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A Chardonnay Triumph

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Chardonnay is America's favorite white wine. Nothing else is even close. Yet this popular wine has notoriously underperformed on the wine competition circuit in recent years despite its far-reaching appeal.

As director of four important international wine competitions and a judge at numerous wine competitions around the world, I've seen judges go through their sauvignon blanc stage, their riesling stage, their viognier stage and the occasional flirtation with steely white wines, such as albarino and gruner veltliner.

It's been some time, longer than I can remember, since I've seen a significant number of professional wine judges embrace a chardonnay for their top award. Strange, considering the chardonnay grape produces wines of profound character in many parts of the world. I have concluded that the reluctance to show any love for chardonnay was merely a backlash to its popularity and widespread availability. Wine judges seemed to be under the spell of the ABC ("anything but chardonnay") crowd.

As a fan of the grape, especially when it reaches its potential in the right hands, I was pleasantly surprised over a recent weekend in San Diego, where the fourth annual Winemaker Challenge brought together 21 respected winemakers to evaluate more than 700 wines, with the 2009 Baileyana Firepeak Vineyard chardonnay ($28) from California's Edna Valley emerging as the wine of the year.

The Baileyana chardonnay nudged V. Sattui's 2009 Paradiso ($75), a red Bordeaux-style blend from the Napa Valley, on the final vote. The Paradiso had to settle for best red wine at the competition.

Baileyana's chardonnay is crafted by the French-born winemaker Christian Roguenant, who came to this country nearly 30 years ago to make sparkling wines near San Luis Obispo, Calif., for the Champagne house Deutz. Though Maison Deutz won considerable critical acclaim, the project was abandoned after mounting financial losses made it no longer viable. Roguenant remained in the area.

A native of Burgundy, he settled in as winemaker at Baileyana, where he focused on Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir. In recent years, the Baileyana ownership, Niven Family Wine Estates, has added other brands — Tangent, Zocker, Cadre and Trenza — and Roguenant, who headed up all of the projects, became widely known for his success with aromatic whites such as gruner veltliner, albarino and grenache blanc.

Though those grape varieties have been popular in Europe for years, they haven't been widely planted here in the United States.

They've thrived, however, in the cool Edna Valley, where Niven's well-regarded Paragon vineyard is situated just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The days are warm, and the nights are cool.

It is that same proximity to the ocean that elevates the Baileyana chardonnay, allowing Roguenant to make a wine that combines crisp acidity with rich, sun-kissed flavor. It is an easy wine to love. And for a change, a roomful of professional wine judges did.

In other inspired Winemaker Challenge performances:

V. Sattui Winery, with 30 medals overall, was named winery of the year. The Napa Valley winery, in addition to the award for its 2009 Paradiso, took a platinum award for its 2009 Preston Vineyard cabernet sauvignon ($49). Also, V. Sattui won nine gold medals.

Gloria Ferrer, a Carneros-based sparkling wine house, placed four of its wines in the sparkling wine finals. All wines that reach the finals are given a platinum award, and it is a significant achievement to have four platinum awards. None of those won best sparkling wine, however, as that honor went to the 2006 Domaine Ste. Michelle Luxe, Columbia Valley ($23).

Another Washington winery, Maryhill, had an impressive weekend, with 19 medals won, including platinum awards for its 2010 Tavola Rosso ($32) and 2010 cabernet Franc ($16.95). Maryhill also picked up four gold medals.

Milagro Farm Vineyards & Winery brought a little local flavor to the winners' circle, with the best rose wine, a 2012 rose of sangiovese, Ramona Valley ($22), and best sauvignon blanc, a 2012 estate sauvignon blanc ($23). Ramona is located in the rolling hills 40 miles east of San Diego.

Seeing as Napa Valley is famous for cabernet sauvignon, it came as no surprise that the award for best cab went to Cakebread Cellars' 2009 Dancing Bear Ranch cabernet sauvignon, Howell Mountain ($110). Cakebread also won gold for its 2010 reserve chardonnay, Carneros ($55).

And finally, the judges also had considerable love for a well-made wine from the bargain aisle, awarding platinum to the non-vintage cabernet sauvignon from Barefoot, California ($6.99).

Said Napa Valley winemaker David Stevens, "You have to respect it when someone can make a delicious cabernet for under $10."

Complete Winemaker Challenge results can be found at http://www.WinemakerChallenge.com.

Follow Robert Whitley on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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