While California's finest chardonnary wines have established themselves as "world class," there is a tendency to deride those of less sophistication, breeding and price. One theory is that the consumer is better off buying a top-of-the line wine from another white grape, say chenin blanc, than a run-of-the-mill chardonnay.
But after our generally successful and mildly uplifting tasting of California chardonnays priced at $6.50 or less, it is possible to sound off with a cheer or two.
As a group, there wines possess superb color. Most are fermented to an attractive level of dryness and are in good physical shape: They have the body to go well with substantial foods and generally smell and taste as clean as they look. In general, they are more forward (ready to drink) than those that bring up top dollar.
Chardonnay, or pinot chardonnay, is California's most expensive white wine grape. In part that is because of its very low yield, but also because the grape is a true thoroughbred. According to "Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine," the chardonnay is "one of the very finest of all white wine grapes, rivaled only by the true Riesling." It is the grape used in white Burundies, from Montrachet to Meursaults, from Chablis to Pouilly Fuisse, and the white grape that is used to make champagne.
What the chardonnay possesses is superb character. It can be light and crisp, in the Chablis style, or full-bodied, even "buttery" in the Montrachet vein; at either extreme it is usually fragrant, fills the mouth and has a memorable aftertaste. It goes well with shellfish and has the body to stand up to cream sauces and spiced foods. Various fruit tastes and a variety of smells are attributed to the chardonnay. Apple and peach are among the nice ones. Bell pepper is less appealing and then there is the sense of "barnyard" or "wet straw" in the nose that - in moderation - says Burgundy to the taster. In fullness, it usually says overripe or spoiled grapes badly vinified.
Different styles of chardonnay are obtained from different soil. But they are also determined by the winemaker's decisions: how long to leave the grapes on the vine; whether to ferment in such a way to accent color; and the length of time and type of wood in the barrels use for aging. A small winery, Hanzell, was the first California winery to bring oak barrels from Burgundy. That was only 22 years ago, but so impressive was the strenght and flavor of Hanzell's chardonnay that others followed. Today French, American and Yugoslav oak barrels are in use and hot arguments are carried on about the relative merits of each.
Chardonnay grapes are grown in most areas of California, including some that don't suit them very well. This is the first potential danger of buying a California chardonnay that doesn't bear a vineyard or specific area designation on the bottle. The grapes could indeed by chardonnay, but grown under such hot or wet conditions that the character of the wine is unrecognizable. A second risk concerns the amount of chardonnay in the bottle. With grapes prices up and yields down during the drought years of 1976 and 1977, there was a great temptation to blend chardonnay with a less expensive grape. A wine from either year can contain as little as 51 percent chardonnay and still be legally entitled to a varietal label.
The intention in our recent tastings was to compare chardonnays from the 1977 vintage, the most recent on the market here. The price ceiling of $6.50 left room to sample wines in what has become the moderate category. (There is no "cheap" chardonnay today, although the bargain-conscious should note the price of Los Hermanos. It hung there, as they say, with the considerably more costly competition.) Our sampling by no means covered the field. There are more 1977 chardonnays available at $6.50 or less. One highly praised, is San Martin's Limited Vintage, which has been available exclusively at Central Liquors. Others include Beaulieu's "Beaufort," Franciscan, Trefethen and Christain Brothers (nonvintage).
The most highly esteemed chardonnays cost $9 to $13 a bottle, and even as much as $16. (Of course white Burgundies, and not just Le Montrachet, could very well clear the $20 per bottle barrier in the not-too-distant future.) Some vineyard names to look for in this price class are Chateau Monthelena, Chateau St. Jean, Freemark Abbey, Spring Mountain, Robert Mondavi, Keenan, Joseph Phelps.
The presence of one high-priced wine, Burgess Cellar's Winery Lake chardonnay, was intentional. It was intended to provide a frame of reference and did: The wine was deeper, richer and more complex that the others but did not embarrass them. The inclusion of Sonoma's 1976 chardonnay was inadvertent but instructive.
Chardonnay does mature in the bottle and should, even in the moderate price category, be laid away for awhile if possible. Seers look into their crystal balls and say it takes seven years for a California chardonnay to reach full maturity. Of course that isn't true for every wine in every vintage. While the 1976s are drinking better now - and may cost less in some instances - it is unlikely that the 1977s - except for a few "monster" wines - will be slow to mature or particularly long-lived. It was the second year of the drought, so the grapes were small and quantity was limited.
These conditions also tested winemakers severely, and not all of them achieved a balance of fruit, sugar and acid. There is a tendency for the '77s to be high in acid, too high in some cases. Those who plan to buy cases of chardonnay for cellaring might consider waiting until the very promising 1978s come on the market.
The Washington Post's sampling involved a dozen persons. The tasting was "blind," with each bottle hidden inside a marked bag so none of the tasters knew its identify until after scores and comments have been recorded. The scoring system awarded 20 points to a "perfect" wine. A sampling of the tasters' comments is used to describe each wine. In some instances, there was disagreement; comments contradicting the majority are placed second. Prices are those at the retail shops where the wines were purchased, and may vary from store to store. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption; Chart, 13 California Chardonnays