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French-style Chardonnay from California

A new wave of artisan California winemakers is making unoaked Chardonnays.

The myth about Chardonnay is that it lacks the character to age well, said Steve Heimoff in Wine Enthusiast. Most American vintages are aged in oak, meant to lend them substance. Yet some French Chardonnays, such as Chablis, are either unoaked or only lightly oaked. Now a new wave of artisan California winemakers is also challenging the idea that Chardonnay needs to be oaked.

These Chardonnays come from the narrow coastal area extending from Anderson Valley in the north to the Santa Rita Hills—“a ribbon perhaps 30 miles at its widest.” These are some of the best we tasted, on a 100-point scale.

Mer Soleil 2006 Silver Unoaked Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands) (92, $42) “Stunning.” Bright acids and a laser-like purity, with a dry finish.

Riverbench 2006 Bedrock Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley) (88, $24) “So rich and forward in fruit” you may not notice its smoky edge.

Valley of the Moon 2007 Unoaked Chardonnay (Russian River Valley) (88, $16) Bracing with shellfish. Very dry and elegant, with a flavor of crisp green apples.

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