For many years, American chardonnay has been a wine category that cognoscenti love to hate, a wine whose ubiquity, confected stylings and bloat have more or less condemned it to a reputation for mediocrity, a wading pool of a wine, epitomizing the shallow waters of American taste.
And for many years, that reputation has been deserved -- the dominant chardonnay paradigm has involved too much sugar, too much oak, too much butter, not enough acid to enliven and refresh the palate. One after another, the wines have all seemed to be the same: blowsy, sweet and stupid.
But in the last decade, a retrenchment has taken hold. First, a small contingent of unoaked chardonnays came to market. These were crisp and refreshing wines, redolent of green apples with not a hint of butter. In the end, they came off as a little too simple, but they helped to shape a new chardonnay paradigm, one driven by tension and line.
The new chardonnay model is cooler and leaner. The fruit is less ripe, and the use of oak is much more judicious, leading to a wine of structure and mouthwatering acidity, a cooling trend in keeping with the season. Moreover, the style reflects the variety's inherent subtle neutrality; many, like French Burgundy, extend the wine's time in contact with yeast, yielding a pleasingly nutty, leesy accent, which makes them much more savory and compelling.
Here are five well-crafted chardonnays you could serve proudly this holiday season.
2009 Chanin Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay
Gavin Chanin worked three vintages under the tutelage of Jim Clendenen, whose Au Bon Climat chardonnays have been models of restraint for decades. He's learned well: floral, mineral, zesty, there's a thrilling tension to this wine as it hits the tongue. -- About $35
2011 Arnot Roberts Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay From older vines on a site not five miles from the ocean, this savory white exhibits astonishing purity in its cool flavors: a wet stone and lime scent gives way to austere, bracing mineral textures, the finish precise and on point. - about $30
2010 Alma Rosa Santa Rita Hills El Jabali Vineyard Chardonnay
From the cool Santa Rita Hills, winemaker Richard Sanford suppresses malolactic fermentation in this tangy white, redolent of apples and minerals, a pronounced salinity like it's giving off sea air. -- About $28
2010 Fogdog Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
Drawn largely from Joseph Phelps' Freestone vineyards in the cool outer reaches of Sonoma County, this wine is crisp and lean, reminiscent of fresh local Gravenstein apples spritzed with lime. -- About $35
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2010 Evening Land Willamette Valley Seven Springs Vineyard La Source Chardonnay
From a well-established vineyard in the Eola Hills of Oregon, this extraordinary wine has a Burgundian feel in its leesy scents of brioche toast and delicate pear accents. The flavors are taut and rippling with energy. -- About $60
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.