All winemaking is a long series of choices, but I can’t think of a category that better illustrates the varied effects of those choices than chardonnay wines from California. Chardonnay’s relative aromatic and gustatory neutrality means that any given wine betrays its history immediately. Process, whether minimal or maximal, is the heart of the action.

There are also so many chardonnay wines around that it’s relatively easy to compare them. But take a different grape, such as garganega, which like chardonnay can be harvested early or late, fermented in oak or stainless, enjoy long lees contact or short, undergo malolactic fermentation or not, age in barrels or go straight to bottle. Not many people will line up a dozen Soaves, within an evening or a fortnight, in order to see how the various procedures affect garganega. A lot of people will line up a dozen chardonnays.

Chardonnay is different. It reminds me of Red Sox fan Bart Giamatti’s famous line about baseball, that it “is designed to break your heart.” Chardonnay’s highs are so thrillingly high, and its lows so revoltingly low, that we of course come to take strong positions.

The majority of contemporary somms and retailers roll their proverbial (or actual) eyes when California chardonnay comes up, so much so that an informal movement, Anything But Chardonnay, developed to get wine buyers to try other varietals. After the oaky-California-chardonnay heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, ABC may have been a necessary corrective. But we have reached a point where we can look at chardonnay with clear eyes and decide that there are many beautiful wines made from it.

Of course, many contemporary wine drinkers who love California chardonnay are not “returning” to it, because they never stopped loving it. The market for chardonnay of all stripes remains strong and influential. Yet it’s a badly kept industry secret that many wine pros disparage not only these wines but even those who like them. Regardless of your own taste, it is both unrealistic and disrespectful to treat love for chardonnay as an immature perspective or sign of superficiality and weakness.

Still, most of us could use a little refresher on what California chardonnays are like, how they get that way, and how to distinguish the pleasant (and/or marvelous) from the disagreeable (and/or gross).

My past recent columns on chardonnay have focused on France, because that’s chardonnay’s original home. Chardonnay left home a while ago, though, and now lives everywhere, from Australia to Chile to South Africa to Spain. Still, the natural next phase of chardonnay research brings us to California, where a distinctively bold, luxurious, ecstatic style of wines first took root.

That style is most commonly and simply understood as being about the use of oak barrels for fermentation, but to fixate on oak is misleading. Oak can impart distinct flavors to a wine, and it was in California, after all, where oak was fetishized to such an extent that wine technologists developed the use of oak chips and oak extracts as short-cut flavoring agents.

However, the more I taste different wines from this area, the more I come to see that oak is only one factor in a given California chardonnay wine’s character. We can more accurately say the wine’s personality is determined by a dynamic interaction between fermentation vessel (oak, steel or concrete) and fermentation process (malolactic conversion, lees contact, lees stirring, racking).

And yes, place. While this column is too short to allow for a geographical overview delineating the distinctions among Napa, Sonoma, Central Valley, Santa Barbara and more, they are many and significant. The greatest single factor seems to be opportunity for cooling. Coastal areas with fog and significant nocturnal temperature drops allow grapes to retain acidity and develop flavor complexity as they ripen.

The more consistently warm regions yield a one-dimensional flavor profile that, while initially enticing, soon grows tiresome. This profile is easily recognizable: tropical fruit, especially pineapple and mango, predominate, along with fig and banana. Cooler-climate Cali chard brings more green apple and pear notes, and often interesting (not just lemony) citrus.

With both, malolactic conversion – a secondary fermentation that can be induced, permitted or prohibited by adjusting cellar temperatures or adding agents – effects a radical shift in both flavor and texture. The wines that undergo malolactic take on a much creamier mouthfeel (the word’s etymology indicates a transition from somewhat harsh, apple-y acids to smoother, milky acids), and flavors redolent of brown butter and toasted nuts.

Beyond the decision of whether to allow malolactic conversion, the other issue of enormous consequence is lees stirring, or “battonage” in enological lingua franca. Lees are the dead yeast cells that result from fermentation. Most chardonnay wines are improved by at least several months in contact with the lees, but with battonage the lees are periodically stirred as the wine ages in barrel. This imparts a creamy, yeasty character to the finished wine.

