For those who know their grapes, bringing a bottle of Chardonnay to dinner is kind of like whipping out a wedge of Brie. Before baby boomers started slugging it, the wine was celebrated as an elegant white, modeled on the classic French version. Over the years, vintages became more obvious as California producers began over-aging it in oak barrels, giving it a sweet vanilla, butterscotch taste. But a select group of vintners who recognized the white's potential have begun to rediscover the grape's bright, fresh qualities. "The approach is more Burgundian now," says Pearl Ash wine director Patrick Cappiello, referring to the region in France. "It's affecting how Chardonnay is made all over the world." This new breed has lower alcohol levels, higher acid, less oakiness, and can be paired with food like salmon and goat cheese—territory typically reserved for Sancerres and Sauvignon Blancs.
Below, five bottles that will make you rethink the ABC—"Anything But Chardonnay"—approach.
Matthiasson Linda Vista 2012
As a leader of the New California wine scene, Steve Matthiasson blends grapes rarely grown in the state, like Ribolla Gialla and Friulano. But in his take on Chardonnay, the warmth of Napa Valley brings out pear, apple, and lemon flavors that balance the oak-barrel notes.
Stony Hill Chardonnay 2009
This classic Napa winery never fell for the heavily oaked, buttery flavors that became popular in the eighties and nineties. In fact, the 60-year-old vintner is so old-fashioned that it's back in vogue: Stony Hill's citrus-focused Chardonnay may taste like a new creation, but it's always been one of Napa's most consistent whites.
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2010
The 1973 vintage of this beloved wine knocked the French on their derrières in the "Judgment of Paris" tasting of 1976. (See the movie Bottle Shock if you want the whole story.) All that class is still in the bottle, with mineral, honey, and Meyer lemon notes and a long, complex finish.
Deux Montille Pernand-Vergelesses "Sous Frétille" Premier Cru 2011
Following in the footsteps of their father, who took over the operation of this respected family estate in 1947, the Burgundy-based brother-and-sister duo (that's the "Deux") are reinventing an old tradition in the region that birthed the Chardonnay grape. This vintage goes down almost too easily.
Patrick Piuze Butteaux Chablis 2012
Chablis—the jug wine, not the real French version—has long been synonymous with any white wine on hand, but this distinctive bottle offers an energetic expression of the region's terroir. Piuze is actually from Quebec, but he quickly made a name for himself with Chardonnay grapes after he moved to France and founded his winery in 2008.
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