white wine
Image: Erik Skaar

THERE’S A LOT OF smack talk out there about chardonnay—those made in Washington and everywhere else. So in 2009, the varietal surprised everyone by vaulting ahead of riesling as our state’s most produced white grape. It fell to third in 2010, thanks to a cool growing season, but chardonnay’s popularity among Washington wine drinkers is only rising. And the wines made from it are getting better.

The dissing is due to two basic issues. The first: oak. Chardonnay is often fermented and aged in new oak. The resulting wines can pick up the barrel’s toast and caramel flavors, overwhelming the fruit. Alternately, some winemakers leave the grape unoaked—“naked” in marketing lingo—which can make it thin and sharp. Other winemaking decisions, such as malolactic fermentation (when malic acid is converted to lactic acid), can give chardonnay a rich, buttery taste that some wine drinkers love and some loathe.

The fruit itself can be a problem, too. Compared to other white grapes, chardonnay is characteristically muted, displaying notes of grass, apple, and occasionally tropical fruit. This inherent neutrality means the wines are inoffensive but often not particularly interesting. When chardonnay successfully walks the tightrope between barrel and fruit, however, the results can be sublime.