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Eats and Drinks

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Chardonnay

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My wife has schooled me on the ABCs of white wine, ABC in this case standing for “anything but chardonnay.” By all accounts, chard remains the most widely planted grape and best-selling wine—red or white—in the U.S. Cultivated throughout the wine world, it carries cachet (and marketability) that vintners seem to find irresistible. But as it is glugged down the global gullet, chardonnay draws increasing numbers of haters. For several years, the ABC crowd has helped propel the booming sales of whites like Pinot grigio and moscato.

I sorta get that. In many ways, chard has become a victim of its own popularity. Even its fans acknowledge that in the wrong winemaking hands, it can become homogenized, or worse. Benchmark chardonnays from California or France’s Burgundy region undergo malolactic fermentation, lees-stirring, and oak-barrel aging—techniques that ideally add creaminess, spice, and toasty vanilla nuances to chard’s apple, pear, and lemon curd flavors. Many producers try to replicate these effects via less costly shortcuts, most egregiously by soaking oak chips in the wine. The results too often taste like marshmallow soup with a scratchy, wood tannin afterbite.

Not that I’m bailing on chardonnay. As the ABC backlash has grown, winemakers have countered with “virgin,” or un-oaked, versions. Steel tanks rather than barrels have long been the norm in northern Burgundy’s Chablis district, which produces crisp, flinty, and age-worthy Chards. And whatever its detractors say, the traditional model—oak, “malo,” the works—is capable of greatness. A recent gift of Fisher Mountain Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 (from Sonoma, about $60) proved to be one of the most elegant, expressive whites I’ve savored in years. You’ve got to try this, I told the wife, but she wasn’t buying it. Nor at that price am I, at least not often.

Marriage, of course, requires compromise. (You know: “She wanted a cat, I didn’t, so we compromised and got a cat.”) Ours consists of Campos de Luz White 2011, from Spain’s Carinena region, which blends chardonnay with bracing viura and aromatic moscato in 40-50-10 proportions ($9, 13 percent ABV). It pours lustrous gold, with floral perfume accented by cantaloupe and mown hay. Tangy and fleshy flavors of green apple, nectarine, and dried apricot lead to a mineral-water finish. The wife still says she wants anything but chardonnay, but now I don’t give her a blanc stare.

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