White-wine bargains for under $10 Value: If you're willing to try something different, the rewards will be numerous.

September 28, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Logic says it should be easier to find truly distinguished white wines for under $10 than it is to find reds of comparable quality.

After all, white wines generally do not require as much time -- for which you can read money -- in oak barrels as comparable reds. Whites are generally less vulnerable to vintage variations. And with some exceptions, white grape varieties retain more quality despite high yields than reds.

But logic doesn't seem to know a whole lot about wine. A recent sampling of what's on the market showed that shopping for white-wine bargains is a riskier business than seeking reds.

The problem is not that there is a lack of impressive wines on the market; it's that when you choose the wrong wine, you're likely to find yourself stuck with something truly dreadful.

It's an especially chancy market for the poor consumers who are so devoted to chardonnay that they won't consider another white-wine variety.

A few years ago, there was a host of fine California chardonnays in the category known as "fighting varietals."

But today it is apparent that a lot of the fight has gone out of the chardonnays in this group. Most have either disappeared from the market or have been made from grapes of steadily declining pedigree. Chile seems to be the best hope now.

Sauvignon blancs, on the other hand, have been slipping over the $10 threshold in greater numbers as more consumers recognize the high quality of the grape variety. One excellent example is Dry Creek's consistently excellent California fume blanc (the same grape). For years, it was a reliable budget selection; now it goes for about $12. It was either that or sink into mediocrity.

The makers of some well-established brand names apparently have decided to hold onto their market niche by letting the wine quality go down.

What else could explain the weak showings of such wines as Hugel's Gentil from Alsace or Peter Lehmann's Barossa Semillon from Australia?

With the familiar varieties and regions under increasing price pressure, it behooves the frugal wine connoisseur to keep an open mind and be willing to try new things. Thus, the list that follows -- in rough order of preference -- includes many white-wine names that might be unfamiliar.

Try them -- you'll like them.

* 1996 Viognier de Campuget Cuvee Prestige, Vin du Pays du Gard ($9.99). Surprise, surprise. Here's a dry viognier from the unhallowed ground of the south of France that does a convincing imitation of a good $40 Condrieu from the Rhone. This peachy, melony wine with hints of white pepper and lychee nuts is a truly exceptional value. Importer Robert Kacher deserves laurels for selecting this wine. It's worth buying by the case -- but only if you're thirsty enough to drink it up over the next year. Viogniers do not improve in the bottle. If you can score some really sweet scallops, this is the wine to pair them with.

* 1995 Chateau Ste. Michelle Barrel-Fermented Columbia Valley

Semillon ($7.49). For two decades, this Washington state semillon has been one of the undiscovered gems of American winemaking. It's a rich, toasty wine with excellent bite, a silky texture, a long finish and hints of pear, lemon, herbs and wood smoke. A natural with smoked salmon or trout.

* 1995 Chateau Ste. Michelle Barrel-Fermented Columbia Valley

Sauvignon Blanc ($9.69). How much proof do you need that Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the world's most reliable large wineries? There's a fierce intensity to the dry wine's flavors of fig, lemon, toast and herbs. Match it with grilled seafood.

* 1996 Veramonte Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley ($9.99). This bright, fruity wine with well-integrated oak flavors is a far cry from the typical Chilean chardonnay of not-so-yesteryear. Flavors of apple, toast, lemon and white pepper lend it a moderate complexity. Try it with grilled swordfish or chicken in a creamy sauce.

* 1996 Buena Vista Sauvignon Blanc, California ($8.49) This isn't a full-bodied wine but it has an impressive intensity. It's quite dry, very fresh and offers classic sauvignon blanc flavors of herbs, juniper and smoke. A natural wine to serve with flounder or rockfish.

* 1995 Napa Ridge North Coast Chardonnay ($6.99). There's nothing fancy about this medium-bodied chardonnay; it's just a well-balanced wine with the right touch of oak for the quality of the fruit. It's a relatively crisp style of chardonnay, with hints of lemon, apple and chalk. A fine salmon companion.

* 1995 Columbia Crest Chardonnay ($7.99). This moderately complex, medium-weight chardonnay offers an interesting flavor mix: toast, yeast, lemon and a hint of banana. Another fine choice with salmon.

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