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November 6 - 13, 1997

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Hey Chardonnay

Ignore the backlash -- chardonnay can be a sublime experience

by David Marglin

My enthusiasm for wine is extreme. Fortunately, I get to drink a lot of it. Given the way wine loosens the tongue, I happen to think that everyone who likes drinking wine should feel comfortable talking about it. And that's what this space is for.

First, some demystification: if you like wine, you don't need to know lots of fancy words and descriptions, and you don't need a thousand bottles in your cellar. All you really need is a smidgen of knowledge and some trust. Learn to trust your own instincts and taste buds, because you're the only one experiencing the unique interaction of the wine with your mouth, heart, and, yes, head.

I view this column as a conversation about wine, so let me encourage you to respond: tell us what you liked, and what you disagreed with, what we've missed and what changed your life. (You can e-mail me at wine@phx.com.)

We're going to begin with the world's most popular white-wine grape: chardonnay. The popularity of chard (pronounced "shard") has created a backlash in recent years: some drinkers proudly refer to themselves as ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) people. These chardon-naysayers find the wine too popular, the flavor too generic. Some claim California chards have too much oak, others allege that chardonnay generally does not have enough acidity to stand up to many foods.

But chardonnay, even the cheap kind (as in "Bartender, I'll have a glass of chardonnay"), is extremely approachable. Drunk young, it lets you taste the sunshine. With some age, nuances and complexities come out that can make it the most sublime drinking experience on the planet. (Chardonnay, for example, is the only grape used in the great white Burgundies.)

Noteworthy and eminently drinkable chardonnays are being produced all over the world -- in the US, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile. Still, when it comes to value, California chards often win. For under $20, you'll be quaffing a wine better than anything the Romans or Greeks ever put in their goblets.

Speaking of quaffing, my thinking is that chardonnay, like revenge, is best served cold. Real cold. The best white Burgundies, the Montrachets and Meursaults, may want only slight chilling, but chardonnay at room temperature can often be overwhelming. It tends to be a big wine, filling your mouth with powerful fruity flavors (often balanced by powerful oak and wood notes); when the wine is cold, some of those abundant flavors are restrained. Let the wine arrive gradually at its full potential in your glass. Don't hesitate to feel the bottle when it's presented to you in a restaurant, or to ask for an ice bucket or a marble wine sleeve. (I don't recommend dropping ice cubes into your glass, I've done it in a pinch.)

The key to choosing a chardonnay is deciding whether you want a heavier wine, with lots of oak and butterscotch flavors, or the leaner, crisper version currently in vogue.

French chards tend to be on the leaner side, more spare and subtle, seamless and silky; American and Australian chards tend to be heavyweights, with huge waves of oak and powerful acidity. The fruit notes -- be they pineapple, melon, lemon, or whatever -- fairly leap out. The biggies can be harder to pair with food; if you're at a restaurant, ask a server about the characteristics of the chardonnays on the wine list. Believe me, there are loads of great values out there. And you will never be embarrassed drinking any of the wines listed below.

A note on my ratings: they're highly subjective, and range from no stars (better you should drink antifreeze) to five stars (life is great!). The prices listed are for retail stores; bottles are, of course, subject to availability, though the price shouldn't increase. These are not restaurant prices, which can vary widely.

*** Chateau de La Greffiere Macon La Roche Vineuse (Loire) 1995 ($9.99)
Old-vine chardonnay in the Loire valley? You bet. Mellow and balanced, a great wine that opens in the glass. A sleeper.

*** De Loach Sonoma Chardonnay Russian River Valley 1995 ($14.99)
Known more for reds than for chard, De Loach hand-harvests grapes for this supple, oaky chardonnay. Less fruit than I like, but balanced; pleasant butterscotch aftertaste makes for a dandy. Delectable with pasta or shellfish.

***1/2 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay 1995 ($19.99)
Crisp and lean, with a supple, zesty finish. I will match it against any under-$20 chardonnay in the world.

**** Jed Steele "Steele Cuvée" 1995 ($21)
You'll find Steele on wine lists at restaurants all around town, including the Good Life and Mistral. Plenty of oak and vanilla. Real smooth.


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