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Saturday, September 15, 2012 - Page updated at 10:30 a.m.

Wine Adviser
Charles Smith and Brennon Leighton focus on Washington chardonnay

By Paul Gregutt
Special to the Seattle Times

JUST BEFORE this year's harvest was about to get rolling, some unexpected winemaker shuffling took place around the state. The story that got the most attention in the national press concerned winemaker Brennon Leighton's move from Efesté to work with Charles Smith on a new project in Walla Walla. Their stated goal is to focus exclusively on a single wine: chardonnay.

I first heard about this (I was sworn to secrecy) some months ago, and I have to admit it struck me then, and still does, as a great idea. Not that there haven't been outstanding Washington chardonnays made in the past. But no one has given it the sort of single-minded effort that could convincingly make the case that Washington chardonnay is at least as good as, if not better than, any chardonnay made in the country.

I often get accused of California-bashing when I launch one of these rants, but that's not the point. The point is that the really good, site-specific California chardonnays are very expensive, and the semi-affordable (under $50) ones seem formulaic. As for Burgundy, admittedly home to the world's greatest chardonnays, those wines are for rich people to enjoy.

Here are the results of a check on high-scoring chardonnays from the past year's reviews in Wine Enthusiast, for whom I write. Interestingly, 94 wines managed a score of 94 points or better. There were 43 Burgundies, with prices ranging from $60 to $550 a bottle, most reaching well into three figures. There were 39 California entries priced from $18 to $130, most averaging between $50 and $60. And there were a dozen wines from the Northwest, including chardonnays from Domaine Serene, Abeja, JM Cellars, Mark Ryan, Gorman, Woodward Canyon, Evening Land, Bergström, Tranche, Rulo and Efesté. They were priced from $20 to $90, with all but three less than $50.

Other recent favorites were chardonnays from Apex, Browne Family, Lauren Ashton, Ryan Patrick and Sleight of Hand. Smith's chardonnay project — still unnamed — will occupy the now-closed Whitman Cellars winery in Walla Walla. "First and foremost," says Smith, "we're investing in quality to make some of the most distinctive wines in the world. Period."

Before Efesté, Leighton was at Ste. Michelle, working with Ernie Loosen on Eroica rieslings. At Efesté, he proved himself to be one of the best winemakers in the state. Most winemakers would agree that white wines are more difficult to make than red. Leighton's focus on sourcing grapes from cool-climate vineyards, fermenting with native yeast and practicing noninterventionist winemaking techniques shows that he is more than qualified to take on this challenge.

He and Smith say they have already found underutilized old-vine chardonnay. In the past, similar searches by Smith and others have led to significant quality gains in many other Washington-grown varietal wines. Now, it's chardonnay's turn. I can't wait to taste the results.

Paul Gregutt's blog is Email:

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