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California Chardonnay

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Despite the backlash of the ABC club (Anything But Chardonnay), California Chard is still America's white wine of choice. While styles vary, the one that dominates "by-the-glass" lists of most restaurants displays toasty oak, soft acidity and rich, sweet fruit flavors. In the under $15 price category, you don't find many that stray far from that mold and that fact was born out by the wines our panel tasted. But then, why mess with success. Here are the top three picks:

2003 Clos du Bois Chardonnay, Reserve, Russian River, $14.99

Creamy peach and citrus fruit aromas are backed by nice floral scents of marigold and honey. There's a nice hint of smoke and just the right hit of toasty oak. Definitely on the sweet and creamy side, with rich nectarine and white peach flavors playing against caramel and honey on the soft finish. Again, the oak is surprisingly subdued and well integrated-not what I was expecting from a California Chard.

2004 La Crema Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, $14.99

A perennial favorite and with good reason-it was the only wine to finish in the top three on everyone's ballot. Dusty rose and pear aromas dominate along with soft oak, light citrus and an intriguing hit of cinnamon. A well-structured wine with excellent balance, the flavors are rich and buttery with creamy peach and citrus, a touch of fig, and an exceptionally long finish. What's not to like?

2003 Philippe-Lorraine Chardonnay, Napa Valley, $13.99

Opens with sweet apricot and lime aromas with a touch of fresh grass, herb, fig and honey. This barrel-fermented Chardonnay had the heaviest oak profile of the group, but it carries it well. Boasts very forward green apple, sweet citrus and melon fruit flavors in a buttery wine that finishes with soft vanilla. An excellent value for a wine from the prestigious Napa Valley.

This week's panel: Fawn Caveney, Tastevin; Jeff Crockett, Idaho Wine Merchant; Dave Faulk, Porterhouse Meats; David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op; Cindy Limber, Bardenay; Kevin Settles, Bardenay.