$n$ Wash. chard is coming on strong

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For the past three or four vintages, four wine grapes have been running neck-and-neck (in terms of tons harvested) for supremacy here in Washington. Chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and merlot (in that order) together account for three-quarters of the total Washington wine-grape harvest.

There is little disagreement that riesling, merlot and cabernet are three varietals at which Washington vintners excel. But can chardonnay keep up?

Until recently, I would have dodged the question. For all its popularity, chardonnay can be awfully mundane. It's a grape that rarely shows much character, except in a few special places such as Burgundy. It is also a grape that takes very well to fermenting and/or aging in new oak barrels, and embraces the flavors (toast and spice) that barrels can add, masking any fruit or mineral character. A lot of chardonnays are also put through a secondary fermentation, which softens the acids and gives them a rich, buttery flavor. And the most popular brands from California sneak in a bit of sweetness, in the form of unfermented (residual) grape sugar.

For those who favor fruit flavors and seek out the individual vineyard expression known as terroir, such sweet, oaky chardonnays are less than satisfying. And they have given rise to a trend informally known as A-B-C -- anything but chardonnay -- among many wine aficionados.

All of which may account in part for my previously lukewarm interest in chardonnays from Washington. Mea culpa. But now, me a-gulpa. Because either Washington chardonnays have gotten a whole lot better or some dim bulb has suddenly illuminated in my wine-soaked brain.

Looking back over tasting notes from the past six months or so, I find more than a dozen chards that I've rated at 90 points or higher, including a $13 gem from Boomtown (Dusted Valley's second label) and a few others selling for less than $20 (two from Rulo, one from L'Ecole, another from Goose Ridge).

But for sheer opulence and world-class winemaking, two new releases have gone directly to the top of the heap. The Abeja 2009 Chardonnay ($36; 1,130 cases produced) blends fruit from four exceptional vineyards: Celilo, Conner Lee, Smasne and French Creek. Winemaker John Abbott explains that he has been backing off on the percentage of new oak (down to 40 percent) and this young wine reaps the reward. It's loaded with scents and flavors of juicy tropical and stone fruits -- a riot of papaya, peach, pineapple, candied lemon and more. The fruit is so lush and generous that the butterscotch barrel flavors complement without concealing.

The other new chardonnay that I tasted may well be the best I've ever had from Washington. It is the Woodward Canyon 2009 Chardonnay ($39; 616 cases produced). Coincidentally, it, too, includes a significant portion of fruit from Celilo -- the same block that Abeja sources (Ken Wright is the only other winemaker getting that fruit). Here the Celilo grapes are blended with estate-grown fruit from the Woodward Canyon vineyard, planted 34 years ago. Rick Small advises that he, too, has been backing off on the use" of new oak, calling it "a more restrained and respectful way of making wine."

Other current releases to look for: JM Cellars, Gorman "Big Sissy," Mark Ryan, Efest, Ste. Michelle "Ethos," Tranche, Maurice and Gordon Brothers reserve.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. E-mail: paulgwine@me.com.

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