When a chardonnay ferments and ages in new oak barrels, it already has such a head start in the creamy/yeasty race that battonage must be undertaken extremely judiciously. But when the wine is fermented in stainless steel, extended lees contact and stirring are almost necessary to render the inherent complexity of the wine available as we taste.

These factors barely scrape the surface of accounting for the personality, flavor and texture of a chardonnay from California (or anywhere). So doesn’t it seem rather absurd to simply assert that you “like chardonnay” or “don’t like chardonnay” as you peruse wine lists or shop shelves?

Our negative experiences with California chardonnay are often with wines from the warm-climate grapes that ripen too quickly and too much, voiding natural acidity and yielding excessive sugar that is fermented into too much alcohol. Or some of the sugar is left unfermented, leaving a sweetness that finds little acidity with which it can collaborate. The infamous Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is emblematic of this cloying style, and it has yielded countless race-to-the-bottom imitators.

Ambitious chardonnay is worlds apart, and also costs substantially more to produce. The cooler sites are more expensive, and the attentive, discriminating employment of oak barrels, especially if they’re new, is more expensive. If I want to drink an interesting wine in the $15 range that conveys a chardonnay signature with a subtle touch of oak, I buy from France’s Mâcon. I’ve rarely found a similarly satisfying American chardonnay for under $20, so I brace myself going in.

Entering chardonnay-land without such preparation can be mystifying, if not frustrating. But going there with something that approaches prejudice can be even worse. Just have a few questions about place and process – Cool climate? Oak fermentation? Lees stirring? Malolactic conversion? – for an informed wine seller, and you’ll be rewarded with not only a good wine, but a deeper appreciation for how a wine comes to be and how its character might align with your own.

Start with the Baileyana Firepeak Chardonnay 2013 ($19) from the extraordinary, cool-climate Edna Valley. It strikes that balance we’re all seeking, whether we know it or not: superpowered acidity, merging with a little bit of oak elegance to enlarge its sphere, great balance.

Bruce Neyers is a legend in Napa, for his work with Napa pioneers Mayacamas and Joe Phelps. At the same time, he helped Kermit Lynch develop his portfolio of European gorgeousness. He brings a truly refined European palate to the wines he bottles from the estate he runs with his wife, Barbara, and his Sonoma Chardonnay 304 2013 ($25) shows it off perfectly. The “304” refers to the industry code for food-safe stainless steel, which along with concrete ferments this wine. (Neyers’ Carneros Chardonnay 2013 sees oak, and is richer for it but no less pinpoint.)

Neyers imported a technique from Chablis legend (and Kermit Lynch stalwart) Roland Lavantureux, whereby a device inside the vessels effectively sprays the lees onto the aging wine rather than stirring them in. Neyers picks the heirloom-varietal chardonnay grapes early, ferments only with native yeast, does not prevent malolactic and does not fine or filter. It’s an exceptionally delineated and versatile wine, 14.1 percent alcohol, simultaneously intense and light as a feather.

The barrel-fermented Au Bon Climat 2013 ($25) from yet another California legend, Jim Clendenen in Santa Barbara, is citrusy, crisp and prolonged; that’s because Santa Barbara is one of California’s coolest growing regions.

In the same neighborhood are two (expensive) wines I adore right now: Santa Rita Hills’ Liquid Farm makes the lean and mineral White Hill 2013 ($40), and generously structured Golden Slope 2012 ($53), a side-by-side seminar in the effects of vineyard site and slightly different cellar treatment.

Finally, come to the Sandhi Chardonnay 2012 ($40), also from Santa Rita Hills, naturally fermented in a combination of used barrels and concrete, undergoing malolactic conversion after a long rest on unstirred lees, bottled without fining or filtration. It’s a heady mix of salt, stone and ginger-lemon-honey tea. That doesn’t sound like California chardonnay, and that’s the point.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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