There is a debate going on now about what defines California chardonnay.
Some people think it's all about the fruit. Others believe it's defined by the buttery flavor that comes with complete malolactic fermentation. Oak is often considered a signature characteristic, although substituting wood for grape flavors is something winemakers are guilty of worldwide. There also are those who feel that chardonnay is best without any oak interference or forced malolactic fermentation, simply left to its own devices.
The correct answer is that typical California chardonnay can be any of the above.
While we all have our preferences, well-made wines come in all of these styles. Buttery does not mean flabby. Oaky does not mean it has the scent of a heavily charred new oak barrel. Minimal interference does not mean the wine is one-note.
In the sea of chardonnay that is still ever-present in wine stores and on many restaurant wine lists, there is much more stylistic diversity to accommodate different tastes. Here are a few very different wines, at different price points, that are worth checking out.
Viano Vineyards Chardonnay, 2011 (Contra Costa County): For value, Viano Vineyards is always a go-to winery, as the wines can be surprisingly — for the price — very good. The chardonnay spends eight months in French and American oak. While the wood is present in both the nose and on the palate, it does not dominate. With crisp pear fruit and a little citrus, the fruit comes first but is kept in check with bright acidity. Suggested retail: $8
Poco a Poco Chardonnay, 2011 (Mendocino County): Poco a Poco functions as a sort of second label to Porter Bass, a biodynamic producer in the Russian River Valley. The wines are made by owner Luke Bass, the son of the founders and winemakers of Porter Bass. With banana, baking spices and vanilla, it will definitely appeal to lovers of sweets. But it's not over the top, making it attractive to a broader audience. Suggested retail: $18
Tolosa Chardonnay, No Oak, 2012 (Central Coast): Tolosa is certified SIP (sustainable in practice) and runs on solar power. In and of itself, that is not a great reason to buy this wine. But if you enjoy the pure fruit character of chardonnay, this one is the cherry on top. It was fermented and aged in stainless steel. Malolactic fermentation was blocked, resulting in crisp apple fruit with a touch of strawberries, along with a long, clean finish. Suggested retail: $18
Trione Winery Chardonnay, River Road Ranch, 2009 (Russian River Valley): If you like butter and oak, this is the chardonnay you should try. In spite of its obvious characteristics, it's integrated and balanced. Perhaps part of that is because they release their wine later than many others — the 2010 is just now coming out and the 2008 is still available on the winery website — so it has a chance to integrate. Suggested retail: $24
Medlock Ames Chardonnay, 2010 (Russian River Valley): This is kind of a geeky wine. Co-owner Ames Morison spent time in Central America after college, teaching sustainability to local populations. He came back to the U.S. and reunited with a college friend, Chris James, who was a hedge fund manager. The two started their wine label 15 years ago. Organic and solar-operated, they define environmental consciousness. Fermented in French oak barrels, it has secondary wood characteristics of vanilla and nutmeg, but is well-balanced and integrated with wet stones, a saline note and apples. Suggested retail: $37
These wines can be found through 6001 California Market, 17th & Noe Market, Abbott's Cellar, Bi-Rite Grocery (Divisadero Street), Canyon Market, Coit Liquor, Diablo Foods (Lafayette), Draeger's Market (Menlo Park), Falletti Foods, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Golden Gate Market (Sausalito), Le Beau Market, Marinwood Market, Mill Valley Market, Piazza's Fine Foods, Real Foods (Stanyan Street and Fillmore), United Liquor SF, Whole Foods (Lafayette, Ocean Avenue and San Rafael), Wine Club, The Wine House, Wine and Woodland's Market.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.