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Chards, Chards Everywhere


It's easy to take Chardonnay for granted. We're talking about California's most widely planted grape variety, and you tend to think you'll never run out of Chardonnays to choose from. So why pay attention?

California produces more than 800 individual Chardonnays, claims Michael Mondavi, managing director of Robert Mondavi Winery. He should know; his winery probably accounts for at least half a dozen.

But even if familiarity breeds inattention, with so many Chardonnays available, there must be something you like, right? That is, unless you are one of those ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) folks, in which case we have nothing to talk about.

In brief, this is the situation: Low-priced, mass-produced Chardonnays always seem to be around. They may be good values, but they're rarely more.

On the other hand, good wines from smaller producers tend to disappear from stores rapidly. Chances are that when you or I go looking for something to serve with tonight's tuna casserole or salmon tartare with tobiko caviar, we will find a different set of names and choices from what was out there just a few months ago.

With that caveat, here's a roundup of current choices.

* 1997 Bridlewood Winery, Central Coast, $16. Here is a well-filled, medium-bodied Chardonnay from a relatively unknown producer up in Santa Barbara County. The wine is rich in oak and ripe fruit with hints of honey and butterscotch throughout. Its open, fleshy feel will complement meaty fish or chicken rather than tangier seafood entrees.

* 1997 Clos La Chance "Reserve," Santa Cruz Mountains, $23. This small producer has brought several separate Chardonnays to the market at one time, and this one, priced just a few dollars more than its siblings, is my clear choice. Its precise green-apple themes are set against creamy, rich notes of oak, and the underlying acidity gives it a brisker, crisper finish than the Bridlewood above. I like this type of wine with whitefish like snapper or sea bass.

$ 1998 Columbia Crest Winery, Columbia Valley, $9. Sometimes the situation calls for nothing more than a bright, clean, fruity Chardonnay. With its pear-and-citrus personality, this engaging wine would fit the bill even if it were a little more expensive. At $9, though, you will not find many wines to equal it.

* * 1997 Beaucanon "Jacques De Coninck," Napa Valley, $30. Finally, this Napa Valley winery has produced something worthy of note. This one is simply brimming with ripe apple fruitiness and creamy, toasty smells. Yet, for all its generous stuffing, it impresses also with its impeccable balance. Most Chardonnays get consumed within days of their purchase; here is one that will get even better with another year or two in the bottle.

* * * 1998 Landmark Winery "Damaris Reserve," Sonoma/Santa Barbara/Monterey, $32. The best French Chardonnays come from small plots of land with almost unpronounceable hyphenated names. This great Chardonnay comes from all over California and delivers a broad sweep of ripe fruit, honeyed richness and rich oak, all carried in a full-bodied, creamy, supple texture. It is a new favorite at chez Olken, where it has complemented pan-grilled salmon filets and skinless chicken breasts sauteed with white wine, green onions and slivered almonds.

* 1998 Morgan Winery, Monterey, $18. I have long thought that Dan Lee deserves a lot more recognition than he gets for his continuing success with Chardonnay. His latest offering delivers an appealing blend of ripe, citrus-tinged fruit, suggestions of roasted grains and a steely, mineral quality that fits nicely with the wine's somewhat rounded yet firmly balanced construction.

* * 1998 Truchard Vineyards, Carneros, $28. The vital fruit so typical of the Carneros region is accented here by ripe apple and roasted vanilla bean notes. The wine's viscous, mouth-filling entry is balanced nicely by bright acidity. Despite its ample ripeness, this one stays on course from beginning to lengthy aftertaste.

* * 1998 Vine Cliff Cellars, Napa Valley, $34. Here is another ripe yet balanced wine, this one deriving its structure from fruit and youthful energy. Naturally it has the depth and richness to go with its pert apple brightness. Oak and buttery notes add to its range and allow it to accompany dishes like chicken or even lighter veal preparations. I will admit that I might prefer a light red wine in such settings, but my better half almost always chooses Chardonnays like this one.

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