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Reconsidering chardonnay

Chardonnay gets a bum rap, let’s face it. This ubiquitous white wine became a mundane staple of house wine lists everywhere. It became the poster child for boring party wines and even gave rise to it’s own mantra: ABC — Anything But Chardonnay.

I’m guilty of a little disdain myself. Sure, I like Chardonnay, but to identify a column–worthy label seems like a no–win scenario. So many Chardonnay’s, so little space. OK, so I’ll turn over a new leaf in the New Year.

One reason wine drinkers are blessed, or cursed, with so many Chardonnays is malleability to conform to so many different wine–making techniques. The open character of the grape responds as well to long, cool fermentation in stainless steel as it does to aging in oak barrels.

In fact, it is one of few white varietals that can stand up to new oak — and live to tell its own story. That same muscle allows Chardonnay, when blended with other grapes, to retain some of its own hallmarks.

And that story is as varied as the manner in which the wine is aged. Typical descriptors — some of which are seemingly in contradiction — include citrus, floral, apple, pear and even honey.

Keep in mind, too, that the red–headed stepchild we call Chardonnay is almost entirely consumed in France as Champagne or as decadent and delicious bourgogne.

Differing styles could be blamed for the backlash against Chardonnay. The oaky, buttery California Chardonnay that rose to popularity in the 1980s is also the same wine that led to Chardonnay’s demise. There are still plenty of examples of these wines out there, but today’s Chardonnays offer much greater balance and the best ones are succulent expressions of this very ripe tasting grape.

Here are my thoughts on a trio of Chardonnays to try:

Four Vines 2008 Santa Barbara Naked Chardonnay: Why “naked?” Because this pristine, stainless–steel fermented Chard has not even passed by an old oaken barrel. For you who shun the wood, this one’s for you! No malolactic fermentation — the process that creates buttery characteristics in Chardonnay — occurred. Drinkers are left with a high acid wine that tastes of crisp apple, peach and pear — along with a hint of minerality and citrus. This wine is a sauteed scallop’s best friend.

Charles Smith 2007 Eve Chardonnay: A long, slow ripening season adds to the beauty of this highly affordable and nicely oaked Chardonnay from near legendary Charles Smith. The Washington state wine was fermented in stainless steel and aged in French oak, only 15 percent of which was new, for 10 months. It is lean, crisp — very Chablis–like in character. You should experience a nice mouthfeel with this wine — and experience beautiful traces of apples and honey with a trace of chalky minerals on the finish. Invite Eve over for grilled shrimp and Thai dipping sauce.

 Depend on a complex mix of subtle pear, mineral, pleasant earthy notes and floral scents from this California Central Coast vineyard. The label has had its ups and downs — but the last couple of vintages indicate a turning point. The slightly pricier ’07 Chard Reserve even earned 29th place in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2009. Gently sweet oak tones add character; minerality insures a clean finish. This is a Chardonnay that’s as tasty as it is affordable. Put on barbecued chicken for this elegant wine.