In the market for a good $10 Chardonnay? If so, look no further than the Estancia 1997 Pinnacles Chardonnay ($10-$11; distributed by Forman Brothers). Rarely has a wine wired the field as decisively this one did in my recent blind tasting of 48 imported and domestic Chardonnays in the $10-$11 range. Finishing in a class by itself, the Estancia won because of its fresh, full fruit, subtle aromas and fine, dry finish. This is one you don't want to miss.
The closest competitor was the widely distributed 1997 Napa Ridge "North Coast Coastal Vines" Chardonnay ($10; Washington Wholesale). A very good wine at a slightly lower price, it, too, delivered ripe Chardonnay flavors and good intensity. If for some reason you can't find the Estancia, Napa Ridge is a fine alternative.
To liven things up, I threw a few $5-range ringers into the tasting as well. While most were deplorably watery and bland, the 1998 Bel Arbor Chardonnay ($5-$6; Washington Wholesale) finished in the upper-middle range of the pack, a fine showing for an inexpensive wine. It's a touch sweeter than ideal, but it has well above average concentration, a hint of oak, good acidity and a smooth finish. If you're planning a graduation party or summer wedding, it's a great choice. The only trick is that few retailers carry this wine, and some may have the less zesty 1997 in stock. However, Bel Arbor's D.C. distributor, Washington Wholesale, says that the 1998 is arriving at its warehouse now and should be available within days to any retailer who wishes to order it for a customer.
Estancia's blue-ribbon showing is attributable to one factor alone, said Augustin Huneeus, Jr., the winery's senior vice-president, in a telephone interview. "It's all from one great vineyard, [named] Pinnacles," he said. "It's certainly among the best vineyards in Monterey County, which I feel is among the greatest Chardonnay-producing regions in the world." Another factor is that Estancia owns its vineyard. "Most of our competition buys some or all of their grapes from several growers," he emphasized. "I'm not saying that many of these wines are not also quite good, but we feel that the fact that we can control every aspect of the grape production gives us a bit of an edge."
Huneeus gives much credit to Howard Tugel, who manages the vineyard. Before its purchase by Estancia in 1988, the 1,000-acre Pinnacles vineyard was owned by jug-wine baron Paul Masson, and was not thought of as anything special. Tugel, however, saw its potential--if something could be done about the drying winds that whip through the vineyard (and much of Monterey) in the afternoon, shriveling up the leaves and blocking proper ripening. He came up with the idea of breaking up the vineyard into 50 square plots, and delineating each plot by a leafy line of willow trees, to serve as a windbreak. Now resembling a giant willow-lined checkerboard,the vineyard receives just enough of the cooling breezes to keep the grapes from overheating in the torrid Monterey sun, without a daily lashing from the wind.
Estancia's goal is to make a wine for sophisticated wine drinkers at a bargain price. This requires a bit of restraint. Thus, you won't find any Kendall-Jackson-like residual sweetness on the finish here. Nor is there excessive new oak. Instead, only 15 percent of the wine is barrel-fermented, and no new oak is used for aging. This adds a gentle vanilla note to the finish, but doesn't knock one over the head with new wood flavors.
As for Bel Arbor, most of the credit has to go to winemaker Dennis Martin and his team. Working on a tight budget, they manage to do the little extras that give their wine a hint of something more expensive. A favorite trick of Martin's grows out of the fact that Bel Arbor's grapes, from a so-so area of the California Central Valley called Lodi, ripen early and are harvested before those of parent-company Fetzer's more expensive brands. Martin cleverly seizes this window of opportunity to ferment at least some of Bel Arbor's fruit in Fetzer's fancy new oak barrels before they are whisked away to other programs. Martin also allows some wine to go through malolactic fermentation, a Burgundian technique not often employed in this price range. Finally, Martin and his winemaking team blend in as much as 20 percent Chenin Blanc and French Colombard to round out the wine, without sacrificing any Chardonnay character, which is no small trick.
The following wines were also top scorers and are highly recommended: Penfolds Koonunga Hill 1998 Chardonnay ($10, Australia, Forman); Trapiche 1997 Chardonnay "Oak Cask" ($9, Argentina, Forman); Lindemans Bin 65 1998 Chardonnay ($8, Australia, Forman); Sebastiani 1997 Chardonnay Sonoma County ($10-$12, California, Washington Wholesale).