Shunned by sommeliers, adored by millions, distrusted by millennials and a mainstay of most retail shelves and restaurant wine lists, California chardonnay is a diverse but polarizing category. In particular, the oak barrel-influenced wines are ones you either love or you don’t. Some producers excel at this style, while others make caricature-like wines, with exaggerated tropical fruit that tastes sappy and cloying. The best are balanced, authentic reflections of individual terroirs that taste absolutely delicious with lobster, crab or grilled fish steaks. It all comes down to the quality of the grapes and a sophisticated use of barrels for fermentation and aging so that layers of lavish vanilla and caramel do not engulf the underlying flavors. The following three are outstanding examples.
Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills, 2013
Winemaker Greg Brewer is a terroir freak who underplays wood expression in favor of the brightness of coastal-influenced grapes. This golden-hued chardonnay originates from vineyards along the Pacific Ocean, and it evokes earthy, smoky, ripe pear-like notes as well as a considerable bite from the crisp acids. It’s nutty yet beautifully balanced with fresh minerally and tart flavors.
$45, Charles Street Liquors, Boston
Rombauer Chardonnay, Carneros, 2014
This might strike some tasters as over-the-top in ripeness, but if you prefer that super-lush, rich, buttery, fruit-forward style, this will be enjoyable. Originating from the windswept Carneros district just north of San Francisco Bay, it has an aroma of lavender, floral herbs and brioche. The creamy texture and ripe apple notes on the palate suggest it’s best as an accompaniment to white meats with a fruit glaze.
$46, The Urban Grape, Boston
Patz & Hall Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2014
This is a sleek and silky wine that shows notes of butter, apricot, honey and toasted almonds. No less distinctive than James Hall’s single-vineyard chardonnays, it offers smoky grilled aromas and undertones of baking spices that combine to create a harmonious, stylish integration of flavor sensations. Supple and mellow with a long, satisfying finish, it’s best enjoyed with boiled lobster.
$40, Bacco’s Wine and Cheese, Boston