- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

California chardonnay sometimes is criticized as being excessive — too fat or blowzy, overly oaky, ubiquitous — but it remains America’s most popular wine. Sure, some examples taste unbalanced and, hence, unpleasant, but plenty of others are rich, ripe and full of flavor — just what millions of wine drinkers want. The 2002 vintage ranks with the state’s best. Wine lovers (rather than wine snobs) will want to buy the top versions, many of which are just now showing up in stores.

California chardonnay’s popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1970, only about 3,000 acres were planted with the grape variety in the whole state; today, it is closer to 100,000 acres. Back then, almost half of the crop could be found in one San Benito County vineyard, where it was used primarily in generic jug blends. Now the grape is cultivated all over, with the majority of the plantings in the cooler coastal regions. Only a few contemporary California wineries don’t include at least one varietally labeled chardonnay in their portfolios.

With so many grapes coming from so many vineyards, it’s not surprising that the quality of California chardonnay can vary widely. Considered as a whole, however, the category is quite impressive. The state’s merlots, pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs disappoint more often. And good chardonnay seems to be getting better — meaning more subtle and nuanced, marked by finesse as well as power.

When California chardonnay does miss the mark, the problem tends to come from overcropped vineyards in excessively hot locales. The resulting wines lack structure, so they are easily overwhelmed by oak when aged in barrel. But when the varietal is on target, with ample fruit flavor and balancing acidity to enable the maturing wine to integrate with the wood, the result can be sumptuous.

Better wines come from better vines, and the improved quality of much California chardonnay can be traced directly to the introduction over the past 15 years or so of new clones, many imported from Burgundy. As winemakers have become more experienced with the fruit from these vines, their wines have become more elegant and refined.

California chardonnay comes in a range of styles, reflecting both the nature of the vineyard site and the predilection of the winemaker. Although few renditions are as steely and mineral-scented as French Chablis (also made from chardonnay), some fine wines do fall on the light, lean side of the spectrum. Of course, plenty of others are full-bodied, lush and lavish — the more typical California style.

Generally, the finest wines come from cool (or at least not hot) regions, places where the grapes will mature slowly and evenly, retaining acidity while ripening fully. So, too, the best vintages are those without extended heat spells. In 2002, especially in the northern half of the state, there were few spikes in temperature, so the grapes did not develop too quickly. Particularly in places such as Carneros, the Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma Coast, conditions were near perfect.

Good California chardonnay need not be expensive. For under $10, look for the 2002s from Fetzer Sundial, Pepperwood Grove, Smoking Loon and Stone Cellars. They’re not multilayered like the top examples but offer plenty of flavor and fun.

At the other end of the price scale, wines from single vineyards (or single blocks within vineyards) can be quite pricey. Demand for them inevitably exceeds supply, so the top chardonnays from producers such as Kistler, Kongsgaard and Peter Michael regularly come in at well above $50 per bottle. However, between those extremes, particularly in a strong vintage such as 2002, a bevy of exciting wines are deliciously nuanced and pleasantly affordable.

Here are my top choices among wines I’ve tasted this summer. None will set you back more than $30 — an admittedly arbitrary but, I think, appropriate cutoff point when affordability is at issue. They’re listed in rough order of preference, with preference including cost as a factor.

Chateau Souverain Sonoma County 2002 ($15). This is textbook California chardonnay — richly scented; with citrus, apple and pineapple fruit flavors; subtle but evident spice from a judicious use of oak; a seductively creamy texture; and a satisfyingly long finish. All that and the added advantage of a near-bargain price.

Chateau Souverain offers one of California’s most exciting and undervalued portfolios. With the exception of a somewhat uninspired sauvignon blanc, everything coming from talented winemaker Ed Killian is worth buying. In addition to this sumptuous chardonnay, his cabernet, merlot and zinfandel should not be missed.

Hanna Russian River Valley 2002 ($22). From another Sonoma County winery making some exemplary wines these days, this is a rich, lavish chardonnay, with tropical fruit flavors, hints of secondary caramel and butterscotch, and a lush finish. A big wine, its clearly defined structure prevents it from seeming fat or unfocused.

Talley Arroyo Grande Estate 2002 ($30). Talley consistently produces excellent chardonnay and pinot noir from its estate vineyards just south of San Luis Obispo. Its single-vineyard Rosemary’s offering ranks with the state’s very best, and in 2002, this one doesn’t lag far behind. It tastes rich but at the same time restrained, with excellent balance, giving it more than a passing resemblance to Cote de Beaune white Burgundy.

Hess Collection Napa Valley 2002 ($22). Hess excels consistently with fine, full-bodied but extremely well-focused chardonnay. This is one of the better examples coming from the often-too-warm Napa Valley.

Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County 2002 ($14). Famed for its single-vineyard offerings, Chateau St. Jean also stars in 2002 with its more basic Sonoma County offering a rich and ripe, but at the same time beautifully balanced, wine that is an excellent value.

Geyser Peak Block Collection Carneros Ricci Vineyard 2002 ($21). A lighter, more delicate wine than you might expect from Geyser Peak, this chardonnay tastes of green apples and bright citrus fruit, with a flowery bouquet and a subtly nuanced finish.

Saintsbury Carneros 2002 ($20). Better known for ripe but balanced pinot noirs, Saintsbury produces chardonnays that exhibit the same virtues: full but never excessive fruit, a prudent use of oak and excellent structure.

MacRostie Carneros 2002 ($21). Tasting of apples and lemons, this wine tastes crisp and fresh but offers a soft, supple texture — a delightful combination.

Girard Russian River 2002 ($22). Rich but lively, with pear, citrus and apple flavors atop vanilla and spice from oak aging, this is a well-balanced, refreshing example of California chardonnay.

La Crema Sonoma Coast 2002 ($17). Tasting of ripe pears and apples, with a spicy finish, this is another in a long line now of fine chardonnays from La Crema, a name you can trust with the varietal.

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