Winter Whites 

Wines to stock up on before the next unseasonable heat wave.

I know one or two highfalutin hostesses who serve only white wine and Champagne at their holiday parties, so as to avoid any pesky red stains on their tasteful white rugs and furniture. But for the rest of us — especially those who have decorated our abodes in wall-to-wall shades of burgundy and magenta, in gleeful anticipation of the next sloshed glass—white wine is generally out of sight and out of mind in winter months. After all, it's far cozier to sip a Merlot, Cab, or Syrah by the fire, after a day spent braving that mid-to-low-50s chill.

Here's the rub: with our likes and dislikes regarding white wines happily hibernating, it can be quite jarring to encounter a January heat wave, when we're caught with nary a box of Chablis in our cellars. In the spirit of being prepared for the next run of winter balminess, we tasted four Chardonnays this week, with some surprising results.

Our favorite was the 2007 Morro Bay Vineyards California Chardonnay ($9.99), thanks to a delightfully complex aroma full of ripe fruit, caramel, cinnamon, allspice, and clove. That clove stayed with us on the palate, competing with fairly high acid, and was still present in the Morro Bay's spicy finish. A delicious value with lots going on — from a winery that despite its deceptive brand name is actually based just outside Lodi.

I'm always excited to try a Russian River Valley Chardonnay, since that region of Sonoma has a cooler climate that often brings out the best in the varietal. And at $19.99 a bottle, this week's Russian River pick was also an exciting foray into a higher price point. While the 2006 Esterlina Chardonnay did not have any qualities that screamed "expensive," it had a nice, slightly vegetal aroma and pleasant flavors on the palate — although our Token Winemaker did complain that it was a little too "hot," or noticeably high-alcohol.

Still, we preferred the Esterlina over the other offering from a Sonoma winery in this tasting: the 2007 Ravenswood Vintners Blend California Chardonnay ($9.99). Ravenswood's Zinfandels rarely disappoint, but the Chardonnay was burdened by an unappealing muted aroma, as well as discordant flavors on the palate and finish. Others might appreciate the notes of clove and tropical fruit and the slight sweetness here, but for now we're sticking with the tried-and-true Zin.

Finally, redeeming itself from a poor showing in our "big red" tasting last November is the (oops) label from Chile's Valle Central. The winery came through with the nonvintage (oops) Bodacious Blonde ($11), an inventive blend of 86 percent Chardonnay and 14 percent white Carmenère. The aroma was reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, with an absence of fruit, and more Sauv Blanc–like qualities appeared in the taste, which was full of melon with a touch of sweetness. Overall this was a well-balanced wine with a lovely finish.


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