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I’ve had a serious thing for Chardonnay lately, homing in on that multi-faceted grape, especially its many different faces found in California. And the grape has been making advances back. I was recently wooed by the salinity (minerality) of the Sandhi Chardonnay before I departed for vacation. With that success I was inclined to pick up a bottle of Central Coast Atonement Chardonnay, upon return, to recapture the moment.

While passing up the usual lineup of So Cal Chardonnays, I stumbled upon the bottle and was instantly charmed by the packaging, a label that was intriguing and a price tag not staggering—combining in a blog-worthy candidate. Knowing relatively little about the wine, I prayed for rain.

A little research brought to light the winemaker—Curt Schachlin of Sans Liege—whose project I was familiar with only by name. The winemaker had blended 80% Chardonnay with the balance going to Rhône favorite, Roussane from Santa Barbara and Paso Robles.

On a mellow Southern California evening, an opportunity to open the bottle with friends presented itself. The mild weather was perfectly suited for a chilled white wine though my company (almost always) preferred red wine. We pulled the bottle from the fridge, scoring the foil and drawing the cork from its curvaceous frame. My friends gathered near questioning, playing the good inquisitive crowd, for which I had no answers. I simply told them that we would be experimenting.

Without the mineral tinge of the Sandhi Chardonnay, the Central Coast Chardonnay was starting off on a different foot. A soft golden shimmer in my burgundy stemware, bearing expressive notes of white citrus blossoms, mango and apple that followed on my first sip. The texture was a little fuller, a sinewy body that wasn’t without acid but definitely rounded out, most likely from the Roussane.

Eyes were wide when I surveyed the room; astonished, everyone had downed the contents and the Chardonnay barely lasted an hour between the four of us. A gamble that paid dividends, despite not packing a razor blade sharpness or intense seashell chalkiness—it was perfect for the moment. Entirely different from the Sandhi Chardonnay but equally delicious, it provided a fitting break and another nuance to Chardonnay… clearly a hit for all. I’m going back to buy more.

I lived in Laguna Beach growing up, a surprising town surrounded by more conservative cities that lent credence to the political expression, “Orange Curtain.” Access to Laguna is had by only two ingresses, PCH and the 133. The best part of that unique town was the beach, clean and infinite—relatively speaking—where I would come home from school and go swim when the water didn’t require a wetsuit. Since I left, I think one of the things that I miss most is waking up to the smell of the ocean (I lived really close); the salinity in the air was palpable. I’m reminded of my salad days when nosing a bottle of great white wine. The memory impetus was brought on by a bottle of Santa Barbara Chardonnay, 2009 Sandhi Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County—the entry-level in their cavalcade—dressed smartly with a demure label and sans foil to show off the glass. I chilled down the contents, opening the bottle over dinner with a couple of friends.

A pale gold liquid filled our glasses, with decent perfume of lemons and vanilla undercut by the salty spray of ocean mist. As we took our first sip, a confluence of minerals, citrus and a touch of new oak tornadoed across our palates, in its wake we were left with a complex, sinewy wine that possessed impressive balance. The alcohol was low and the acid was high for California Chardonnay and all winemaking techniques were gracefully in check.

Sandhi’s entry tier Chardonnay was delicious with dinner and long after we finished. Though I drank it miles away from my favorite beach, the bouquet easily brought me back to the Anita Street shores that I once tried my best to surf when the blackball wasn’t in effect. I can’t wait to see what else these Sandhi guys have in store.

I have been exploring Chardonnay in high volume lately, and while that grape can be found with at least moderate success in many nearby regions, I have limited my scope to examples hailing from Burgundy and few local expressions found in Santa Barbara and the Central Coast. My thesis is finding wines that share the best of the varietal, downplay the oak as a taste factor and skirting the malolactic notes (butter, cheese and yogurt) altogether in favor of a brighter Chardonnay, preserving the Granny-Smith-apple-acidity and leaving my mouth chockablock with minerals and lasting flavors of ripe Comice pears. Not too much to ask for! In staging my latest dinner party I planned a vegetarian-friendly menu centered on a couple different bottles of Chardonnay from producers I was eager to learn more about.

In the early stages I set up a cheese plate representing an array of different textures, though all the cheeses were bovine. I had peppadews and olives to break from the moo-juice based items and to keep the palate excited. Instead of going domestic in the first round, I broke the wax seal of a bottle of Domaine Savary Chablis “Vieilles Vignes” to demonstrate an important function in wine.

There are a few things that make Chablis very special but one of the most exciting elements for my money is the preservation of acidity that comes with the terroir. It is cold in Chablis—the northernmost vineyard area of Burgundy—, which translates to grapes that can struggle to ripen. The harvested grapes are often vinified in steel or neutral barrels to encourage the natural expressions of the fruit. In addition to the sometimes intense mineral flavors that come from the Kimmeridgian Limestone soils, the Chardonnay that exemplifies this appellation is lean, age-worthy and powerful, but, most of all, food-friendly.

I wanted everyone in attendance to bear witness, trying the Chablis with the D’Affoinois Brie to affirm the magical. We grabbed our scoop-vehicles (crackers) for moving the spreadable cheese, consuming them carefully and trying to allow the cream to saturate our mouths while raising our stemware to our lips to complete the demonstration. Once the transaction had completed, eyebrows perked and mouths were curiously refreshed. There was no sign of cream lingering on the palate, in its place, fresh green apples with a squeeze of lemon and a hint of chalky mineral tap-danced atop the taste buds. It was an elegant event, seamless and mystical, a surefire way to illustrate the racy acidity. And it warranted repeat trials.

Post cheese plate, we assembled the vegetarian dinner, each of us working on different facets of the meal to complete the recipes. They were simple and tasty. We traded in our second wine, a domestic Chardonnay for an Italian red, forgoing the compare and contrast part of dinner. Though I was interested in seeing what the Sandhi Chardonnay had to offer, the dinner was great and the Italian red worked well. However, for me there was nothing finer than showcasing the defining attributes of the vieilles vignes Chablis.

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