BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESSWEEK LIFESTYLE

The Whites of Summer
Seven refreshing alternatives to chardonnay

When the weather gets warm, entertaining often includes a chilled white wine. But the most popular choice--oaky chardonnay--is the despair of wine connoisseurs. ''Syrupy, gloppy chardonnay is the worst thing that can happen to you in the summer,'' says Andy Besch, owner of Westside Wines, a Manhattan shop. ''But some people just get into a rut'' and buy it anyway, he adds. And that other summertime staple, pinot grigio? ''Sometimes, it's too, too light,'' says Sammy Agosto, a salesman at another New York merchant, Astor Wines & Spirits.

Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives. We asked Besch, Agosto, and two other experts--Mark Levy, a New York wine consultant, and Josh Dickman, vice-president at the food and wine Web site Gourmetmarket.com--to pick out top warm-weather whites costing $10 to $20 a bottle. From their selections, we chose seven and conducted an informal taste test of our own. Business Week's crew of 15 staff volunteers ran the gamut from fussy oenophiles to casual quaffers and yielded written comments ranging from the less-than-illuminating ''feh'' to the stuffy ''the nose is slightly vegetal.'' Nonetheless, several clear favorites emerged (table).

Winning highest overall praise was a 1998 sauvignon blanc from Brancott Vineyards of New Zealand. We liked its complexity, ''nice nose,'' and ''great finish.'' Kiwi wines are excellent now, our outside experts agreed, and the sauvignon blancs are some of the country's best bargains. The sauvignon grape ''just flourishes down there,'' says Dickman. New Zealand vintners have been making ''great'' sauvignon blanc for a long time, he says, and are finally getting the recognition they deserve. The Brancott scored a 93 out of a possible 100 on the Web site's wine scale. At $19, it was the most expensive bottle in our sampling, but well worth it.

GREAT VINTAGES. The 1997 Gavi from Italy's Castello di Tassarolo was also a crowd-pleaser. Its crispness and lightness seem tailor-made for 90-degree days. The wine is one of many great offerings from the Piedmont region, says Levy. ''Italy had some fabulous weather conditions from 1995 to 1999,'' he says. ''We're looking at a string of great vintages.'' Though he concedes that New Zealand wines are hot, he says Italian wines are better value. The Gavi we tasted runs about $12.

Also popular was the flowery Albert Mann pinot auxerrios from Alsace. Tasters liked its ''fruitiness,'' though some found it a bit too sweet. Alsace, between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine river in northeastern France, was German territory until World War I and again in World War II, and its wines' sweetness generally reflects the preference of German drinkers.

The 1998 Lucien Crochet Croix du Roy Sancerre won kudos for its intensity. Tasters found the Sancerre ''just complex enough'' and praised its ''sophisticated nose,'' though a few thought the wine could be a bit overbearing on the hottest days.

The proliferation of wine bars and tastings at liquor stores is helping consumers break the chardonnay habit, wine dealers say. ''You can experience something new without taking the risk of buying a whole bottle,'' says Besch. And, as we've learned, acquiring a taste for a new white is half the fun.

By HEATHER TIMMONS

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