Chardonnays: Butter, Fruit, or Tin? 

Is innovation always a good thing?

It's high-time to take a good, hard look at Chardonnays. They are not my favorite type of wine; I prefer Sauvignon Blancs, which are crisper and fresher. But I have come around to Chardonnays and have noticed that fruit-forward seems to be the modern approach — though I always thought the buttery ones were pleasant, too. So I asked my friend Anne and her husband Barry, who drink Chards and really know them, to help with the tasting.

It was a madhouse at Berkeley Bowl West (920 Heinz Ave., Berkeley) just before Thanksgiving when I asked one of the employees in the wine department for three of their best Chardonnays under $10. She seemed very decisive in her choices, and driving home I had high hopes.

The first was a Calina 2009 from Chile ($8.99), a winery owned by California's Kendall-Jackson. Both Anne and I agreed it didn't have any nose at all. We also picked out a metallic, tinny taste. Barry said it was "like a Sauvignon Blanc, a little bit grassy and even like a Fume Blanc." It wouldn't be ideal on its own or paired with a light dish like fish, but needs something flavorful and substantial — like a fiery Indian curry. In past years this wine has been well reviewed, and one reviewer even gushed over the 2009 bottle: "If this were a California Chardonnay it would cost two or three time the price." I cannot be so enthusiastic.

Next up was the Lockwood 2009 from Southern Monterey County ($9.95), a cool climate that promised us "delicious expressions." Anne found the wine to have a "very limited bouquet." She detected a tiny bit of oakiness, which was pleasant enough, while Barry said it was softer, with hints of white nectarines or peaches. We agreed it would do well with something really tasty like spicy Lemongrass prawns or a Tom Yum Goong soup. But don't all white wines go well with spicy Asian food? It's a great fit for inoffensively wan wines and for wines that have a little bit of something wrong with them.

Next up was the Domaine de Bernier 2008 from Loire Valley, France ($7.99). Again we could detect little scent, but then I thought I could smell shoe polish. Anne replied: "I know what you mean about the polish, but it's silver polish." Barry wondered if it had a little bit of a rotten squash: "Sometimes you can get that smell, but it's usually with sweeter wines." I found it tangy, not buttery at all, and just a tad fruity. We all agreed: It was hands-down the worst of the three.

We decided the second wine, the Lockwood from Monterey, was not so offensive and could be sipped with strong foods. But across the board, we found an unsettling tininess in place of the fleshy ripeness of fruit. Chardonnays need to bring back the butter, big time.

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