Make friends with Chardonnay
The Chardonnay grape variety is the most widely planted in the world, and California produces more Chardonnay wine than any other country.
Some of California's best Chardonnays are found in coastal vineyards cooled by fog rolling in at harvest time in September from the cold Pacific ocean, slowing down and extending the ripening period.
This lengthened 'hang time' for the fruit on the vine allows the vine's roots to extract more trace elements and minerals from the soil and infuse it into the grapes for even more flavour and aromatics – but with a richness that is stimulating, not stultifying; invigorating, not intoxicating.
Highly regarded zones in California for their elegance and premium-quality Chardonnays are Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Napa Valley's Carneros district. However, with expensive land and labour costs, serious investment in the latest winery equipment and a wealthy and patriotic domestic market States-side, wines often reflect their premium regard.
Broadly, there are two distinctly different styles of Californian Chardonnay which underlines its versatile personality as a wine. The most familiar is the lightly oak- influenced group of wines, showing a typically Californian vanilla and exotic fruit-cocktail character expressed by tropical banana, pineapple and golden peach flavours, framed by fermenting or maturing in new oak barrels for a vanilla and white-pepper spiciness. Curries and highly spiced Asian dishes work well with these exotica.
The more recent style to evolve has declined any new oak in order to accentuate its unadorned varietal character of green apple, lemon and fresh melon flavours. Purity of fruit is the primary aim and these crisp and lively wines work well with simpler fish, chicken and salads or as a refreshing appetite sharpener, or with a splash of soda as a spritzer.
However, both styles have one thing in common: each embodies the sunny, friendly and approachable personality of California. Make friends.
1) Chardonnay 2010 Founders' Estate, Beringer, California, 14pc
The ripe melon, peach and smoky aromas are mirrored on the tastebuds. Concentrated white-pepper and apple flavours mask the alcohol. A full-bodied wine robust enough to match with saffron-coloured paella.
€17.99 at Next Door off-licences nationwide; Lilac Wines, Fairview, Dublin, and select independent off-licences nationwide
2) Chardonnay 2011 Hay Station Ranch, California, 12.5pc
Scented with ripe yellow apples and cream. Juicy peach and apple flavours follow on the palate, delivering a fresh, well-balanced and juicy wine. Match its medium body with a similar dish of roast chicken or grilled white fish topped with lemon butter and chives.
€9.79 at Marks & Spencer nationwide
3) Chardonnay 2011 Rutherford Ranch, Napa Valley, California, 13pc
Characterful bouquet expressing its vineyard's mineral accent with additional apple and white-pepper notes echoing on the palate, joined by juicy melon flavours. Accompany with salmon roasted with cherry tomatoes.
€18.99 at Matson's, Bandon; No 21 Coburg Street, Cork, and Ardkeen Foodstores, Waterford. In Dublin: Sweeney's, Finglas Road, and Gibney's, Malahide
4) Chardonnay 2009 Clos du Val, Carneros district, Napa Valley, California, 13.5pc
Reserved flavours of peach and apple fruits are lifted by a little hazelnut and white-pepper spice. Excellent balance and understated elegance. Enjoy with roast pork and cauliflower cheese.
€23.99 at O'Brien's wine shops nationwide