At the beginning of this decade, California chardonnay was famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — for being oaky. This meant they had telltale flavors like vanilla and caramel, and were usually described as toasty and buttery. This style was the result of winemaking decisions to extensively age the chardonnay in oak barrels; the longer the wine stayed in the barrels, the more oak characteristics it would pick up.

These bottles got big scores from the wine magazines, which translated into a generation of heavy wines where the oak obscured whatever fruit flavors existed. And, truthfully, they never tasted very good. I long ago had my fill of chardonnay that tasted like a baseball bat.

The good news is that this style, though still popular, is not as trendy it once was. More California winemakers are using less oak to produce more interesting wines. A terrific example is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2005 ($30, available at Central Market). Stag’s Leap, though never the oakiest high-end California chardonnay, was oaky enough. This wine, on the other hand, is part of the label’s decision to move more to the middle. It has oak flavors, but they’re balanced with bright chardonnay-style fruit like lime and pineapple. It was much better than I thought it would be, resembling a quality white Burgundy at about two-thirds the price. It’s perfect for a fancy dinner or even sipping as the weather gets warmer.



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