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Cheap (But Good) Chardonnays
How to pick a Chardonnay that passes your taste test as well as a quality test.

When I’m choosing a California Chardonnay, it’s not enough to just pick an appellation that’s consistently putting out a quality Chardonnay (such as, Santa Lucia Highlands or Napa Valley). To come up with a match for not just your palate, but one that passes the bar in terms of quality, you must sip a lot.

Recently, I opened a slew of Chardonnays in an attempt to lessen the intrigue on this mystery. Here are the five I liked best. All cost less than $20.

2010 Big House Unchained Naked Chardonnay (California, $10) kicks off with an herbaceous nose before shifting into juicy green apple and pear notes. If you’re not normally a fan of Chardonnays with noticeable oak on the palate, you’ll love this one, due to stainless-steel tank fermentation. Tthink more mineral notes. (www.bighousewines.com)

2010 Simi Chardonnay (Sonoma County, California, $18) contains lime and tropical fruit notes and is overall very creamy, delicate and well-balanced with a bite of citrus toward the finish. Not at all buttery, the palate leans more toward a mineral-rich mouth feel and features an orange bouquet. (www.simiwinery.com)

2010 Shannon Ridge Winery Chardonnay (Lake County, California, $19) expresses crisp green apple and pear notes with an undercurrent of honeysuckle and vanilla. Bonus: The winery is passionate about sustainable farming practices. (www.shannonridge.com)

2010 Frei Brothers Reserve Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, California, $17) is slightly buttery and toasty, with a floral nose followed by a light, delicate body accentuated with green apple and orange notes and a silky finish. (www.freibrothers.com)

2010 Folie a Deux Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California, $18) is filled with honeyed notes of apple and pineapple, before sliding into a soft, creamy lemon finish. (www.folieadeux.com)

Joel Templin hails from Fond du Lac and has been parked on the West Coast (San Francisco) for some time, giving him easy access to Sonoma and Napa wineries. A few years ago, he injected his creative flair (he currently owns a graphic-design agency) into the co-creation of JAQK Cellars, where the bottles feature fun, whimsical gaming motifs such as the “High Roller” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).  There are currently eight wines in the portfolio. The grapes are sourced from Sonoma Coast and Napa Valley, and the winemaking is handled by Craig MacLean. Tonight, Joel’s making a stop at Sonoma Cellars’ Oconomowoc location to host a tasting from 6-7:30 p.m. The $10 fee includes a tasting, as well as the chance to ask Joel pressing questions about all things wine. Hold a spot by dialing 262-567-7500.

Been down north Old World Third Street lately? The street continues to express Wisconsin’s artisan-food flavors, from German fare at Mader’s to the aromatic spices inside The Spice House and, of course, sausages from Usinger’s. Wisconsin Cheese Mart piggy-backs on that energy with a wine-and-cheese pairing option. Recently the store expanded to include a cheese bar boasting a menu of 175 selections, all Wisconsin-made. Drop by on a Friday night from 5-7 p.m. and the house wines are just $3 ($4 on Saturday and Sunday), which leaves you more money to spend on cheese, right? (Right?)

With the recent turn in cooler temps, maybe you desire a glass of red wine? Italian Chianti is about as diverse as California Chardonnay: There are too many to choose from. Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi 2009 Nipozzano Riserva Chianti Rufina (Tuscany, Italy, $22), from one of Italy’s oldest wineries (we’re talking 700 years of refined winemaking), features tobacco notes as well as chewy blackberry and dark-cherry notes, against an oak backbone and wrapping up in a finish laced with cinnamon, vanilla, spice and black pepper. It could pair well with grilled and seasoned poultry or fish in case you’re still – as the Aussies would say – toying with the “barbie.”  Aged cheeses would be another hit with this wine. (www.frescobaldi.it)

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