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Quality California chardonnays don't have to break the budget

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Chardonnay, the world's most popular white-skinned grape, assumes myriad wine personalities.

The aromas and flavors readily reflect the climate and soils where the grapes grow, as well as the producer's stylistic choices — particularly with barrel aging.

In recent decades, the quintessential “California Chardonnay” style has embodied ultra-ripe fruit aromas with forward new-oak notes; opulent, dense flavors; and high alcohol levels, often over 14 percent by volume. More of everything — more intense aromas, more concentration, extended barrel aging in 100-percent new oak — became the mantra as many Golden State producers obsessed over gaining international recognition rivaling Burgundy's famed white-wine producers.

Endless streams of horridly unbalanced and virtually undrinkable monstrosities resulted. Mind you, many of the wines scored high numerical ratings in international publications. leading some gullible consumers to pay ever-soaring prices. Which left one to wonder: How can any sane wine consumer actually enjoy drinking such wines?

And in a more practical vein, which California producers have the confidence and savoir faire to make well-balanced, understated chardonnay-based wines having more to do with enjoyment with food than acquiring cult status and quick bucks?

Such producers have emerged, but California's unique climate provides a significant challenge. Unlike in Burgundy, where achieving full ripeness and clean, undamaged fruit proves difficult, chardonnay virtually never fails to ripen in California's consistently salubrious growing season. In fact, it easily over-ripens.

That's why California chardonnay producers seeking to make balanced wines harvest early from vineyards in relatively cool climates. This avoids high alcohol, while allowing the fruit to retain refreshing acidity. A judicious, restrained approach to barrel aging also helps.

The following producers succeed admirably:

2011 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County, Calif. (Luxury 46320; $18.99): After early experiences working in Burgundy, winemaker Jim Clendenen adopted an understated approach to California chardonnays from the outset of his independent career at Au Bon Climat in the early 1980s. His steadfast commitment to the style over the years has earned respect from colleagues and consumers alike.

Au Bon Climat's Santa Barbara County vineyard sources — the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard and Ranch Vinedo — benefit from cooling maritime influences for slow, steady ripening. After harvest, Clendenen presses whole grape clusters and ferments the juice in neutral French-oak barrels. He stirs the wine on the lees —the spent yeast cells — for about nine months to add intriguing creaminess.

The resulting wine embodies a well-balanced, crisp style designed to make food more pleasurable. Apple and citrus aromas with understated oak notes open to zesty citrus and apple flavors. Vibrant acidity balances the creamy notes through the dry and elegant finish. Highly recommended.

2012 Morgan Winery Unoaked Chardonnay “Metallico,” Santa Lucia Highlands, Calif. (Luxury 46401; $19.99): By virtue of proximity to the chilly Monterey Bay, winemaker Dan Morgan Lee's Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards are affected by persistent cold winds and heavy fogs. The vineyards perch on terraces overlooking the Salinas Valley that serves as a vacuum, sucking in the chilly conditions every afternoon during growing season.

This lovely chardonnay presents pure, unadulterated fruit. Neither oak-barrel influences nor secondary malolactic fermentation, a process that reduces bright acidity, obscures the fruit's character. Crisp green-apple and lime aromas mingle with charming honeysuckle hints. Ripe lemon, peach and apple flavors meld beautifully with vibrant, fresh acidity through the dry finish. Highly recommended.

2010 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay “Russian River Ranches,” Sonoma County, Calif. (4434; $22.99): Along the northern Sonoma County coast, cooling fogs roll each evening up the Russian River to regulate ripening. In the early 1970s, Sonoma Cutrer's founders were amongst the first to recognize the conditions as providing ideal chardonnay terroir.

Today, this wine comes from several estate vineyards of various soil types including stony gravels, sand and clay and ancient sea beds and volcanic ash. The gravels contribute distinct mineral traits to the wine. Fermentation and aging take place exclusively in French oak — only partially new — to impart subtle aromas and structure.

Lovely pineapple, pear and toasted-hazelnut aromas greet the nose. Refreshing citrus, apple and subtle vanilla flavors unfold with taut acidity balancing an elegantly dry, yet fresh and lingering finish. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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