In the “Wine of the Week” post on March 24, for the Morgan “Highland” Chardonnay 2007, Santa Rita Highlands, I mentioned that I sometimes face the prospect of uncorking a bottle of chardonnay from California with trepidation because I fear finding “an over-oaked, stridently spicy, tropical fruit cocktail laced with meringue and caramel. Yuck!”

This brought a response from Robert Dwyer of The Wellesley Wine Press blog, who said, “Ironically, your description of the ‘Yuck!’ wine aligns almost exactly with one of my *favorites* from last year: here.”

Dwyer asked for some examples of my “Yuck!” chardonnays so he could compare them to the kinds of chardonnays he regards as his favorites. I have tasted a few “Yuck!” chardonnays recently, and I will oblige a fellow-blogger, but first, let’s take this opportunity to examine what makes a “Yuck!” chardonnay.

The main principle involved here is “Purity vs. Process,” that is, the purity of the chardonnay grapes versus the winemaking process that can, potentially, mask and distort the grapes’ character with the extraneous elements that when emphasized or exaggerated produce what to my palate is a “Yuck!” chardonnay, a chardonnay that is — to quote the approving Wine Spectator — “superripe and exotic,” “rich and creamy,” with “buttery pear, fig and toasty oak” and “roasted marshmallow on the finish.” Friends, if I wanted roasted marshmallows, I’d sit by the old campfire and sing “Kumbaya.”

Intrinsically, there’s not a damned thing wrong with barrel-fermentation, oak aging and malolactic fermentation (a misnomer, since the malolactic process has nothing to do with fermentation). These processes can do much to enhance the complexity of a wine, in this case chardonnay, but carried out by rote, or with a sense of entitlement, they can destroy a wine’s nature and turn it into nothing more than a vehicle for transferring wood from the barrel to your mouth. These brief remarks, by the way, greatly simplify the chemical processes and implications involved in oak-aging and malolactic.

When you smell coconut in a chardonnay, that element didn’t come from the grapes; it derived from the lactones in the oak. Vanilla? Nope, that’s not part of the chardonnay grape’s flavor profile; vanilla comes from oak’s phenolic aldehydes. Roasted, dried spice and smoky aspects? Call those qualities volatile phenols. The caramel flavor that so many people inexplicably admire in chardonnay — as far as I’m concerned, you can save the caramel for ice cream — is a product of carbohydrate degradation resulting from toasting the barrels when they’re manufactured.

Any of these qualities deployed with subtlety and nuance can help shape a chardonnay’s pleasurable aspects, but too many winemakers use oak as a sledgehammer to bludgeon the grape into submission in the winery. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard producers assert that the chardonnay grape is a blank slate waiting for a winemaker to write his or her techniques and personalities on the poor grape. Oh shame! As if a great and noble grape like chardonnay required the errant egos of winemakers to give it character.

The bacterial malolactic process, which coverts crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid into softer, creamier lactic (“milk-like”) acid is a naturally occurring — though it’s usually induced — and useful transformation, especially in cooler regions where high acidity can be a problem. Both red and white wines may go through “malo,” though lighter wines intended for immediate consumption are better off without it. The creamy, buttery, butterscotch qualities that so many winemakers and consumers find desirable in chardonnay wines (sounds like birthday cake to me) derive from the malolactic process, in particular from excess diacetyl (2,3-butanedione, used by manufacturers to impart a butter flavor to margarine and baked products).

And while I once heard a winemaker in Australia assert that no great wines could be made without oak, the truth is that some of the greatest white wines — some chardonnays of Chablis, rieslings of Alsace and Germany, chenin blancs of the Loire Valley — often see no oak and damned little malolactic.

Some of my favorite producers of chardonnay in California are Cakebread, Grgich Hills, Oakville Ranch, Hendry, Nickel & Nickel, Morgan, Smith-Madrone, Truchard, Chalone, Landmark and Ridge, all of which manage oak very carefully, tailoring the proportion of new to used barrels to the vintage and the vineyard instead of blindly adhering to a set regime. Now the situation is not a matter of tit for tat; one cannot say literally that one winery’s chardonnay is over-oaked because this amount of new oak was used for a certain number of months and another’s isn’t because a lesser amount of new oak was used for a shorter aging period; it’s not that simple. Yet oak (and malolactic) make a difference, and to my palate a huge difference, between wines that reflect the purity and character of the chardonnay grape and those that turn chardonnay into a Frankenstein monster manipulated into being in the laboratory of the winery.

