Anyone who has ever gone to a party and drunk wine from a jug knows that bigger is not necessarily better.
It's one of the dirty little secrets of American social life: Lots of otherwise gracious hosts serve lousy wine at parties, receptions, charity events and other occasions on which people mingle and drink wine while standing up and juggling hors d'oeuvres.
In some cases, it's enough to drive even the most dedicated wine lover to beer.
For the most part, these "party" wines are white and come out of those highly useful 1.5-liter magnum bottles. In most good wine stores, these wines have their own section, segregated from the more prestigious wines in their standard 750-milliliter bottles.
A recent sampling of the marketplace for these "jug" whites -- for our purposes, anything under $15 and regularly sold in magnums -- found the overall quality to be surprisingly high. So why is it that the good wine is always at the party someone else is attending?
Enough whining. The fact is that a conscientious host who wants to make an event more pleasant with a decent white wine has many good choices. Some might cost a little more money than the cheapest choices, but the guests will appreciate the extra effort.
That doesn't mean there's a good reason to spend top dollar on a wine that will be competing with crab dip and flirtation. The $8-$15 range offers a wide variety of fine selections. Here are some of the best:
* 1997 Round Hill California Chardonnay ($14.59). Long a favorite of budget-minded connoisseurs, Round Hill produces a chardonnay that stands out in this category. The richness, delineation, crispness and vanilla bean flavors suggest a much more expensive chardonnay. People will return to places this is poured.
* 1997 R. H. Phillips Night Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Dunnigan Hills ($11.49). Here's one of the wine world's great values from one of California's most reliable producers. The biting intensity and crystal-clear focus are superb for a wine in this price bracket. It's nearly bone-dry, with excellent flavors of herbs, smoke, peach and pear.
* Rene Barbier Mediterranean White, Penedes ($8.59). This bone-dry, crisp white wine is truly an amazing value. There's a pleasant herbal bite, if you like such things, and a hint of white pepper. There's more body than you'd expect from an inexpensive Spanish wine.
* 1997 Haywood California Chardonnay ($14.59). Like the popular Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, this wine offers a touch of residual sugar. Still, it's a well-rounded wine with a ripe, creamy feel, and the sweetness isn't excessive.
* 1996 Cypress California Chardonnay ($14.59). This medium-bodied chardonnay from the reliable J. Lohr winery offers well-balanced oak and flavor nuances of lemon, apple, peach and melon. It's not complex, but offers enjoyable casual sipping.
* 1997 M. G. Vallejo California Chardonnay ($12.50). This fresh, enjoyable wine displays good chardonnay fruit without a lot of oak. It's a little understated, but there's a creamy feel and appealing flavors of lemon and apple.
* 1997 R. H. Phillips Barrel Select, Dunnigan Hills ($14.59). Year in and year out, Phillips gives its customers good value in chardonnay, even if the product is overshadowed by the winery's sauvignon blanc. This medium-bodied wine is slightly on the oaky side, which appeals to many, and has good varietal character.
* 1997 Grove Street Barrel Select California Chardonnay ($14.59). More subtle than most chardonnays in this price range, the Grove Street combines flavors of apple, pear, lemon and light oak.
* 1997 Santa Carolina Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc, Colchagua Valley ($8.59). There's good bite and a touch of juniper in this artful blend. Despite its second billing, the sauvignon blanc predominates, giving this very dry wine its intriguing herbal character.
* 1997 Brunellesco Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($10.49). A bone-dry Italian white wine with real character -- what a rarity! But this pinot grigio delivers crisp mineral flavors and a very clean, racy finish.
* 1998 Concha y Toro Chardonnay, Valle Central ($8.59). This Chilean wine will never win prizes for complexity or intensity, but it's a good, honest chardonnay with oak that's light enough to let the apple, pear and vanilla flavors come through.
* 1998 Sunrise Chardonnay, Valle Central ($10). The Sunrise is one step up from the Concha y Toro, but not any more pleasing to the palate. It's a little odd, in a nice sort of way, with minty and herbal characteristics and little apparent oak. One could mistake it for a blend with sauvignon blanc, but the results are taasty.
* 1997 La Vieille Ferme ($12.59). This blend of grenache blanc, roussanne and ugni blanc from the south of France was a little disappointing because of a lack of acidity in the finish. But it does offer some appealing peach and mineral flavors.
Tasted but not recommended were the 1997 Sutter Home California Chardonnay ($11.59); 1997 C. K. Mondavi Chardonnay ($11.59); and the Lindemans Cawalla Homestead Southeast Australian Semillon-Chardonnay ($10).
A must to avoid, unless you like sickly sweet chardonnay, is the Cedar Creek Southeast Australian Chardonnay ($10).
Pub Date: 03/03/99