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Looking for affordable, balanced chardonnays

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
May 29, 2002
Someone asked me the other day what I was trying to prove with Thursday evening's tasting of California chardonnay wines, all of which retail under $20.
Two things. One is that there is a vast difference in quality and flavor between wines in the under-$10 class and those priced between $10 and $20.
Secondly, while there is admittedly also a difference in the $10-$20 wine group and those in the $20-$40 range, the difference when you go up is not as noticeable and as dramatic as when you drop down.
When I drink chardonnay, I'm looking for a crisp, clean wine that throws off a very pleasant bouquet or "nose," as it is called. It should have a distinctive flavor, usually of citrus, either lemon or grapefruit, but normally lemon, and be extremely well-balanced.
An outstanding chardonnay needs a degree of acidity to create its personality. The citrus quality of the chardonnay grape, when properly handled, gives it that quality. "Balance," as defined in wine tasting, means that no one flavor dominates the wine to the exclusion of others.
Yes, I like the lemony taste already mentioned, but I don't want the wine to be so tangy that it could come packaged in a Real Lemon bottle and no one would notice the difference.
Chardonnay pitfalls
I also prefer my chardonnays young, no older than six or seven years, because as they approach the age of 10 most of them darken in color and develop an unpleasant raisin-like flavor that tells you they've been on the shelf too long.
The problem with the inexpensive wines is that many of them have been hyped up with added sugar under the belief that American consumers prefer sweet wines.
True, many of them do, as proven by the popularity of the white zinfandels, but if I'm going to drink a sweet wine I want to know there's a sweet wine in there when I open the bottle. A few of the low-end chardonnays, the $5 and $6 bottlings, are almost syrupy. With a very few exceptions, such as the Meridian label, under-$10 California chardonnays are not recommended.
So when the wines were chosen for this tasting, some of California's greatest wine makers were selected. All are rated by The Wine Spectator magazine between 87 and 89, the "very good" category.
Admittedly some of them are from the winery's second line, but they are still remarkable values. Morgan Reserve, for example, is a marvelous wine. It sells for about $40 a bottle and I have a friend who uses it for his house wine, so I've had the opportunity to taste it often. It's somewhat better than their regular Morgan wine tasting attendees will drink Thursday night, but the regular sells for $19.20 a bottle. Is the Reserve twice as good as its less expensive brother? I don't think so.
California growers
fill in the voids
America's love affair with chardonnay wines did not really start until the 1970s. As a matter of truth, America's love affair with California wines of any kind did not start until then. French wines, both white and red, were so dominant prior to that time they were considered to be the standard of the world. White burgundies, even though they were also made with the same chardonnay grapes, put American whites in the shadows.
When the glorious and very great French vintage of 1982 came out, I bought 12 cases of French wines at bargain basement prices, 10 reds and two whites. At that time, I had perhaps six bottles of California wines in my entire cellar.
But the reception of that vintage made the French believe they could sell their future wines at any price they chose to ask; over the next several years the dollar lost value at the same time wine prices zoomed skyward. California growers stepped in, greatly improved the quality of their grapes and their wines and filled the voids the French themselves had created.
Today as I look down the list of available wines in the state warehouse, I see white burgundies that sell retail for $75, $85 or even $100 a bottle. There is exactly one that sells in the $25-$30 price range. There are none below that.
There are some quality and less expensive white wines from Macon and other areas of France, but the renowned white burgundies are no longer affordable. And my cellar is now dominated by American, Australian and Spanish wines with very few from France.
Today, chardonnay is the most planted grape in California. The winemakers of that state have learned how to make wonderful chardonnays in all price ranges, and tomorrow we will prove it.
Thursday's tasting
Attendees will taste eight lovely chardonnays: De Loach, Guenoc, Heitz, Carneros Creek, St. Supery, Shooting Star, Markham and Morgan. All are priced under $20 a bottle retail. At the door, we will sample Karly's sauvignon blanc, made by the same winery whose zinfandels are so popular in Meridian. That's a total of nine wines.
We still have seats available, but we would appreciate your call to make a reservation so we how much wine to chill. The number is 482-0930.
The price is $25, the place is Northwood Country Club and you do not have to be a member to attend. The public is welcome. The tasting starts at 6:30 p.m. and usually runs until about 8:30. If you are a knowledgeable wine lover come and enjoy. If you are a beginner, come and learn.