Chardonnay: California

California chardonnays apparently have a wicked identity crisis. For the last few seasons, they’ve drawn plenty of criticism for being either too big and blowsy, or way too skinny and vacuous. You’re left wondering what is the real face of chardonnay, which remains, still, the most popular wine variety in the United States.

But even knowing of this white grape’s multiple personalities, I was still caught off-guard during a recent, disappointing tasting of just-released California chardonnays from the 2007 and 2008 vintages.

Only the 2007 Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyard chardonnay stood out. This wine smelled, tasted and looked like a chardonnay. The eight others were muted, bland, pale. The taste panel was stunned at the lack of character in these wines, which ranged in price from $8 to $44. A few weeks later, a tasting of four more new chardonnays went better. Still, only the 2008 Scott Family Estate Chardonnay from the Arroyo Seco region and the 2007 Bridlewood Estate Chardonnay from Monterey really stood out.

A few days after this second tasting, The Wall Street Journal took newly released high-end California chardonnay to task.

The verdict: Too many “stupid, insulting wines.”

What’s happening here?

I kept wondering if California chardonnay-makers, long stung by accusations of making high-alcohol, oaky butter bombs, had simply turned tail in the face of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement and hard economic times. Maybe they were trying to encourage American wine drinkers to scamper in the opposite flavor direction, but if so, at what stylistic price?

“California chardonnay is in danger of becoming the indecision beige of the wine world,” warned Natalie MacLean, publisher of a wine newsletter at her Web site, nataliemaclean.com.

“Many wines I’ve tasted lately haven’t left a good or bad impression: They’ve simply left no impression at all,” she added. “They remind me of new homeowners who are afraid to commit to bold colors on their walls and end up opting for a neutral, boring palette.”

Some wine experts believe the new, leaner chardonnays are for the better, especially if that means more independence from oak for flavoring and less frequent use of malolactic fermentation, a process that makes wines taste smoother, softer and, in chardonnay’s case, more “buttery.”

“I’m sure that some people are backing off the malolactic character of their chardonnays, and I think that’s a good thing. Freshness in a white wine is almost obligatory, I think,” said Doug Frost, a master sommelier and wine consultant in Prairie Village, Kansas. “But … way too many wineries are making un-oaked or lightly oaked chardonnays, and almost all of these New World wines are utterly boring.”

No matter how disappointing today’s chardonnays can be, it’s important to remember that serious winemaking in California is still a recent phenomenon, especially when you compare it with the centuries of oenological experience found in Burgundy, home to the most emulated chardonnays in the world. Perhaps California chardonnay just needs time to mature.

This question of personality is not just a problem for California chardonnay, according to Belinda Chang, wine director of The Modern restaurant in New York City.

“There is definitely something going on,” she said. “I have seen a quiet shift among all chardonnay producers worldwide.”

No longer cool is what Chang describes as “that over-the-top yeasty, creamy style.”

Still, that may be what you prefer in a chardonnay. What to do?

There are thousands of chards from around the world. If the wine is unknown to you, try to figure out a way to get an evaluative sip before purchasing, especially if the bottle is a pricey one. That way you can be assured of drinking in the “personality” you like best.

Three chards with points of view

A recent tasting of nine newly released Golden State chardonnays was so disappointing that panelists agreed to try four more. Out of these two tastings, three favorites emerged: We decided they were chardonnays that were not afraid to be chardonnays.

2008 Scott Family Estate Chardonnay Arroyo Seco $25 A lush, complex wine made from Dijon chardonnay clones, it tastes like a much older Burgundy. It hails from the Arroyo Seco subregion of California’s Monterey appellation. The color is appealingly golden. The voluptuous nose is heavy with notes of ripe pear, pineapple and spice. The flavor is big and round, with touches of pineapple, nectarines and clove. Serve with bacon-wrapped scallops.

2007 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay Belle Terre Vineyard $25 There’s an air of cantaloupe and chalk around this white from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Buttery flavor plushed by touches of melon and oak. Serve with roast pork loin with chimichurri sauce.

2007 Bridlewood Estate Chardonnay $15 There’s a lovely nose of caramel and vanilla to this Monterey white. Ripe pear and peaches are balanced on the palate by lively minerality. Serve with rosemary chicken.

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