CHARDONNAY IS one of the world's few great varietals which in California has become nearly indistinguishable from its Old World counterpart. Whether or not the wines are as "good" as their French models is a matter of personal preference or prejudice. One point is clear: The California chardonnays are presently more reliable and less expensive than the burgundies after which they are patterned. They will become even more so in coming years as California prices stabilize, and already stratospheric prices for top quality French wines continue to rise beyond imagination.

In the past decade, California chardonnay watchers have witnessed a continuing evolution in style and quality.

In the early '70s many young wineries, having successfully mastered the intricacies of basic viticulture and viniculture, found themselves in an identity crisis. The chardonnay wines were fruity and sound buy tended to lack personality -- that certain flavor and complexity found in their role models, the white burgundies of the Cote d'Or Though the soils and climates in California vineyards are not, in general, similar to those in Burgundy, some pacesetting small wineries -- including Martin Ray, Hanzell, Stoney Hill, Heitz, Spring Mountain and Chalone -- had shown in the '60s that the wines could be similar. In an attempt to get "that French taste" some producers went on an oak binge. The resulting wines were frequently unbalanced, with the fruit submerged beneath woody overtones, and short-lived.

But California winemakers rarely make the same mistake twice, and moderation has prevailed. Today, most wines are carefully finished in a variety of styles in which the common note is a balance of wood adjusted to accentuate the rightfully predominant fruit.

1978 was a vintage that brought both, smiles and nightmares. The growing season was fairly normal until early September when a period of extremely high temperatures caused the grapes to ripen much faster then usual -- indeed, faster than they could be picked and processed. Sugar levels in many vineyards shot up with such amazing rapidity (due to dehydration) that a number of wines were produced with nearly 14 percent alcohol. High acidity levels were maintained, and the fully ripened grapes produced wines of extraordinary extract and body.

Unlike the more subtle and elegant '77s, they are deep, rich, buttery and powerful with flavors reminiscent of ripe apples and peaches. Virtually all are receiving very high technical marks; 1978 may be the best chardonnay harvest ever. Preferences tend to be related not to quality variations, but to style.

In a "good" year like 1978, many California growers tend to maximize the ripening of the grapes to a point where either the acid level reaches a minimum desired value or the sugar level becomes excessive. This is done to imbue the wine with the greatest possible "character" of the varietal. A high level of sugar carries with it the drawback of high alcohol which must be accommodated in the overall structure and balance of the wine. High alcohol requires lots of fruit, and that in turn requires lots of oak. Thus, the extended ripening possible in California starts an irreversible chain of events which leads to a very rich wine full of clean fruit and fresh oak flavors and fat with glycerine. This unique and stunning but, to some people, exaggerated chardonnay character is what is typically called "California-style." Proper balance of all components at this level is very tricky, and flaws tend to be accentuated.

Balanced wines of more moderate dimensions can be made if the grapes are picked when less ripe either by choice or, as in 1977, by chance. Such wines tend to exhibit more elegance, finesse or suppleness and are more "penetrating" on the palate. Some people call this "French-style" because these wines can be quite similar to the familiar white burgundies. Others reserve the term for wines which further demonstrate certain earthy or smokey flavors and perfume characteristic of French chardonnay -- features which because of soil, climate or processing differences are sometimes lacking in the California version.

The only significant detraction I hear expressed relating to California chardonnays in general and to the 1978 vintage in particular is the sometimes high alcohol content which causes a distinct imbalance and tends to maske flavors. The battle against excessive oak has been won; the generally favorable reception of the '78s despite their high alcohol implies that the battle against excessive alcohol may be a long one. Right now many wines are objectionably "hot," but they are really too young for drinking. They need a minimum of two or three years to soften, merge components and complete the slow and mystical chemical reactions which make the difference between a decent wine and an exceptional wine. Even though they now posses big, silky bodies with fruity overtones and a perfume of new oak (which tend to make them pleasant to sample and appear forward) many are actually quite "closed." Few presently exhibit any semblance of the complexities they will accrue with proper cellar aging. The true quality of the vintage will not be known for at least five years.

A few of the numerous 1978 chardonnays which have been highly rated in recent tastings and which are still available in some stores include Robert Modavi ($11 to $13), St. Clement ($14), Carneros Creek ($11), Raymond ($11), Burgess ($11), Clos du Val ($9), Chateau Montelena ($11), Alexander Valley ($10) and Sonoma Vineyards River West ($8 to $9). The latter, make in a more moderate style (13.2 percent alcohol) is particularly well balanced and attractive right now.

Even in today's affluent, inflation-ridden age, $11 for most people is a lot of money for a bottle of wine; that makes these chardonnays "occasion" wines. For under $6, several chardonnays such as San Martin Limited, Geyser Peak, Louis Martini, Mirrasou Monterey and Pedroncelli offer "value." For everyday drinking, however, Taylor California Cellars offers real value at $3 per bottle with some true chardonnay flavor in a light, pleasant style.

Demand for these wines in Washington far exceeds their availability. Some limited allocations disappear within a few days of their arrival. Consumers should not delay making purchases.