach this viognier's complexity. Crystal clear, heady and delicious, this is a wine to decant with veal sweetbreads or foie gras. (238 cases) Columbia Winery, Woodinville, WA
 

 
93 I Peay $31
2002 Sonoma Coast Viognier

This viognier is a true coastal white; it captures the feel of the far coast as if bottling a storm. In that sense, it's less like a Condrieu than a vermentino grown on the hills above the Mediterranean. It has the same bristly acidity, the piercing taste of spring onions, the clarity and freshness of water from a cool spring. Then the varietal kicks in, providing the velvet texture and the nuttiness of young green shoots to match roast sweetbreads — unless you're intent on following the coastal theme, where your options might range from grilled octopus to shark. Peay Vineyards, Annapolis, CA
 

 
92 I Peay $31
2002 Sonoma Coast Roussanne/Marsanne

Tense and leesy when first poured, this offers a scent of almond paste that develops toward fresher almonds and pea shoots with air. The texture is waxy as fresh nutmeats, the finish savory and clean. Given time, what starts off tangy and tight builds to a blast of flavor, almost exotic in its compatibility with crab and asparagus soup, or with something closer to its Mediterranean home, like a spring salad of white asparagus. Peay Vineyards, Annapolis, CA
 

 
92 I Terre Rouge $22
2002 Sierra Foothills Roussanne

A fascinating expression of the Sierra Foothills, captured in roussanne. The constricted power of this wine offers a range of impressions, from the spice released by a tight kernel of jasmine pearl green tea to the sky breaking open with the sun. The flavors are balanced between the fat of a nectarine, the juiciness of a ripe orange and the flintiness of cracked stone. What will it do as it ages? Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Plymouth, CA
 

 
92 I Zaca Mesa $30
2002 Santa Ynez Valley Roussanne

Fresh and oceanic, this has the textural exotica of roussanne, here played out on a riff of corn silk and juicy pear. It's the second harvest off an eight-acre block planted to the Tablas Creek clone, and the floral, almost pungent scent seems to contrast the fruit against the heavy clay soil in which it grew. That tension keeps it in tune with Peruvian ćeviche. (300 cases) Zaca Mesa Winery, Los Olivos, CA
 

 
92 I Vinum $22
2002 San Benito County Vista Verde Vineyard Viognier

The golden sun in a glass, this captures the richness and breadth of California-grown fruit and contrasts it with the Grillet-like tones of viognier grown toward a fresh nut flavor. Broad as it is, the wine remains subtle, with a lasting impression of fresh pear. Serve this cellar temperature for chicken roasted with oranges. (475 cases) Vinum Cellars, Oakville, CA