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Drink : TASTING NOTES

Chardonnay's Slump Means Good Buys

February 21, 2001|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In California we have become intimately familiar lately with the economic laws of supply and demand, thanks to the price of electricity and Cabernet Sauvignon. While the latter hasn't gotten as much attention from the mainstream press, in wine circles it's certainly well known, as $100 bottles are no longer a rarity.

Yet, there are two segments of the local wine marketplace that are very near saturation. They are Merlot and Chardonnay, the two varieties that have been planted the most heavily here in the last decade. We are now seeing the results in the slowing down of Merlot price increases, and, more significantly, we see Chardonnay prices actually falling.

One need only look at the statistics to see the result of the oversupply. Prices paid for Chardonnay grapes from the 1999 vintage (the latest for which statistics are available) have actually fallen almost 20% since 1986 and almost 9% since 1998-while the harvest over the last 10 years has nearly tripled, from 162,000 tons to 458,000 tons.

More to the point, recent tastings of that grape have turned up the largest collection of good value wines that has been seen in more than a decade.

GOOD VALUE CHARDONNAYS

$ * * 1998 Byron Vineyard and Winery, Santa Maria Valley, $20. Very few wineries can match Byron for success with Chardonnay, and in its best vintages it becomes a great value for the money. Here is a bright, succulent, fruity wine whose sweet lemon and lightly floral character is enhanced by notes of vanilla beans and roasted pecans. It is impeccably balanced and wholly satisfying yet it can be set aside for a few years if you are into aging your Chardonnays.

$ * * 1999 Chateau Souverain, Sonoma County, $14. The direct, engaging personality of this young wine carries it a very long way toward stardom, and its oaky, rich background is rarely found in wines of this modest price. It is medium-full in body and generously fruity. It is the kind of wine that you can haul home by the case and know that everyone will love it.

$ 1999 Fetzer Vineyards "Barrel Select," Mendocino County, $11. Everything about this clean, pleasant wine says "Drink me now," from its mild, appley and citrusy fruit to its smooth, somewhat full feel on the palate. It is an easy wine to find on grocery store shelves, and it will occasionally show up at a deep discount, becoming even more of a bargain.

$ 1999 Geyser Peak Winery, Sonoma County, $10. This wine takes a floral, slightly tropical approach to Chardonnay, and its ever-so-slight sweetness gives it length and a certain come-hither richness. It is a bit lighter than the Fetzer, but it is a nice, easy quaff and will make a fine match for lighter fish and chicken preparations.

$ 1999 Husch Vineyards, Mendocino, $11. The Husch style is typically clean and uncomplicated Sometimes that can equate to dull and shallow, but not so with this latest offering. The wine offers a fair bit of clean, apple-like fruit with just a hint of a roasted vanilla note.

$ 1999 Martini Prati Winery "Tower Hill Series," California, $10. Joining in the fun is this somewhat simple but very enjoyable Chardonnay, whose appley fruit and light oak come in a nicely balanced presentation.

$ 1999 Meridian Vineyards, Santa Barbara County, $9. The Meridian Chardonnay has been my most consistent choice for value over the past several vintages, and while it is now being challenged for that title, it is still a wine with inviting fruit and good balance. It has a bit of the tropical tone and the bright finishing flavors that often accompany Santa Barbara County Chards.

$ * * 1998 Meridian Vineyards "Limited Release," Santa Barbara County, $20. The big, complex brother to the preceding wine, this intense, expansive effort takes good fruit and brisk acidity and mates it with very rich, toasty oak and an attractive sense of viscosity. It is another in the parade of exceptional bargains awaiting you among high-quality Chardonnays.

$ 1998 Rabbit Ridge Vineyards, Sonoma County, $10. Here, again, is a wine that offers more for the money than you might expect. If neither bold nor dramatic, this rounded, well-ripened and wholly amicable bottling is simply a pleasure to drink.

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Definition of Symbols

* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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