November 21, 2006
Two Chardonnays to Praise

I've an odd feeling this morning, and it could be because I suspect I might be on the verge of becoming a chardonnay fan. This isn't like me at all. I wonder if I'm coming down with something. Until recently - like last night and the night before - my white wine of choice with dinner almost invariably has been sauvignon blanc, for its forward fruit, honed acidity, lean structure and overall liveliness that makes it such a refreshing presence at the table.

In contrast, too many chardonnays have been a letdown. If not thin and watery, with so little fruit you can't recognize the varietal, they've tended to be overly ripe, unbalanced, dense with oak, noticeably sweet, and warm with alcohol. They don't go with food, though they might be fine for launching ships.

But the past two nights have been a happy revelation. On Sunday, we opened the Mahoney Vineyards 2005 Gavin Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay ($20) with roast chicken and pasta with pesto. It's deceivingly light in color, just a pale shade of straw, but its tropical-fruit flavor, most notably pineapple, was fresh and distinct. The wine was barrel fermented, and half of it went through malolactic fermentation, but the oak is evident as only a touch of smoke, the secondary fermentation in its silkiness, not a softening that dulls the sharp acidity. The wine tastes of sweet fruit, not sugar. It brings a teasing mineral element to the mouth that invites you back for one more sip, then another. Chardonnays this elegant don't come along often, especially at just $20 a bottle. The "Mahoney" label, incidentally, is new, but the owner, Francis Mahoney, has been around since founding Carneros Creek Winery in 1972, which became celebrated largely for spectacular pinot noirs. He sold the Carneros Creek brand two years ago, but now is teamed up with seasoned winemaker Ken Foster to made wines under the Mahoney brand. They're again specializing in pinot noir, but don't overlook this gorgeous chardonnay.

Inspired by my luck with the Mahoney chardonnay, I last night opened another new Carneros chardonnay, the Robert Mondavi Winery 2004 Carneros Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay ($35). While brighter in color and richer in flavor than the Mahoney, it's also a chardonnay to enjoy for its fresh fruit flavors - citrus and apples, principally - and its exquisite balance and long, exhilarating finish, which includes toastiness from the Burgundian oak in which most of the juice was fermented, and a refreshing prickly spiciness. I liked its complexity. Our son Justin, visiting from Bangkok for Thanksgiving, isn't often moved to praise a wine, but even he said this was a chardonnay he really, really liked.

I don't know how well either of these chardonnays would work on the Thanksgiving table, and I wouldn't recommend them for a meal that heavy and robust, but as a hostess present or as a gift during the year-end holidays I can't imagine a chardonnay enthusiast not appreciating either of these versions.

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