Let's face it, Chardonnay has gotten a bit of a bad rap. Especially when it's of the Californian variety. Due mainly to its approachable pronounceability (much less intimidating than, say, Gewürztraminer), it enjoyed several decades of unchallenged dominance for white wine consumption, peaking near the end of the 20th century. These days, however, it's more fashionable to scorn Chardonnay than to like it. Those who do like it often sound somewhat apologetic for their preference. But to declare outright such disdain for such a versatile, high potential grape variety, is an oversimplification. Plenty of excellent wines throughout the world--white Burgundy and many Champagnes, most notably--are made from Chardonnay.
The reason for the recent backlash has more to do with winemaker influence than with the grape variety itself. Relatively neutral in character, Chardonnay grapes can produce a vast variety of different styles of wine. Many of the flavors in these wines are derived from oak barrel aging and malolactic fermentation, although with minimal intervention in the cellar, the terroir has the opportunity to shine. The recent paradigm shift has moved consumer preferences away from the toasty, creamy, buttery characteristics imparted in the winery, and towards brighter, zestier flavors found in un-oaked Chardonnay wines. With that said, there are still many producers, particularly in California, who are producing wonderfully balanced examples on the richer side of the spectrum. Now, more than ever, there is something for just about everyone in California Chardonnay.
Here are a few that we've been enjoying lately:
(If you like high-acid, mineral-driven Chardonnay):
2011 Copain "Tous Ensemble" Chardonnay, $18 Delicate, crisp, and lean, with aromas and flavors of tart citrus fruit, fresh apples and pears, and white flowers, supported by a backbone of minerality.
(If you like rich and buttery Chardonnay):
2011 Mount Eden Vineyards Edna Valley Chardonnay, $20
The lush side of Chardonnay done right. Rounded, creamy texture with refreshing acidity; notes of tropical fruit, pears, honey, and almonds.
(If you're open to either, or prefer something in-between):
2012 Broadside "Wild Ferment" Chardonnay, $18
This beautiful creature has the body of the Mount Eden with the flavor profile and acidity of the Copain. Aging on the lees gives this wine body and texture, while the nose and palate bring to mind tart fuji apples, juicy pineapple, and wet stones.