The chardonnay grape is a freckled, greenish-amber bauble of sugar and flavor that makes the finest dry white wines in the world.

It is single-handedly responsible for the international fame of small patches of land named Chablis, Meursault, Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuisse' and Ma~con, and it also is an important ingredient in most French champagnes. Today there are more than 35,000 acres of chardonnay in France.

In 1959 there were only 200 acres of chardonnay in the whole state of California. Today there are almost 30,000 acres, making it unquestionably that state's premier white wine grape. Although chardonnay is grown and made in several other states, California makes more chardonnay wine -- and more great chardonnay -- than any other state.

In cooler climates, such as that of Chablis or New York's Finger Lakes, chardonnay makes a sharp, crisp, citrusy, light-bodied wine. Farther south, in Meursault or California, where the fruit gets riper, the body fills out, the liquid thickens, the flavors get more intense, almost buttery, and the alcohol creeps up a degree or two to about 13 per cent.

Most wine makers feel chardonnay tastes best when flavored slightly with essence of oak as a sort of seasoning. When aged in oak barrels, chardonnay slowly extracts and dissolves delicate flavors from the stays. The wood extract gives wine a pleasant carpenter-shop aroma. Other tasters say the flavor varies from tealike to minty to vanilla to buttery to toasty, depending on where the oak is grown and how the barrel is made or how old it is.

Most chardonnays spend some time in wood barrels of varied sizes, but each wine maker decides just how much or how little oak with which to flavor the wine. Many decide to leave the wine fresh and grapelike, a style called fruity because it more closely resembles the fruit from which it is made.

Generally, chardonnays do not reach their flavor peak until they are 2 to 4 years old. Some, particularly, those higher in alcohol and acidity, will continue to improve for 7 to 10 years.

A More Complex Style During the 1970s an adolescent American wine industry experimented with every style of chardonnay possible. Big, rich, alcoholic wines became popular. Now a more subtle style, more delicate, more complex, and better suited to a wide range of foods is emerging.

This evolution was obvious at the American Wine Competition's Chardonnay judging recently. In all, 288 chardonnays from 14 states were judged, with medals going to wines from California, Idaho, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington. California chardonnays took all five Platinum Medals and 24 of the 28 Gold Medals. Three golds went to Washington State and one went to Idaho.

Judges included some of the nation's most respected wine merchants, restaurateurs and critics. The top seven wines were tasted by 21 judges whose scores were averaged. Other medal-winning wines were tasted by at least 13 judges.

The judges' tasting notes on Platinum- and Gold-Medal winners are loaded with descriptions of deep, complex character; intense, lemony-appley fruit; smoky-toasty nuances and prominent acidity. There are strikingly few references to butter, high extract, or big oak until we get into the Silver- and Bronze-Medal wines. There the plush, buttery-oaky, more 1970s' "California-style" chardonnays begin to surface again in numbers.

The years of 1985 and 1986 were superb for grape growers in California and (less consistently) in other states. Reading down the medal list, one finds that all the top awards come from those two vintages until an '84 crops up among the Silvers, then several '84s and one 1983 wine in the Bronze Medals.

Price Prices ranged from $4 to $40, with a median price of $10. Five wines were given Best Buy Awards, including a Gold Medal winner from Glen Ellen, its 1985 Sonoma Valley Proprietor's Reserve, which sells for only $4.50 at the winery. The top-ranked Kendall-Jackson lists for $16. Kendall-Jackson also tied for third place and won another Platinum Medal with its 1986 "Vintner's Reserve." It sells for $9.50.

If you want the best, you must pay more, right? Wrong. Average price of all 287 chardonnays entered: $11.19. Average price of the 100 wines winning medals: $10.63. Average price of the wines that won Gold and Platinum Medals: $10.01.

Multiple Winners The "Best American Chardonnay Award" and a Platinum Medal went to Kendall-Jackson 1985 Proprietor's Chardonnay, Barrel Fermented, from California. This marks a return to the winner's circle for Kendall-Jackson, winner of a Platinum Medal and the Best American Chardonnay Award in the 1983 American Wine Competition.

Kendall-Jackson stands head-and-shoulders above the other multiple-medal-winners in this competition with its two Platinum Medals (one a Best Buy), two Golds for its Northstar and Mariposa labels (also one a Best Buy), and two Silvers.

Another multiple winner is Ventana Vineyards: winner of two Golds and a Bronze Medal this year, and a consistent winner in the past. Fetzer has added a Gold and two Silvers to their string of medals. Glen Ellen won two Gold Medals in this judging, one a Best Buy.

Other big winners this year repeating strong showings for their chardonnays in previous American Wine Competitions: Silverado, White Oak, Congress Springs, Byron, Saintsbury, Newton, Grgich Hills and Morgan. All of these producers are best bets.

For a complete list of winners and nonwinners, tasting notes from the judges, an analysis of the results send $2 to International Wine Review, P.O. Box 285, Ithaca, N.Y. 14851.

Wine Find Kendall-Jackson 1985 The Proprietor's Chardonnay, Barrel Fermented, California: This wine won the title "Best American Chardonnay" and a Platinum Medal at the American Wine Competition with a score of 98 out of a possible 100 points. Judges described it as "a flawless example of the new generation of California chardonnays with the premium on balance and complexity. Deep, rich, tropical fruit scents and flavors are perfectly complemented by smoky oak, vanilla and acidity. Mellow on the palate, but there is crispness too. Great structure and depth show promise for continued development. Very long, expansive finish."

Just behind the 1985 Proprietor's Reserve, with 96 points and another Platinum Medal was the Kendall-Jackson 1986 Chardonnay, Vintner's Reserve, California. This was described by the judges as: "Possesses rich fruit suggesting lemons and apples, with very bright acidity to match. Still somewhat tight, this wine begins to open up in the glass, picking up herbal aromas, floral notes, light oak. High acidity and more-than-usual residual sweetness in this wine (0.5 percent, still below detectability as sweetness for all but one of the judges) gives a vibrant impression. Needs time in the bottle to settle down."

Serving: Both wines are crisp and tart enough to accompany fatty white meats like chicken or game birds, but will also do nicely with broiled fish that is not too buttery.

Price: Suggested retail of the 1985 Proprietor's Reserve is about $15 per bottle. The 1986 Vintner's Reserve is about $11. Actual price may vary significantly. Wholesale supplier is Milton Kronheim, Inc., (202) 526-8000. Wholesale suppliers cannot sell directly to consumers, but your wine merchant can buy from wholesalers.

1987 by Craig Goldwyn, International Wine Review magazine