As a general rule, chardonnay is aged in wooden barrels whether it’s made in France, California or almost anywhere else. This gives the wine the toasty, oaky aroma and vanilla-like flavor that everyone writes about, the result of the barrel imparting those characters to the finished product.

When that kind of aging is done well, there isn’t much to complain about (see almost any high-end white Burgundy). When it isn’t — and a lot of high-priced California wines went through a period in the late ’90s when they didn’t do it well, for a variety of reasons — the wine often tastes more like wood than fruit.

Hence un-oaked chardonnay, wine that is aged in steel tanks instead of barrels. There still isn’t a lot of it on the market compared to traditionally made chardonnay, but its availability seems to be growing, and it’s growing in response to chardonnay that has too much oak. Most of it is reasonably priced (some are wonderfully inexpensive), many are very well made, and almost all of them are fresh, fruit-forward wines that pair well with food. Keep these in mind:

• Los Vascos Chardonnay 2004 ($8) — This wine is made by the Chilean part of the Rothschild family business, which means you get hundreds of years of French winemaking tradition for less than $10. One caveat: For some reason, this wine sometimes needs to breathe for 15 or 20 minutes before drinking, which is odd for a white wine.

• Toad Hollow Chardonnay 2004 ($11) — Toad Hollow impresario Todd Williams says he makes meatloaf wine, which is his way of saying he doesn’t care for wine critics or wine snobs. Drink this appley, crisp California wine on its own, or with any white wine dish.

• Argyle Chardonnay 2004 ($12) — One of my favorites (especially because I found it on sale for $10). It’s made in Washington state, and is even cleaner and crisper than the Toad Hollow.


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