What’s Wrong With a California-Style Chardonnay?

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By Josh Perilo

I tend to be a bit of a contrarian, especially when it comes to food and trends. I remember my confusion and disgust the first time someone laid a plate in front of me with “foam” on it. I recall with horror the first time I heard a famous chef declare that he would never again run a kitchen that didn’t include a sous vide device. And I definitely recall reacting defensively against the overblown backlash against oaky, chardonnays. Some would argue that the latter is still in full effect, even today.

Josh Perilo

Josh Perilo

While I don’t seek out chardonnays that are overtly oaky or buttery, I will defend the well-made ones— less because I drink them on a regular basis and more because I understand where they’re coming from. That particular style of oaky white wine came out of a California dream to replicate the delicate, oaky white wines of Burgundy in the 1970s. But because the climate, soil and oak were all different, they produced a slightly different result. The good ones created their own unique profile, and a new style of developed organically.

I understand the complaints, believe me! There are more chardonnays that taste like a stick of butter nailed to a two-by-four than you can shake an oak branch at. And I concede that sometimes, all you want is a simple yet elegant glass of unadulterated chardonnay. Well, today, I will review some of my favorites from this category of strictly not oaky chardonnays from around the world.

The first stop is northern Italy. , to be exact, with the simple, tasty and inexpensive ($7.99 at Beacon Wines and Spirits, 2120 Broadway at 74th St., 212-877-0028). This area is best known for its , so it isn’t a shock that this chardonnay is reminiscent of that racy, citrusy varietal. On the nose there is only the tiniest hint of vanilla, but what leaps out is the scent of wet river rock. The palate is relatively layered for a wine of this price point. More minerality throughout with hints of lemon peel in the middle and a crisp, mouthwatering finish.

To prove that can make really terrific chardonnays without a hint of smoke or butter, look no further than the Stratton Chardonnay 2009 ($17.99 at 67 Wine and Spirits, 179 Columbus Ave. at 68th St., 212-724-6767). While the nose may lead one to believe that there might have been at least a touch of oak in this wine’s past, with smooth scents of vanilla bean and white peach, this vino has seen no wood whatsoever. Flavors of clean stone fruit explode up front. Lots of pear and hints of apricot abound. There is a refreshing backbone of acidity, but the focus is soft rather than laser sharp. The finish is all orange blossom and candied tangerine peel.

Also from California and tasting even leaner and racier than the Lummis is the ($14.99 at Mister Wright Fine Wines and Spirits, 1593 3rd Ave. betw. 89th & 90th Sts., 212-722-4564). This wine tastes more like a pinot blanc than a chardonnay. Lime zest on the nose leads to a fresh and zesty front of palate. Delicate notes of green apple and chervil lead to a short but clean finish.

Then there is, of course, the mother of all unoaked chardonnays: . For the price, it would be difficult to find one better than the Louis Michel et Fils 2009 ($31.99 at K&D Wines and Spirits, 1366 Madison Ave. betw. 95th & 96th Sts., 212-289-1818). is the northernmost growing area in the Burgundy region and, unlike the rest of Burgundy, their chardonnays traditionally see no oak at all. The Louis Michel is no different, with powerful limestone and lemon oil scents right out of the bottle. A refreshing hit of orange pith right up front is followed by delicious notes of lemon curd. The middle is rife with green, grassy herbs. The finish has hints of endive and more wet limestone.

While not all oaky chardonnays deserve the bad rap they get, there are unoaked versions of the famous grape that deserve just as much time in the spotlight.

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