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Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

Chardonnay: "Let the fruit stand on its own"

Special to the Seattle Times

Chardonnay outsells sauvignon blanc by better than 7-to-1, according to pollster AC Nielsen.

I think a lot of wine lovers honestly believe that the natural flavors of chardonnay are butter and toast — flavors that come from the winemaking and the new oak barrels, not the grape. Maybe I've had one too many California chardonnays that tasted like microwave popcorn, but put me squarely in the camp that likes them unoaked, unwooded, naked or whatever the marketing buzzword of the day happens to be. By any name, the trend toward making chardonnay in stainless steel, without the influence of oak, is a welcome one for me. I say let the fruit stand on its own, and let's see what it can do.

Until a vineyard has proven it can produce flavorful chardonnay without leaning on a wooden crutch, I don't think that gussying it up with barrel flavors is doing the grape's reputation any favor. New oak and the other tricks of the trade may add flavor, but the flavors they add have nothing to do with the two things that matter most: fruit and soil.

For me, the world's best chardonnays come from the Chablis region of Northern Burgundy. Yes there is a hint of oak in some of these wines, but not in most. What comes through in the best of them is a delicious synergy of apples, citrus, honey and rock, sometimes searingly tart, sometimes thicker, with stone fruits and pear. The key thing about Chablis is that it is expressive and pure, and here the chardonnay grape can pretty much stand alone, without being tarted up.

Tasting through a dozen Chablis wines from the 2004 vintage, a mix of plain A.C. Chablis, premier cru and grand cru, what showed most clearly was the influence of the producer. The vigneron, not the vintage, sets the tone here. Since this was a blind tasting, it was also interesting to see which wines showed best when price was an unknown. Two of my favorite wines were the two least expensive.

Gérard Tremblay is a producer I was not familiar with prior to this tasting, but his regular A.C. bottling ($19) carried scents of wild clover and set the tone for an elegant, feminine wine with a lingering, lightly oily, dusty finish.

Tremblay's Premier Cru 'Montmain' ($26) was consistent in style, smooth and honeyed, rich and lightly oily, with more of those pleasing clover notes and a hint of minerality. These wines are highly recommended and distributed by Cavatappi.

Pick of the week


Penfold's 2004 Koonunga Hill Shiraz; $10. The distributor is offering an exceptional deal this month on this fine Australian shiraz. This was right up there with my favorites in a flight of shiraz tasted blind last month; the $50 competition was only marginally riper. The K-Hill delivers smooth, dark fruit, sweet under a wash of earthy tannins, leading to a long, rich finish laced with cocoa and roasted coffee. (Noble)

Unless noted, all Wine Adviser recommendations are currently available, though vintages may sometimes differ. All wine shops and most groceries have a wine specialist on staff. Show them this column, and if they do not have the wine in stock, they can order it for you from the local distributor (noted in parentheses).

A selection of Chablis from Domaine William Fevre brought mixed reviews from the tasting group. One thing to note: Fevre makes both "Domaine" bottlings (clearly marked) and non-Domaine bottlings, which are less expensive. The best value by far is the Fevre A.C. bottling ($25), a tart, lemony, puckery wine with interesting streaks of citrus, stone, graphite and spice. At the other end of the spectrum, the Grands Crus from Fevre were disappointing. Perhaps tasted too young, but at $78 a bottle I felt they should have delivered a lot more precision. Mere ripeness you can find for a lot less in California.

Which leads to the question, can you find flavors comparable to the better Chablis in California chardonnays? Rarely, if ever. But on the other hand, the days when American wines needed to emulate the great wines of Europe are long past; what is happening here is unique and fascinating, all on its own. The challenge is to find what grapes can do in our soils, our climate, our vineyards.

Chardonnay is not an easy test. But I want to see what the grape tastes like here, not what a spendy barrel tastes like. As I was tasting blind through several flights of new California chardonnay releases I found often that I preferred the regular bottling over the reserve, the unoaked over the barrel-fermented. Nonetheless, for those of you who still like those seductive butter and toast flavors, I've listed some good examples of each below.

Recommended American chardonnays:

Sebastiani 2004 Sonoma County Chardonnay; $10. This is the last of this vintage and it's being closed out at a great price. Well-made, soft and ripe, with sweet, oaky, toasty flavors. The ripe pineapple fruit speaks of a more expensive wine, which this was in its younger days. Sebastiani also makes a very limited, very excellent 2005 'Casa de Sonoma' Unoaked Chardonnay ($18). That's the one for me, but you'll have to special order it. (Alaska)

Kenwood 2005 Sonoma County Chardonnay; $13. Firm, solid fruit, right up front, with a strong core of apple and pear. Nothing flashy, but plenty of full-bodied flavor. Again, it outshines the pricier reserve. (Young's — Columbia)

Huntington 2005 Sonoma County Chardonnay; $14. Nice hints of citrus, tangerine, orange peel, layered in a clean, bracing wine with hints of almond and light vanilla.

Simi 2005 Sonoma County Chardonnay; $16. OK, here's a wine that ought to read "Oakville" (I know, that's Napa, but ... ). Nonetheless, it keeps its balance, and offers up sweet, nutty, buttery flavors wrapped around pretty, ripe stone fruits. Much better than the reserve. (Young's — Columbia)

Cuvaison 2004 Chardonnay; $22. Cuvaison inaugurated a brand new winemaking facility with the 2004 vintage, and the wines show an elegance and breed that has been missing in the past. There are well-managed melon and apple flavors, an underpinning of vanilla and the crispness of Carneros fruit. The 'Estate Selection' ($35) is bigger, creamier and oakier, for those who prefer to walk the plank. (Odom)

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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