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Berger: A wine that changed my life

In 1979 I walked into my favorite wine shop and asked the merchant, whom I knew, for a white wine that I hadn't tasted before.

I was then a chardonnay lover who had dabbled in sauvignon blanc, so was surprised when he led me to a shelf of white Bordeaux wines and grabbed a bottle that cost $11; $4 more than my favorite chardonnay.

“Try this,” he said. “It will change your life.”

It did. The wine was 1971 Chateau Laville Haut-Brion, a white Graves, made largely from semillon with some sauvignon blanc and a tiny bit of the floral grape muscadelle.

Over the years, I have had some startling Graves and many other white wines that had Semillon in them. The Hunter Valley of Australia is widely known for the greatness of its semillon wines, and the grape (blends with sauvignon blanc) also makes some special wines in the United States.

But as with a number of other less well known grape varieties, such wines rarely get any attention by magazines and newsletters, and that is mainly because the wines tend to be hard to understand.

For one thing, the best thing to do with a Graves, or an Australian semillon, is not to drink it. At least right away. They are at their best with bottle age, and few people have the patience to stash young white wines.

So few white wines are made to be aged that most people drink up their Aussie semillons and Graves far too young and make the assumption that these lean, flavorless and tart wines are of no use.

They're simply drinking them too young. One reason I liked the 1971 Laville Haut-Brion was that I had it when it was 8 years old, still far too young, but at least with a bit of bottle age. (Today a bottle of 2008 Laville Haut-Brion would be about $350 to $400.)

Over the years, I have had many great semillon experiences and recently found a few American producers making major statements with such wines, and not just drink-now versions. Some have long-aging potential.

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