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Originally published Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Wine Adviser

Some chardonnays stand out from the herd

With chardonnay as plentiful as it gets, consumers can have a tough time distinguishing those that are worth their time and money. Here is a list of some that stand out, including those from Barefoot Cellars, RiverAerie and Phelps Creek Vineyards.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Nugan Estate 2008 Vision Series 'Riverina' Chardonnay; $10

An Australian import, this isn't doctored up with kindergarten colors and a critter label. The wine speaks for itself, with clean and well-defined peach, melon and citrus fruit. (Unique Wine Company distributes)

CHARDONNAY HAS been — and still is — the leading white-wine varietal in this country, both in terms of vineyard acreage (vast!) and sales (humongous). It's a worldwide superstar, too. The grape thrives in just about every country where wine grapes are grown. It is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible to many wine writers.

Personally, I enjoy chardonnays, but confess I rarely get excited about them. Like many consumers, I find it hard to know what's going to be in the bottle labeled chardonnay. Will it be steely and crisp, tasting of green apples and lemon juice? Will it be fleshy and fruity — a bowl of stone fruits, tropical fruits, bubble gum? Will it be buttered popcorn in a bottle? Toast and coffee? Ancient sea life soaked in chalk?

Chardonnay can be any and all of the above. No unknown label is going to give you much of a clue about what's inside, beyond simple (or silly) terms such as "naked" or "unwooded." So you have to do some scouting to find producers who make the style of chardonnay you enjoy, at a price you are willing to pay.

Here are some good options at a variety of price points:

Barefoot Cellars is one of the dozens of Gallo brands, this one specializing in a broad range of inexpensive wines that can at times over-deliver. The cheapest Barefoot wines sell for around $7 and are nonvintage. I have nothing against nonvintage wines, but that labeling does present a challenge to consumers, because you don't know just how long that bottle has been sitting on the retailer's shelf. I would suggest you purchase only from someone you know, who can assure you that the wine was recently acquired.

The Barefoot chardonnay I tasted recently carried an impression of slight sweetness and crisp fruit, with a hint of toast. Though labeled chardonnay, the wine is actually a blend with chenin blanc, viognier and gewürztraminer in the mix. Good bottle for seven bucks.

RiverAerie is the less-expensive "value" lineup from Bunnell Family winery in Prosser, Benton County. I consistently find that RiverAerie wines offer great flavor. The 2008 chardonnay ($14) is crisp and delicious, and absolutely loaded with stone fruits, fresh-cut pineapple and juicy citrus.

Thistle, a tiny Oregon boutique, recently caught my attention. It makes three white wines and a pinot noir, and all perform well beyond their modest prices. The Thistle 2007 chardonnay ($18) comes from organically farmed, estate-grown, Dundee Hills fruit. Clean and bracing, it brings a tasty mix of tangerine, Meyer lemon, lime, green apple and tonic. You'll need to purchase directly from the winery by visiting www.thistlewines.com.

I find that almost without exception, cheap chardonnays that try to emulate pricier, oak-aged wines are overloaded with artificial flavors of vanilla and tobacco, an attempt to conceal the lack of good, ripe fruit. Chardonnays that use real barrels to generate barrel flavors will cost you a bit more.

Over the course of his first four or five vintages, winemaker Chris Sparkman has made a superb chardonnay called Lumière. The 2008 release ($25), sourced from Stillwater Creek vineyard, is his best yet. Yeasty and young, dense and loaded with fresh pear, toasted nuts and butter, this is for those who love their chardonnay with plenty of new oak.

On the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge, Phelps Creek Vineyards is showing a marvelous touch with chardonnay. Its two newest releases showcase grapes from both sides of the river. The Phelps Creek Vineyards 2008 Estate Reserve chardonnay ($26) is a luscious mix of apple, pear and melon fruit, buoyed by perfect acidity.

The Phelps Creek Vineyards 2008 Celilo Vineyard chardonnay ($24) provides a lovely counterpoint — peach and melon and lemon-drop fruit, with plenty of pleasing barrel toast and spice.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries." Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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