Liquid Assets

Today's chardonnays

During the Eighties and Nineties, you could drive through Napa or Sonoma and see acre after acre of vineyard being ripped out and replanted with Chardonnay. Blame the craze for oaky and slightly sweet wines started by Kendall-Jackson. When consumers started demanding that style, wineries wanted to fill the need. Suddenly, we had oceans of the stuff streaming in from California. Then, just like anything trendy, there was a backlash, and wine geeks started beating up on the poor Chardonnay grape. It was almost like you had to hate the grape to appear to be among the informed. Well, don't believe it for a second: You just need to know which wines to pick.

The first great Chardonnays came from the Burgundy area of France, and they still make the most food-friendly versions. The best of these (from the Côte de Beaune area) can run hundreds of dollars, but you can also find some great Burgundian bargains from the area around Mâcon. These wines tend to be lighter, with tropical fruit and floral scents along with nice acids, which makes them good food wines. Picking a good winemaker is just as important in Mâcon as anywhere else, and I have two recommendations.

The first is Verget, a small-ish outfit run by Jean-Marie Guffens. His wines tend to be a little heartier than most, and a little harder to find. He makes over a dozen different Chardonnays, all in subtly different styles and all delicious, but my favorite combination of style and cost is his Verget Macon Charnay "Les Clos Saint-Pierre" ($19.99).

My second recommendation is a much larger winemaker, Georges Duboeuf, the maker with the flower labels. This winery is best known for its consistently scrumptious Beaujolais, but they also make some great whites. Also, because of Duboeuf's size, they can go into Mâcon's most famous area, Pouilly Fuissé, where good wines can run over $50, and produce a winner like their Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Reissier for just $17.99.

Kiwi Kim Crawford has developed quite a reputation in the United States for his Sauvignon Blanc. But down at his home in New Zealand, he's best known for his Kim Crawford Marlborough Chardonnay ($15.99), an unoaked wine bristling with delicious nectarine aromas and tailor-made for Pacific Rim food. Kim's challenge to the Côte de Beaune style of Chardonnay is his Kim Crawford Tietjen Briant Gisborne Chardonnay ($22.99), a bit more expensive but a stellar bottle of wine for the price. This one has an oaky vanilla aroma to go along with its classic Chardonnay scents, something that would make it a perfect candidate for matching with a saffron-infused seafood dish.

Back in the U.S., Washington wineries are producing some of our best Chardonnays. Hogue Cellars Genesis Chardonnay ($15.99) uses expensive French oak barrels instead of American oak. The flavor is subtler and blends better with this rich but very clean wine. Washington is also the home of what I still, after three consecutive years, consider to be one of the great bargains in wine: Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay ($8.99). Both of these Washington wines taste great with light curries.

Next time someone you know sneers at a Chardonnay, just smile and let them pass it by. That leaves more for us.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Verget Macon Charnay Les Clos Saint-Pierre, Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay, Pouilly Fuissé Clos Reissier, Kim Crawford Marlborough Chardonnay, Kim Crawford Tietjen Briant Gisborne Chardonnay, Hogue Cellars Genesis Chardonnay

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