A California Chardonnay without Sin

I just love that the good folks over at the Chamisal winery in the Central Coast of California call their entry-level Chardonnay "stainless." To anyone familiar with the science and art of winemaking, the term "stainless" denotes a commonly employed technique and associated style of vinification.

But for someone who, say, doesn't know much about winemaking but is more inclined to theological reflection, the word stainless could evoke images of innocence or probity, meaning "guiltless, faultless, sinless, stainless, bloodless, spotless; clear, immaculate; unspotted, unblemished, unerring; undefiled" (according to Roget's Thesaurus circa 1922).

Of course, the "stainless" on the label refers to the fact that the wine is aged in stainless-steel vats as opposed to oak casks. The designation reflects a growing trend among California winemakers who oppose invasive oak flavors in their Chardonnay, a response to the "oaky, buttery" style that has dominated the category since the 1990s. The backlash against the excessive oakiness of those wines has been so sharply felt that winemakers like Chamisal also write "unoaked" on the label.

One of the most fascinating things about Chardonnay -- the grape, the wine, the brand, and the perception -- is that it is perhaps the world's most neutral grape variety. The great winemakers of Burgundy prize it, for example, because they believe (rightly so) that it's the ideal medium to express the terroir of their vineyards (i.e., the unique combination of exposure, soil, and climate etc.). Just taste a classic Chablis and a classic Côte de Beaune from the same vintage side-by-side and you'll see how the soil types and the styles of the wine dominate the actual flavors of grape.

In many ways, Chardonnay is what you want it to be. And I don't just mean that on a technical level. Chardonnay can be a wine to chill with ice cubes; it can be a wine grown in the some of the world's most coveted vineyards; it can be oaky and buttery (California-style); it can be steely and acidity-driven (Chablis style); it can be a wine you serve on a first date; it can be a wine that you pour for an anniversary.

Beyond the contemplative path that it set me upon, I loved the "stainless" Chardonnay by Chamisal that we opened in our home a few weeks ago: It was clean and fresh, bright and balanced, and its gentle citrus flavors were ideal with some butterflied chicken breasts that I had marinated in lemon juice and garlic and blackened in Grandma Georgia's cast-iron skillet. You can find it at the Houston Wine Merchant and Spec's for around $20.

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