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Vive la Californie : 'Great Chardonnay Challenge' Is Won by 1985 Napa Valley Reserve


IN "VINES, GRAPESand Wines" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), British master of wine Jancis Robinson opens her chapter on Chardonnay by writing: "In Chardonnay is one of the happiest of all combinations: the grower loves to grow it; the wine maker loves to fashion it, and we all love to drink it. The result of this felicitous cuvee is that Chardonnay is, without question, the single most sought after varietal in the world today."

Chardonnay is the classic varietal base in three of France's premier wines: Champagne, Chablis and white Burgundy. The mere mention, among connoisseurs, of the celebrated white Burgundy, Le Montrachet, evokes rapturous recollection--tinged with painful contemplation of current price levels.

The June, 1988, issue of Decanter magazine, published in London, announced the results of its own recent tasting, "The Great Chardonnay Challenge." The panel evaluated 85 wines from Burgundy, the Loire, Chablis, Italy, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal, California, Oregon, Idaho, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The tasters were told to analyze each wine for balance, eschewing those of overpowering oak.

Only 4 of the 10 wines from France made it to the finals, as did 12 of 17 from Australia, 8 of 9 from New Zealand and 9 of 20 from the United States.

First place went to Robert Mondavi 1985 Napa Valley Chardonnay Reserve, second place to Nederburg 1984 Chardonnay from South Africa. Also among the most honored were Covey Rise from Idaho, Rothbury Estate of the Hunter Valley 1986 Reserve, and Stag's Leap Wine Cellers 1985 Napa Valley Chardonnay.

The first French wine to show up in the tabulation of winners, Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 1986, was rather down the list. And entries still lower in the rankings were Beaune Clos des Mouches 1985 of Joseph Drouhin, neighboring Chateau Bouchaine 1985 Napa Valley Chardonnay, Chateau St. Jean 1985 Sonoma County Chardonnay, Firestone Santa Ynez 1984 Chardonnay, and Trefethen 1984 Napa Valley Chardonnay.

The Robert Mondavi 1985 Napa Valley Chardonnay Reserve that won the Decanter tasting was one of 15 Chardonnays tasted this year at the annual Kapalua Wine Symposium July 7 on Maui in Hawaii. Eight wine makers were invited to submit their current release Chardonnay, along with an aged, library example. (Alas, Orville Magoon's 1986 North Coast Guenoc Chardonnay got lost in transit.) Some wine makers had changed their style deliberately in those in-between years. David Stare had styled his Dry Creek Vineyard Chardonnay away from the big, deep golden, subtly complex, partially barrel-fermented 1985 Reserve, with partial malolactic fermentation. Robert Travers of Mayacamas confessed that he still makes his old-fashioned Chardonnay in yesteryear's equipment--using open concrete fermenters, moving the wine into large oak, then into smaller barrels. His grapes are mountain-grown with but a one-ton-per-acre yield that results in the notable Mayacamas intensity. Both editions of the Grgich Hills Chardonnays--of 1985 and 1983--indicated Michael Grgich's dedication to ripe, mature grapes.

I asked Robert Mondavi to bring to dinner a bottle of his champion Chardonnay. We sipped this golden wine--100% barrel-fermented in fine, toasted French oak; rich with breed and round with taste. At $25, it's half the price of a comparably fine Le Montrachet, earning it the double honors of excellence and good value.

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