Checking out charms of various chardonnays

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Taste tests turn up bottlings for under $15 that would grace the finest table.

June 02, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

What is it about chardonnay that makes it so popular?

As a grape varietal, it lacks the crystalline delicacy of a fine German riesling. It doesn't offer the creamy texture of a fine Alsace pinot blanc. It doesn't have the herbal bite or food-friendly character of sauvignon blanc.

Heck, most of the time it needs a wooden crutch to keep it from collapsing into bland neutrality.

But it makes no difference what we in the Loyal Order of Carping Critics say. Chardonnay is wildly popular. Go into any decently stocked wine store and you'll see dozens upon dozens of chardonnay labels.

Of course, chardonnay can be wonderful. In its native Burgundy, the grape yields white wines of magisterial dignity and rounded elegance. The best examples from California or Australia can rival the finest from France. Some of us lament chardonnay's dependence on oak barrels, but there's no question that the marriage of flavors is wonderful when it works.

The best chardonnays can carry some rather formidable price tags, however. Top-of-the-line white Burgundy can command more than $150; the best California chardonnays fetch $40 and up.

Down in the trenches where the ordinary folks shop -- where $15 is plenty to pay for a little drinking pleasure -- the quality of the wines is hit or miss.

Having spent the last few weeks tasting inexpensive and mid-priced chardonnays from California, Washington state, Australia and South America, I can attest that consumers who like mediocrity have a wealth of choices. New labels seem to arrive every week; many seem to be the same boring wine tasted under a different label a month ago.

But let's not dwell on the empty half of the wineglass. There are chardonnays on the market for less than $15 that would grace the finest table.

One important caveat: You improve your chances of buying a fine chardonnay if you stick with the youngest available vintage -- 1997 in California and 1998 for the Southern Hemisphere. Except at the most rarefied levels, chardonnay does not often improve in the bottle. Overly oaky chardonnays are particularly likely to collapse of their own weight.

Here are some of the more appealing choices on the market today:

* 1997 Peter Lehmann "The Barossa" Chardonnay, Australia ($15). Full-bodied and intense, with well-integrated oak. Some actual complexity here.

* 1997 Firestone Chardonnay, Santa Ynez Valley ($13). Creamy texture, toasty oak, generous peach and pear flavors. California exuberance, but with crisp south-central coast acidity.

* 1997 Hogue Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($10). Very distinct Granny Smith apple flavors, baked up with spices and seasoned with unobtrusive oak. Excellent value.

* 1997 Wildhurst Vineyards Chardonnay, Clear Lake ($13). Everything comes together with fine balance and intensity. White pepper, pear add flavor interest.

* 1997 Toasted Head Chardonnay, from R. H. Phillips, Dunnigan Hills ($13.49). Medium-bodied, with intensity and class.

* 1996 Turning Leaf Chardonnay, California ($12). Excellent balance and a hint of white pepper. Not showing its age.

* 1997 Hawkcrest Chardonnay, California ($12). Nothing spectacular, just has everything in harmony.

* 1997 Napa Ridge Chardonnay, North Coast ($9). Ditto.

* 1997 William Hill Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($12). A breezy style of chardonnay, with a hint of banana.

* 1998 Rosemount Estate Chardonnay, 25th Anniversary, Southeastern Australia ($10). A delicate, subtle, easy-to-sip wine.

* 1997 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($11). Honey, melon and tropical fruit, but not over the top.

* 1997 Corbett Canyon Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County Reserve ($9). A light, refreshing chardonnay at a reasonable price.

Although it was at a slightly lower quality level, the 1997 Talus Chardonnay represents good value when on sale for $8 or less. The 1997 Markham, a light but pleasant wine, is a rare Napa Valley chardonnay for under $10.

The 1997 Beringer Founder's Estate Chardonnay is probably the least successful of four wines in this new series of inexpensive wines from this reliable Napa Valley winery. But it's a good wine when it's on sale at around $8. The 1998 Tyrrell's Long Flat Chardonnay is pleasant for a wine under $7. The 1997 Wyndham Estate Bin 222 Chardonnay justifies spending $6, but not much more.

And now it's time to call the roll of the chard-offenders. All are California wines unless otherwise specified.

* 1998 Hardy's, Southeastern Australia ($10). Overripe and artificial-tasting.

* 1997 Bogle ($11). Hollow and short.

* 1997 Stonehedge Barrel-Fermented ($9). Candied fruit, sweet enough to send you to the dentist.

* 1997 Forest Glen ($9.69). Overblown and a bit crude.

* 1997 Glass Mountain ($11). Basic and boring.

* 1997 Fetzer Barrel Select, Mendocino County ($13). Good fruit beaten to death with oak.

* 1997 Hahn Estates, Monterey ($10). Like tasting an oak plank.

* 1997 Suter, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina ($8). Blunt, neutral. Don't cry for it.

* 1997 Benziger ($12). If you dig mint in chardonnay, consider this wine recommended.

* 1997 Dunnewood Barrel Select, North Coast ($7.49). Hollow middle. Done too soon.

* 1997 Dante, Sonoma County ($9). Infernally ordinary. Leave it in limbo.

Pub Date: 06/02/99

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