Chardonnay is everywhere for three reasons: It's relatively easy to raise; it's fairly neutral, a perfect canvas on which to paint the variety of flavors everyone enjoys in it; and its wine is chin-dripping juicy delicious.
On chalky or granitic soil (such as Chablis or southern Burgundy), chardonnay makes tight, mineral-laden wines. On limestone — Puligny, say, or Chassagne — wines with both power and restraint. With rich soil underneath and sun above, chardonnay is round and deep. By and large, California and Australia give us that sort.
At the winery, this play-with-me grape faces as many decisions as a teenage girl before her morning closet — and each choice makes for a different style of wine: how to crush and press the grapes; whether to use indigenous or added yeasts; to ferment in barrels or in temperature-controlled steel; whether to put the wine through an acidity-taming malolactic fermentation; whether to stir the lees (spent yeast cells and other fermentation residue) or rack the wine clear; and in what sort of oak to age the wine.
The accumulation of these decisions makes for at least three "families" of chardonnay as follows:
No- or low-oak: Fermenting and aging chardonnay in neutral vats augments flavors of green apple, white peach and citrus. Check out the neat new group of well-priced, "unoaked" chardonnays such as the super crisp 2010 Dionysus Vineyard from Washington ($12); Emiliana's earthy, organic 2010 Natura of Chile ($11); Argentina's zesty 2010 Finca La Linda ($10); the lemony, pineappley 2010 Lucky Country from Australia's Barossa ($16); or the lean 2009 Caldora from Abruzzo ($11).
Burgundian chardonnays from humbler districts such as the Maconnais or Chalonnais — and certainly from the noble area of Chablis — often accentuate the white-fruit aromas and flavors of chardonnay. I've lately marveled at the splendid 2009 whites from Joseph Drouhin, such as the rapierlike incision of the 2009 Chablis Vaudon ($20-$25) or the round, citrusy 2009 Rully ($19-$20), a super buy in Burgundian chardonnay.
Blended: Australians excel at this kind of chardonnay: Batches of wine are culled from various vineyard sites, then blended to achieve a targeted style or character — most often, juicy, round, perhaps with a slight sweetness. For this, see the Cherubino Hen & Chicken from Western Australia ($17). Any year will do.
But many other non-Aussie chardonnay producers also blend by mixing wines, some of which were fermented in steel, some in oak; or by taming wines that see new oak and take on its full-throttle flavors with quieter wines that see only neutral oak.
You'll get this high-wire act from the heady 2009 Boxcar from Sonoma Coast ($25-$30); Byron's honeyed 2009 of Santa Barbara ($15); the tangy Matetic EQ from Chile ($15-$27); Sonoma-Cutrer's famed, classic, textured and citrusy Sonoma Coast, the latest version of which is the 2009 ($20-$25); a fairly lush 2009 from Kali Hart of Talbott in Monterey ($12-$13); Bonterra's 2009 organic Mendocino ($10); or the Concannon Conservancy of Livermore ($15).
Classic California: Finally, we've got the blowsy, round, buttered, sometimes full-on oaky style of "California" — in quotes because it is a style now emulated globally — all bells and whistles from having most anything done to it that can be done to it.
The wines can turn out to be just terrific, as a glass of wine before a meal or as a meal in itself. After all, it contains all the major wine food groups: fruit, body, sometimes wood, always alcohol.
Here are recommended current releases from around California:
from Sonoma, 2008 Matanzas Creek ($29), 2009 Rodney Strong ($14), J's 2008 Russian River ($28) or 2009 La Crema ($20); from Napa, 2008 Stag's Leap Karia ($35), 2007 Franciscan Cuvee Sauvage ($40), 2008 Smith-Madrone ($30) or Chateau Montelena's 2008 ($35-$40); or the 2008 Sanford from Santa Barbara ($22), the 2008 La Folette of Mendocino ($48) or Kendall-Jackson's 2009 Grand Reserve ($21).
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.