Hold the Oak 

Mendocino County Chardonnays offer a little bit of everything — except the one thing you'd expect.

My mother is quite the white-wine connoisseur, but for years she has eschewed Chardonnay in favor of Pinot Grigio because of her belief that Chardonnay gives her a rash. When Token Winemaker learned this, he begged her to try a Chardonnay aged in a stainless-steel tank, certain that what she was actually allergic to was diacetyl, the buttery by-product of malolactic fermentation so often prevalent in over-oaked California Chards. Mom conceded that she did have a particular aversion to what she calls "reception Chardonnay," but there was still no convincing her that the varietal could be redeemed.

Our last shot at persuading her might just be a trip to Mendocino — by the glass, at least. While not known in particular for the quality and/or volume of its Chardonnay output, Mendocino County and its eleven wine regions are known for their careful and often eco-friendly craftsmanship, and upon sampling a few Chardonnays from the area, we found that craftsmanship clearly in evidence. When oak doesn't take center stage with Chardonnay, as it usually does in California, characteristic varietal notes of citrus, caramel, lemon, vanilla, custard, and occasionally tropical fruit can emerge more fully.

Don't assume that necessarily translates into a full-bodied wine, however, because it doesn't. In fact, we found all the Mendocino Chards we tried to be quite light. The 2007 Bonterra Vineyards Chardonnay ($10.75) was probably the lightest of the bunch; this wine made from 100 percent organically-grown grapes had a lovely honeysuckle aroma and was dry and very pleasant on the palate. Nearly as light but quite a bit sweeter was Dreyer Wines' 2007 Il Cuore Chardonnay ($9.99), whose aroma of flowers and tropical fruit gave a hint to the 5 percent Viognier in its blend.

We loved the 2006 Terra Savia Reserve Chardonnay ($15), which was fermented and aged in oak (French oak) but lacked a strong oaky component in its flavor profile. What really came through here was the fruit: lemon and melon, and an accompanying crispness on the palate. "Biscuity" was another comment from Token Winemaker, who praised this almost-graham-cracker-like element he detected in the taste.

We snuck out of our price range a bit — but for a good cause — to try the Jeriko Estate 2006 Chardonnay ($18.99). This one struck me as supercitrusy and less light than the other Mendo Chards we tried, but very drinkable nonetheless. Jeriko's San Francisco Wine Press label is far more Wineau-friendly than the winery's other offerings, with a Chardonnay, Syrah Rosé, and Syrah that all retail for under $10. The 2007 Chard has already sold out this year, but we can highly recommend the 2006 Syrah, which had a gamey flavor and a depth that belied its price.


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