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Because there’s so much drab, unappealing Chardonnay on the market, sometimes we in the business forget what’s made the grape such a powerhouse. Sommeliers in particular seem to bear a collective grudge against our long reigning champion varietal. There are fine restaurants where aversion to Chardonnay’s magnetic appeal is so pervasive that the wines are either tucked away in a hard to find corner of the list, or none are carried whatsoever. Why? I’ve had restaurateurs tell me that “If I carried a Chardonnay, or poured one by the glass, that’s all people would order.”

Whether because it’s the ultimate comfort zone wine; it’s such a chameleon that one can be found to suit every palate, every season and every dish; or out of genuine palate preference, the public always seems to remembers Chardonnay though. Once again, in 2OO9, it was the varietal category leader by a fair margin. So while there are people who wouldn’t be caught dead buying one, who abhor even a whisper of oak in their wines, or who just want to be trendy, the vast majority of white wine drinkers still appear to be fans.

What are the factors that equate to quality, that make the good stand apart from the boring? The answer to this largely depends on your stylistic preferences, but to me the combination of balance, texture and depth of flavor are paramount. Chardonnay requires a deft hand. It’s actually a grape that, for all the bashing it takes, can be subtle and understated, hinting at flavor rather than shouting from the glass. The way to approach this aesthetic ideal is not mysterious: plant vines in areas that are cool enough to retain ample acidity to offset the grape’s ripeness, reduce yields to build concentration into the fruit, and don’t exaggerate the oak if there’s barrel fermentation or aging. In a down economy, where producers are forced to either lower their prices and cut quality corners, or to lower their yields and fight for market share based on flavor concentration, the consumer is actually in the driver’s seat. If, that is, they’re guided to making the right selections.

Chardonnay’s very success always attracts fast-buck operators hoping to capitalize based more on marketing than quality. But the blind tastings I’ve conducted over the past year indicate that we may be in a sweet spot now as far as the Chardonnay quality/price ratio goes. This is definitely related to the economic downturn. Higher quality juice is available to producers at a lower cost now. Overall, the wine flights I’ve conducted are indicating we can buy better Chardonnay for less money than we could just a few years ago. Among the standouts I’ve discovered – from California, France and elsewhere –  there are several that would appeal to even the most jaded palates.

My blind tasting winners
LISTED from least expensive to most.

Just when we were beginning to give up on California in this price range, this was the hands down winner in the deep value category.  With pear, honey and slightly spicy aromas, Gold Oak Hill has a mellow, ripe fruit blend of flavors balanced with slightly tart apple-like acidity.  It’s moderate in scale but thoroughly delicious, without any of the artificiality that afflicts so many similarly priced Chardonnays from whatever their origin.  The lees character is evident.  This is just a plain good-tasting quaffing wine that would serve as a fine aperitif or to complement stir fries, fried clams or other casual fare.  $11

For a few dollars more this one was that much better, and it far outdistanced the closest competitor in its price range.  A medium deep straw-gold color gives way to interesting subtly smoky grain-like aromas (wheat, corn, almost malty).  Creamy and ripe on the palate, there’s a refreshing saline minerality, slightly funky mushroom note and toasty oak spice on the finish.  The acids are tuned up and the extraction is brilliantly high for the price.  A beautifully harmonious sensual style of Chardonnay that will appeal directly to the aficionados of the grape but probably won’t convert too many naysayers.  $13

If you like toast and honey, this is the one for you.  It’s actually understated and soft on the palate once you get past the vanilla, grilled bread, slightly mushroomy scents.  With a mild creaminess, hints of baking spice and rich ripe fruit extracts, this one over delivers by a fair margin in its price and style category.  Do not recommend it to the oak-averse though.  I’ve enjoyed it with a grilled salmon with honey mustard; in fact, more than enjoyed it, the wine serendipitously echoes the flavors of the dish in an enchanting way.  $17