Image #1, courtesy of pro.corbis.com.
Image #2, courtesy of crafty-owl.com.
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All right, here are links to reviews of chardonnays (under $50) that I thought were extra-terrific, posted on BTYH within the past year: Louis Latour Chassagne-Montrachet 2006 ($46); Louis Latour Viré-Clessé 2006, Maconnais ($18); Louis Jadot Saint-Vèran Domaine de la Chapelle aux Loups 2006 ($19); Domaine Faiveley Mercurey “Clos Rochette” 2006 ($34); Capel Vale Chardonnay 2007, Margaret River, Western Australia ($22); Gundlach-Bundschu Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma Valley ($25); Nickel & Nickel Medina Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Russian River Valley ($45); Oakville Ranch Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley ($46); Truchard Chardonnay 2006, Napa-Carneros ($30); Landmark Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Carneros ($35); The Lane “Beginning” Chardonnay 2005; Adelaide Hills, Australia ($45); Picket Fence Chardonnay 2006, Russian River Valley ($20).
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And here are new reviews of 18 chardonnays from California that I tried over the past six months, with the preponderance in the last two weeks. The order is alphabetical, not hierarchical. Several are ideals; several are “Yuck!” wines; most fall in between.
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Cuvaison Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley-Carneros. Medium gold color; green apple and peach, pineapple and grapefruit in the nose with touches of woody spice; very dry, good balance between spareness and opulence, pineapple and grapefruit flavors with hints of pear and honeydew; more oak comes up on the finish and more dried spice but leavened by penetrating minerality. Neither the press material that came with this wine (and the next) nor the winery’s website indicate how much oak is embodied in these wines. Suffice to say that this “regular” bottling of Cuvaison’s Napa-Carneros chardonnay is more integrated than the following example. The alcohol content is 14.2 percent. This rates Excellent. About $24.
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Cuvaison S Block Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley-Carneros. To my palate, this chardonnay is a disaster. Way over-wrought, almost hysterical with oak. All smoke and toast and roasted marshmallow and strident spice. Fruit? Forget it. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Avoid. About $36.
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Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay 2006, Central Coast. Surprisingly complicated for the price, with enticing notes of orange zest, dried spice and white, waxy flowers; this is rich and spicy in the mouth, with lightly buttered and roasted grapefruit and pineapple flavors and deftly balanced acidity and mineral qualities for structure and backbone. 60 percent oak, 40 percent stainless steel. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Very Good and a Bargain at about $10. Frankly, I would rather drink this cheapo chard than many of the expensive, over-elaborated examples mentioned on this page.

