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Chardonnay Burnout


Some people hit an age in life when they experience midlife crisis; mine appears to be taking the form of Chardonnay burnout.

Chardonnay may be considered California's greatest white wine, but I'm bored with the whole idea. Wine makers don't seem interested in making a Chardonnay that tastes like wine; these days, Chardonnay has to be big, rich, bold--a s tatement .

Each year as the new Chardonnays hit the market, I sample as many as I can get. I judge them in major wine competitions. And I see more and more of the same thing: fat, oaky, overdone flavors; flabby, sweet, thin, innocuous tastes.

Chardonnay is made from grapes. Yet instead of grapes these days, I frequently taste the oak barrel it's fermented in. Some wineries like to trumpet the fact that they make "buttery" Chardonnays. Since when does the Chardonnay grape yield a buttery aroma or taste?

I attended a tasting not long ago where a couple of dozen young Chardonnays were poured blind. So many of these wines were sweet, with noticeable residual sugar, that I can't imagine people putting them on a table with food.

One wine that was dry (hooray!) smelled more like refermenting apple juice and tasted of sour well water. Another had an aroma akin to paper; a third was more like Riesling than Chardonnay. A number of these wines sell for more than $20 a bottle, but they were dull and uninteresting.

I've watched others drink these wines and heard them say, "give it time in the bottle; it'll be better."

Sure, and the Cubs will win the pennant.

A few weeks ago I tasted 60 older Chardonnays dating back to 1980--not particularly a long time ago. Just a tiny handful of the wines we sampled were still alive and kicking. The rest, in the words of John Cleese, were deceased, bereft of life, pushing up daisies, and had gone to join the choir invisible.

In the 1980s, restaurants in the major cities grew up. We discovered arugula and radicchio, tapenade and peanut sauce, wild mushrooms and southwestern chiles, nouvelle and California cuisines, baby vegetables, Southern cooking with black-eyed peas and grits, and Oriental spices.

But no matter what they ate, people ordered Chardonnay. Semillon or sparkling wine would go better with lots of these foods, and so would a half dozen others: dry German or Washington State Rieslings, Pinot Grigio or Arneis from Italy, or Semillon from Australia. Thai food and sausages scream out for dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, yet in places where these foods are served, we are offered Chardonnay.

Americans don't lack adventurousness when they are dining. Only when they are drinking wine.

I believe that Chardonnay became as popular as it is partly because it is the "safe" choice for diners who don't know enough to comfortably order a Mercury Blanc, a Sancerre or an Arneis. In the 1960s and 1970s, the "call" wine was Pouilly-Fuisse, and people were proud to be able to pronounce it. Those same people wouldn't dream of ordering it today--they've moved on to Chardonnay.

For a white table wine to go with dinner, we needn't spend a small fortune for a wine that can be such a crap shoot. Consider Sauvignon Blanc as an alternative to Chardonnay. A group of 35 wineries is doing just that. They have banded together in the Society of Blancs (SOBs) to promote the variety. Their goal: to bring newcomers to wine into the Sauvignon Blanc camp.

And why not? The wine's benefits are obvious:

--In the last five years or so, Californians have made Sauvignon Blanc with more style and less of the vegetative character that once dominated the wines.

--They are far cheaper: The most expensive Sauvignon Blancs run little more than $10, and most are in the $7 to $9 range. Compare this with Chardonnay selling for $15 to $17.

--Alcohols are typically lower, in the 12% to 13% range; Chardonnays usually have more alcohol, a consideration when matching wine with food. (Spicy food tastes even spicier with high-alcohol wines.)

--Sauvignon Blanc is available in a wider range of styles: some with oak, some without; some with a trace of sugar, others without; some grassy, some like a French Graves.

In a recent series of tastings, I loved the 1989 Sauvignon Blancs from Louis Martini and Raymond (both sell for about $7.50 a bottle and are discounted).

Another stunner is 1989 Greenwood Ridge from Mendocino County ($7.50), an exotic wine with a spice element I have rarely seen in Sauvignon Blanc. It won five gold medals at major wine competitions this year.

Other 1989 Sauvignon Blancs or Fume Blancs I have liked this year are Preston Reserve, $12, and Robert Pecota, $9.25, both creamier and richer than typical Loire styles; Buena Vista Lake County, $8.50, and Kenwood, $9.50, both slightly sweet; White Oak, $8, with a mild hay aroma; De Loach Fume Blanc, $9, a spicy, lemony wine; Adler Fels, $9.50; and Dry Creek, $9.25, superb grassy styles; Clos Pegase, $9.50, with a Loire and spice character; Ferrari-Carano, $9, and Iron Horse, $11, leaning more on a lemon grass aroma; Markham, $7, and Matanzas Creek, $11, accenting melons and pears.

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