A few days ago the wine critics of the Rupert Murdoch-owned, reliably patriotic Wall Street Journal posted a highly critical, take-no-prisoners, anti-American piece called "No Flag-Waving for U.S. Chardonnay." I'm not kidding, it was vicious. Take a look: "U.S. Chardonnay, especially under $20, has been lousy for a long time now . . . over the past several years, we have been outraged—that’s not too strong a word—at the junk that’s selling for up to $20. It has little real fruit, far too much oak flavor and harsh tastes. Too often, it has reminded us of fingernail polish that has been mixed with oak chips while it aged in the tank truck along the highway." Ouch!
Now, I've spent as much time as anyone bashing American Chardonnay, but the fact is that I got bored with that. And, not that it softens the WSJ's blow that much, but there really is a dearth of good US wine under $20 in any variety. However, much more challenging than bashing Chardonnay is to instead look for the good stuff out there. And it can be found. Now that winemakers are learning to back off the oak, the alcohol, and the buttery notes, we're starting to see some serious Chardonnays that can compete with the French stuff in terms of food friendliness and raciness. Here are a few great wines found while perusing the aisles of just one shop! All these delish wines are at K&L and, I might add, are all under $20.
2007 Lioco Sonoma Chardonnay A project of SF-resident Matt Licklider and Kevin O'Connor, LA resident and former wine director of Spago, this is tank-fermented Chardonnay at its best. It's naturally fermented for added complexity and made with otherwise non-interventionist techniques to bring out the nuances in this lovely, minerally juice. $19.99
2007 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay A perennial standout. Never alcoholic, never harsh, never too much oak. It's crisp, complex and balanced with great acidity and a hint of minerality. $16.99
2007 Luli Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay Another SFer, wine broker Sara Floyd makes this wine with the famous Pisoni family of the Santa Lucia Highlands. It's got lovely balance between plump, round Chardonnay fruit and that more more steely, crisp style. Altogether an irresistible Chard. $17.99
2007 Chehalem Inox Chardonnay Oregon And who ever said great Chardonnay has to come from Cali? Without wood or the malolactic fermentation that produces "butter," this is preternaturally clean, focused, lean and racy Chardonnay that is the opposite of everything the WSJ says it didn't like.