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Originally published Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Wine Adviser

Chardonnay standouts from California

To be blunt, says Seattle Times wine columnist Paul Gregutt the chardonnay grape can be as listless as it is ubiquitous. When not slathered in new oak, the frailty of the grape is often on full display. But here are a few standouts from California.

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CHARDONNAY IS one grape that constantly baffles me. It's grown almost everywhere that good wine can be made, imported in vast quantities, and produced by thousands of wineries on the West Coast. Attempting to review and sort through just the ocean of California chardonnays always puts me in mind of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice. Only instead of buckets of water overwhelming him, it's bottles of chardonnay inundating my wine cellar.

Periodically I gather up as many bottles as possible and do a mass tasting. I taste differently under such conditions. I am not searching gamely for that special word or description that can capture the essence of the wine. I'm scrambling to see what jumps out from the flood of choices and offers not only exceptional flavor but also unusual value.

In my recent forays I have found that the California chards seem to be toning down the butter and oak flavors that were so dominant a decade ago. Many avoid new oak altogether. Given my Northwest palate, I prefer higher acidity in most white wines, including chardonnay, and these oak-less wines have that delightful tang. The higher acidity generally means lower alcohol and a food-friendly style. But with chardonnay, there's a catch.

To be blunt, the grape can be as listless as it is ubiquitous. Plonk, thy name is chardonnay! When not slathered in new oak, the frailty of the grape is often on full display. Washington and Oregon offer better unoaked chardonnays more consistently than California, but most cheap and widely available California chards are mass-produced and sourced from here, there and everywhere. If a wine lacks any specific appellation, and merely reads "California" on the label, it is not likely to bring any depth or specificity to the table.

Here are a few standouts from California. I'm looking for prices in the $12-to-$24 range, rather than cheaper, because you do get better wines for bigger bucks.

Clos du Bois 2009 Chardonnay. North Coast, clean and fruity, $12.

Chamisal 2009 Chardonnay. Stainless, racy, vivid, $18.

Rodney Strong 2009 Chalk Hill Chardonnay. Tight, concentrated, minerally, $20.

Sonoma Cutrer 2009 Chardonnay. Sonoma Coast, juicy, rich, $24.

MacRostie 2008 Chardonnay. Sonoma Coast, nice mix of fruit and barrel, $25.

These new chardonnay releases from Washington and Oregon — admittedly a little pricier overall — offer both quality and relative value.

Mark Ryan 2009 Chardonnay. Beautiful craftsmanship is on display in this mélange of mouth-coating butterscotch, Meyer lemon and sweet citrus flavors, $28.

Dunham 2009 Lewis Estate Shirley Mays Chardonnay. Superbly smooth papaya, banana, pineapple and apricot fruit combines into a seamless, sensuous, full-bodied whole, $24.

Seven of Hearts 2009 Crawford Beck Vineyard Chardonnay. An elegant, compelling Oregon chardonnay, $24.

Grace Cellars 2008 Chardonnay. Bright gold in color, with rich scents of buttered nuts, stone fruits and dusty spices. A lot of flavor for the price, $21.

Adelsheim 2009 Chardonnay. Crisp styling puts the emphasis on clean, refreshing fruit flavors of melon, star fruit, lime and cucumber, with excellent concentration and length, $22.

The Eyrie Vineyards 2009 Chardonnay. Lightly ripened, with yellow and green fruits married to layers of butter and caramel, $23.

Mercer Estates 2009 Chardonnay. A lively mix of citrus and stone fruits, and suggestions of rock and white pepper. A summertime picnic wine, $15.

Cave B 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay. Pine and herb and green-apple scents introduce this sharply defined wine, with crisp acidity and bright fruit flavors, $19.

Saint Laurent 2008 Chardonnay. Barrel fermented, with fine concentration, $20.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is Email:

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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.


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