Chardonnay is familiar. It's safe. It's even easy to pronounce. But let us also consider what chardonnay is not. It is not the perfect wine for every cuisine. Nor is it the wine that delivers the maximum complexity, flavor and food compatibility at affordable prices -- particularly not at $10 or less.
That wine today is far more likely to be the often overlooked sauvignon blanc, especially those from California. Why? Purely economics. Owing to insatiable demand, good chardonnay fruit costs a winery about $2,000 a ton; good sauvignon blanc fruit costs about $800. That, in a nutshell, is why a hot winery such as Ferrari-Carano sells its barrel-fermented, oak-aged, slickly packaged chardonnay for $18, and its barrel-fermented, oak-aged, slickly packaged sauvignon blanc for $10.
But the best argument for sauvignon blanc is not price. It's flavor. Hewing to a trend that started in the Graves region of Bordeaux in the early '80s, California sauvignon blancs are increasingly made by barrel fermentation, lees stirring and other labor-intensive techniques instead of high-tech, but boring cold fermentation and aging in stainless steel. Such Graves-derived techniques emphasize exotic melon and fig flavors, while banishing the assertively grassy, herbaceous flavors that find a proper home almost solely in the narrow confines of the Loire Valley.
The following sauvignon blancs are listed within groups in order of preference, without regard to price (prices approximate). Most (though not all) of the top choices have barrel-fermented, oak character. Some sauvignon blancs are sold as fume' blanc. The name is not a reliable indicator of style. D.C. retailers may order from the wholesaler in brackets. (Maryland and Virginia distribution may vary). Outstanding Beringer 1988 "Knights Valley" Sauvignon Blanc ($9.50): Bold, trend-setting barrel-fermented style. Explosive spicy vanilla and fruit bouquet. On the palate, ripe peach, vanilla and herbal flavors layered over smoky/earthy underpinning. A stunning success that redefines the art of making of California sauvignon blanc. Do not confuse with Beringer's so-so fume' blanc. (Forman)
Ferrari-Carano 1989 Fume' Blanc ($10-$11): Partially barrel fermented and aged in French oak; superb concentration of fruit, with layers of melon and fig flavors; light herbal notes in the bouquet and on the palate add complexity; lively and dramatic, holds together splendidly. (Forman)
St. Clement 1988/9 Sauvignon Blanc (Both $10): The 1988 is round, full and complex, with just the right amount of vanilla oak. The soon-to-be-released 1989 is even better, with an overlay of crisp, Graves-like flintiness married to fresh apple and new wood notes. (Forman)
DeLoach 1989 Fume' Blanc "Russian River" ($9): Mouth-filling, opulent, pineapple and pear-like fruit; bold, fruity and delicious. Do not confuse with the 1989 DeLoach Sauvignon Blanc, which is more austere and grassy. (Washington Wholesale)
Wente 1988 "Estate Reserve" Sauvignon Blanc ($7.50): Exotic vanilla and licorice notes spice up a juicy, generously oaky sauvignon blanc. Combines low price with luscious, chardonnay-like mouth feel. (Washington Wholesale)
Ivan Tamas 1988 Fume' Blanc ($7.50): Great value, an opulent wine that marries generous fruit to spicy new oak. Clean, nongrassy style. (DOPS)
Dry Creek 1989 Fume' Blanc ($10): Aromatic, herbal and fresh as can be, exudes charm and liveliness. (DOPS)
Silverado 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($10): Crisp, lively, sparkling pear and apple fruit with a tangy herbaceousness. (Wine Source)
Simi 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($10.50): Silky, yet rich fruit, subtle marriage of toasty, yeasty barrel-fermented character with the natural tanginess of the sauvignon blanc. (Forman)
Chateau St. Jean 1988 Fume' Blanc "Le Petite Etoile" ($14): Bold and toasty, with sweet oak and fresh herbal notes; has the intensity to stand up to spicy preparations of poultry or fish. (Forman)
Christophe 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($7): Bursting with lush, fresh fruit, set over firm, zesty acidity. Will match well with a wide range of chicken and seafood dishes. (Wine Source;)
Very Good Murphy-Goode 1988 Fume' Blanc ($8.50); Grgich Hills 1988 Fume' Blanc ($14); Matanzas Creek 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($14); Long 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($14); Cakebread 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($15); Rutherford Hill 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($10.50); Kenwood 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($10.50); Benziger 1988 and 1989 Fume' Blanc ($10; the '89 is a tad more complex); Carmenet 1988 "Sonoma" Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ($11); Conn Creek 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($10); Robert Pepi 1989 "Two Heart Canopy" ($9); Lakespring 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Preston 1989 "Cuve'e de Fume'" ($8); St. Supe'ry 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($7.50); Quivira 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9).
Best Buys Under $6 Round Hill 1989 "House" Fume' Blanc ($6): Clean vanilla oak adds an unexpected polish to this supple, well-made, light- to medium-bodied fume'. (Kronheim)
Bel Arbors non-vintage ($5.50): Melony bouquet, lightly herbal, crisply fruity on the palate. A perfect patio white that can do double duty at the table. (Kronheim)
Taft Street 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($5): Made in a nongrassy, Bordeaux style, lightly flinty on the nose; well balanced, clean fruit on the palate. (In D.C., exclusive at Bell's Liquors)
J.W. Morris 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($5): Light, quaffing style with respectable complexity. (Forman)
Also Tasted Quail Ridge 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($8); Flora Springs 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Markham 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Kendall Jackson 1989 "Vintner's Reserve" ($7.50); Zellerbach 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Duckhorn 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($14); Honig 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Sterling 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Konocti 1988 Fume' Blanc "Lake County" ($7); Frog's Leap 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($10); Clos du Bois 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Beaulieu 1988 "Dry Sauvignon Blanc" ($10); Mill Creek Sauvignon Blanc 1985 ($8); Karly 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Stonegate 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9.50); Callaway 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Preston 1988 Sauvignon Blanc "Estate Reserve" ($11); Martini 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($7.50); Steltzner 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Fetzer 1989 "Valley Oaks" Fume' Blanc ($6); Beaulieu 1989 Fume' Blanc ($6.50); Pedroncelli 1989 Fume' Blanc ($8); Beringer 1988 Fume' Blanc ($6.50); McDowell 1988 Fume' Blanc "Mendocino" ($7.50); M.J. Vallejo Fume' Blanc ($5); Creston Manor 1988 Sauvignon Blanc "Paso Robles" ($8); Caymus 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Estancia 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($5.50); St. Andrew 1987 Sauvignon Blanc ($7); Buena Vista 1989 Sauvignon Blanc "Lake County" ($8); Monterey Vineyards 1988 "Classic" ($5); Domaine St. George 1987 "Reserve" ($8.50); Clos Pegase 1987 Sauvignon Blanc "Lake" ($9.50); Carmenet 1986 "Edna Valley" ($12); R.H. Phillips 1989 Night Harvest Cuve'e ($5); La Crema 1987 Sauvignon Blanc ($7); Baldinelli 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($7); Mountain View 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($6); Glen Ellen 1989 Fume' Blanc ($4.50); Hanna 1987 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Chateau Souverain 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($6); William Wheeler 1987 Sauvignon Blanc ($9); Davis Bynum 1987 Fume' Blanc "Reserve" ($9); Liberty School 1989 ($7); Canterbury 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($5); Pecota 1988 "Barrel Fermented" ($9); Plam 1987 "Sacraste Vineyard" ($8); Boeger 1988 "Eldorado" ($6)
Ben Giliberti is a Washington freelancer who writes regularly about wine.