Does a few more dollars get you that much more wine?  Not always, but in this case absolutely!  Built on a bigger scale, this has a fresh apple, pecan, caramel aroma that manages to be delicate and not overpowering.  Many of the wines in this price range were sappy and overbearing, but the cool climate Lincourt had a lovely integration of toast, ripe apple and clover honey.  This is all about balance: you have to try it.  Serve it with roast chicken rubbed with herbs, or turkey.  $18

This is in the same mode but even better, especially if you want to experience more acid.  A blend of grapes from two cool climates, hilly Monterey County vineyards, it shows complex aromas of apple, toffee, corn, dried fruit, and thyme.  Mouth filling and rich, with a firm structure and very satisfying apple like fruit, it’s ripe and buttery but also refreshing enough to want a second glass.  Its medium to full impression on the palate would suit it nicely to lobster or crab.  A really superior effort.  $2O

So there’s more to New Zealand white wine than Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc after all.  In a different key altogether, Craggy Range sources Chardonnay for this wine from the Hawkes Bay coast, considerably north of Marlborough.  With a generous expression of toast and mellow, pear-like fruit aromas, this wine has a sharp mineral edge that contrasts quite dramatically with the textural richness.  It’s piquant and savory, with a bone dry citric assertiveness.  Delicious with medium weight fish like Mahi or Snapper simply prepared with a lemon chive butter.  $21

Here’s an example of a lesser appellation producing wine that is better than most of its famous big brothers.  Auvigue is a respected grower near the village of Solutre.  There’s a delicate butter and sautéed apple quality to the nose of this.  On the palate it features crystalline purity of fruit, moderately soft acids and a nutty, long aftertaste.  Delicate and yet sensual in style, this barrel-fermented beauty is a natural match for the slightly sweet flavor of new scallops.  $23

Again, the Macon district comes up big.  In the past this appellation was a winner on the American market because it sounded so quintessentially French.  Now that is no longer a plus.  Younger consumers could care less.  So Pouilly has to compete more on quality instead of coasting on its reputation.  This one is pure velvet.  It’s understated in a way that you would rarely find anywhere else in Burgundy, much less other parts of the world.  With a slight herb and butter aroma hinting at minerals and delicate apple, it’s round, impeccably proportioned and subtly flavored.  Cornin is a biodynamic estate that is based on the village of Chaintre; his wines are always polished and almost ephemeral in their elegance.  This would be a great one to serve blind to the ultimate Chardonnay basher on your list.  $3O

Yes, they make small quantities and have been doing so since the 196Os, to the same impeccable artisan standards as the world famous Zinfandels and other terroir-based reds.  This is a classically proportioned, spice-accented Chardonnay that is a real long distance runner.  Layered with complex, almost contrasting flavors of lemon rind and dried fruit, it’s bone dry with a chalky intense minerality that lingers into the finish.  Medium bodied and appealingly fresh; a great foil to grilled or roasted salmon.  $38

A ripe, fleshy stunner.  Always one of the best wines of the appellation, this old vine barrel-fermented selection from the famous Vincent estate features waves of butter and apple, alternating with wild mushroom and creamy white pepper.  The first sip coats the palate like a velvety sauce, but the wine manages to be refreshing and mineral-like at the same time.  This expression of the full side of Pouilly’s personality should be compared to a top Premier Cru from the Cote de Beaune or a premium Sonoma Chardonnay moreso than to its Maconnais peers.  Bravo!  $45

The bottom line is Chardonnay is not going away any time soon.  If you ignore it, or treat it like any other commodity, a percentage of customers will eventually go elsewhere.  It makes sense to put your own preferences aside and stock quality examples in a range of styles and price points.  Notice the wines above are all priced slightly differently.  Because, if anything, Chardonnay gives you the option of offering several authentic variations on the same theme: big and buttery, clean and un-oaked, rich and tropical, minerally and crisp.  Why not take advantage of these modalities in creating a harmonious range of offerings?