Chardonnay is the most ubiquitous fine wine grape grown on the globe. Wherever wine drinkers go, chardonnay wine was there before them. (Barring Bordeaux, where a combination of appellation law and local vainglory consigns its own wine to the shops.)
Chardonnay is everywhere for three reasons: It's relatively easy to raise; it's fairly neutral, a perfect canvas on which to paint the variety of flavors everyone enjoys in it; and its wine is chin-dripping juicy delicious.
Like pinot noir, its red counterpart, chardonnay reflects its terroir. In cooler climates, its wine is lean, crisp and high in acidity. In warmer places, chardonnay sports honeyed, tropical fruit flavors.
On chalky or granitic soil such as Chablis or southern Burgundy, chardonnay makes tight, mineral-laden wines; on limestone (Burgundy's Puligny, say), wines with both power of attack and finesse of finish. With rich soil underneath and sun above, chardonnay is round and deep. By and large, California, South America and Australia give us that sort.
At the winery, this play-with-me grape faces as many decisions as a teenage girl before her morning closet — and each choice makes for a different style of wine: how to crush and press the grapes; whether to use indigenous or added yeasts; to ferment in barrels or in temperature-controlled steel, or to combine both; whether or not to put the wine through an acidity-taming malolactic fermentation; whether to stir the lees (spent yeast cells and other fermentation residue) or rack the wine clear; and in what sort of oak to age the wine, or even to age it at all.
The accumulation of these decisions makes for at least three "families" of chardonnay:
No- or low-oak: Fermenting and aging chardonnay in neutral vats (generally stainless steel) augments flavors of green apple, white peach and citrus. You'll find a raft of chardonnays that now trumpet the "no oak" sobriquet, among them the terrific (if pricey) 2011 Williams Selyem from Russian River Valley in Sonoma ($37).
No-oak or little-oak Burgundian chardonnays from humbler districts such as the Maconnais or Chalonnais — and certainly from the noble area of Chablis — often accentuate the white-fruit aromas and flavors of chardonnay and add the delicious grace notes of minerals or chalk.
So many of these abound that it's like wandering through a meadow of white flowers, but see if you can find any of the many Maconnais wines of Domaine Christophe Cordier such as his edged-in-green 2011 Saint-Veran Clos a la Cote ($32) or even just the simple, delicious 2011 Domaine Beranger Pouilly-Fuisse ($23). By the way, the 2011 white Burgundies, all a one, will set your tongue to juicing.
Judicious, background oak lends a hint of vanilla to chardonnay, such as the vivid, mango-y 2011 Cousino-Macul Antiguas Reservas from Chile ($14).
Classic California: Finally, we've got the blowsy, round, oft-buttered, sometimes full-on oaky style of "California" chardonnay — in quotes because it is a style now emulated globally — all bells and whistles from having most anything done to it that can be done to it.
Such wines can turn out to be just terrific, as a glass of wine before a meal or, in a manner of thinking, as a meal in itself. After all, it contains the major food groups: fruit, sometimes wood, always alcohol.
Hits: from the Carneros, 2011 Silverado ($30), 2011 Patz & Hall "Hyde Vineyard" ($58) and the 2011 Sequoia Grove ($28); from Napa proper, the 2011 Groth ($26) and the 2011 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Karia" ($35).