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Franciscan Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley-Carneros. I said that it’s not always appropriate to place the blame for a “Yuck!” chardonnay squarely on the over-use of oak, but in this case I think one must. The Franciscan Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay 2006 was 100 percent barrel-fermented and then rested for 15 months, sur lie (on the spent yeast cells) in 100 percent new oak. I found this chardonnay — I know, you hate it when I use this word — undrinkable: crème brûlée, lemon meringue pie, pineapple upside-down cake, buttered toast, toasted coconut; the poor chardonnay grapes didn’t stand a chance. 14.5 percent alcohol. Avoid. About $40.
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Frei Brothers Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Pale straw color; peach and pear, pineapple and grapefruit with a subdued note of mango and a touch of lime and limestone; good balance and integration, attractive citrus flavors and texture that’s moderately lush without being oily, oak is subtle but comes up more on the finish along with more spice. A well-made but typical Russian River chardonnay. Very Good+. About $20. I always say this about wines from Frei Brothers (a Gallo label), but I’ll say it again. If you don’t make a “regular” bottling, then you shouldn’t assert that you make “reserve” wines; “reserve” in relationship to what?
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Fritz Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Whoa, what a sweetheart of a chardonnay! A wide-ranging spectrum of spice is handily balanced by a deeply rooted mineral quality and bright acidity. Classic pineapple-grapefruit flavors unfold hints of mango and pear. Lovely shape and texture, great equilibrium between intensity and elegance. Seven months in French oak, 40 percent new. 14.4 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25.
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Hahn SLH Chardonnay 2006, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. About $25. “SLH” indicates Hahn’s series of wines from Santa Lucia Highlands. I loved the Hahn SLH Pinot Gris 2007 and made it a Wine of the Week recently, but I found this chardonnay way overdone. Radiant medium gold color. Key lime and Meyer lemon, pineapple and grapefruit, overlay of spiced mango and apricot. Quite viscous, heavy, spicy, toasty and oaky, crème brûlée — tres brûlée! — and lemon meringue pie. Gets toastier, strident. 14.5 percent alcohol. I’ll give this a Good rating for its acidity and well-wrought mineral quality, but actually it would never be my choice to drink. About $25.
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Hanna Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Medium straw-gold color. Fresh, clean, bright, attractive; green apple, pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of roasted peach; mildly spicy and toasty, mouth-filling but not obvious; tingling acid and limestone. After a few minutes, you feel the oak, a real presence, a masking “blondness” of spice and wood; wish they had held back a little. About eight months in barrel on the lees. 13.9 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $24.
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Jordan Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Lovely purity, intensity and balance, restraint and elegance. The color is pale straw-gold; aromas of pineapple and grapefruit offer hints of smoke and mango. Crisp acidity and minerality are poised with innate richness and lushness to give the wine vibrancy and resonance, bolstering pineapple and grapefruit flavors tinged with lemon curd and borne on an element of increasing earthiness and a hint of true Burgundian fatness. The wine is barrel-fermented in French oak, 48 percent new, and then it ages a bare five months, half the aging time of most California chardonnays. Some malolactic occurs, but, again, it’s minimal to retain the wine’s clean, natural acidity. Excellent for drinking through 2012 or ’13 (well-stored). About $30.
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Markham Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. Scents of green apple, toasted pineapple, roasted grapefruit and cloves with a hint of caramel, with jasmine and honeysuckle developing after a few minutes; dense and chewy, almost viscous, quite intense and vividly spicy, rather overwhelming and disjointed. A disappointment after Markham’s excellent 2006 version of this wine. Very Good. About $18.
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Montevina Winery Chardonnay 2007, California. Here’s another Bargain. Clean, crisp and fresh; ripe and spicy apple and pear, pineapple and grapefruit with a touch of roasted lemon; brings up lime and limestone, subtle oak, nicely balanced and tasty all around. Simple, direct, well-made. Very Good. About $9.
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Napa Cellars Chardonnay 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. The color is medium gold. Aromas of smoke, toast, baking spices, marshmallow and coconut; in the mouth crème brûlée with roasted stone fruit, toasted oak, very toasty oak and toastier oak. I found this chardonnay strident and heavy-handed. 100 percent barrel-fermentation, eight months aging in barrels, 50 percent new. I don’t get the point in making a wine in this exaggerated fashion from mountainside grapes, as Mount Veeder provides. High elevation vineyards produce intense grapes that tend to make spare, elegant, rigorously minerally wines; you wouldn’t know it from this chardonnay, which could have been made anywhere. 14.3 percent alcohol. Avoid. About $35.
I prefer the much calmer, more sanely balanced and tasty “regular” bottling of the Napa Cellars Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley. Very Good+. About $24.
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Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2007, Sonoma County. Yes, another Sonoma County chardonnay, but one lifted above the crowd by its clean, crisp, freshness; its classic pineapple-grapefruit flavors subtly tinged with spiced peach and mango; its bright acidity, well-integrated oak and its burgeoning mineral quality. A great deal of care goes into making this popular chardonnay: 70 percent barrel-fermented, 30 percent in stainless steel; the barrel-fermented wine then spends five months in barrel; 90 percent malolactic. Very Good+. About $15, a Great Bargain. ______________________________________________________________________________________
Sanford Chardonnay 2007, Santa Barbara County. Talk about pedigree; two of the best vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills — La Rinconada and Sanford & Benedict — contributed grapes to this wine, as well as El Camino Vineyard in Los Alamos and Bien Nacido near Santa Maria Valley. This is right up there at the borderline of ripe, bright, vivid and spicy, toasty (especially on the finish) and smoky, but essentially balanced and integrated. Though not made in a style that appeals to my palate, I grudgingly admit that this is well-made, flamboyant, say, but not decadent, not Liberace-like. Apple, pear, grapefruit and pineapple, a pass at the tropical, loads of acidity and minerals, very dry, handily avoids any creamy-buttery exaggeration. Excessive yet pretty, and way better than the 2006 version, which I found so over-the-top lipsmackin’ luscious that it became candied, cloying, almost syrupy. So, for this 2007, an Excellent rating, with the caveat that you have to like the style. About $22.
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Simi Chardonnay 2007, Sonoma County. How many chardonnays are produced in Sonoma County? Dozens? Scores? Hundreds? Well, congratulations, Mr. and Ms. Consumer, here’s another one, and it’s pretty much like the others. A bit of smoke and spice. Typical ripe pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors with a tinge of the tropical. Clean, bright acidity. Slightly creamy texture. Emphasis on oak from mid-palate through the finish, a little bottom-heavy. 85 percent barrel-fermented, 6 months in oak, 25 percent new barrels. 13.5 percent alcohol. Good+. About 18.
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Simi Chardonnay 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. I was surprised that I liked Simi’s Russian River Valley chardonnay better than the “regular” Sonoma County bottling, since the RRV definitely sees more oak, but it feels better managed here. This is opulent without being heavy or obvious, though one undeniably feels the pull of oak like a tide. Medium straw-gold color. Pineapple and grapefruit, spiced peach, mango, touch of honeysuckle. Creamy but not overwhelming, buttered toast, roasted almonds. The fruit stays true and doesn’t lurch into the dessert trolley syndrome. Very dry, austere on the finish. 100 percent barrel-fermented, 13 months in French oak, 56 percent new barrels. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very good+. About $29.
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Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2006, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. A wine of shimmering beauty; no ostentation, no ego, just the pure intensity and elegance of high-elevation grapes, though, surprisingly, the wine is barrel-fermented and ages 11 months in oak; it’s a tribute to the quality of the vineyard and the grapes that the wine absorbed that much oak into its structure and came out as such a model of crystalline clarity, impeccable dimension and subtle detail. If I could indulge in one of these chardonnays under consideration today as my house white wine, this would be it. 14.3 percent alcohol. Exceptional. About $29.
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