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Chardonnay still beloved

You could call chardonnay the "Miss America" of wines. It's our favorite, and it's very pretty and charming, even though it's also something of a cliche by now. So while there's an active ABC ("anything but chardonnay") movement in the country, we still drink our white wine in this order: chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, moscato and riesling.

Chardonnay has been around for a long time. Americans started ordering it as soon as they graduated from the old restaurant wine lists that offered only "burgundy, blush or chablis."

And it's easy to pronounce. Try saying "viognier" or "gewurztraminer."

California chardonnays put American wines on the world map in 1976, in the famous "Judgment of Paris" tasting in which the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay from Napa bested four French white Burgundies in a blind tasting by French judges.

Emboldened California winemakers then started pumping up chardonnays with extended oak barrel aging, often using expensive French oak.

They put the wines through malolactic fermentation, which softens their acids and adds the flavor of butter.

They grew the grapes riper until their alcohol levels had soared past the usual 12 percent to more than 14 percent.

By the 1990s they had gone too far, and many California chardonnays became "fruit bombs" that were too sweet and overpowering to serve with food, becoming something akin to cordials.

But American wine aficionados refused to go the way of Dr. Strangelove, refused to "stop worrying and learn to love the (fruit) bomb."

Winemakers eventually got the message and started toning down their wares. Today, while there's an occasional bomb out there, most California chards are nicely back in balance of fruit, sugar and acid.

There's even a small movement to ferment and age chardonnays entirely in stainless steel tanks, without a moment in oak barrels.

This, too, could go too far. To my taste, a hint of oak adds character to chardonnay. But that's just me.

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Highly recommended:

*2009 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley: hint of oak aroma, aromas and flavors of ripe peaches and soft citrus, creamy and smooth; $50.

*2010 Natura Chardonnay, by Emiliana Organic Vineyards, Casablanca Valley, Chile: light and lively and crisp, with aromas and flavors of lemons and grapefruit; $11.

*2010 St. Supery Oak Free Chardonnay, Napa Valley Estate: rich tropical fruit flavors, full-bodied and hearty, crisp; $20.

*2010 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay, Napa Valley: crisp and lively, with a hint of oak aroma and lemon, lime and mineral flavors; $25.

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Recommended:

*2010 Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay, by Concha y Toro, Pirque, Chile: rich and sweet, with ripe pineapple and mineral flavors, full-bodied; $17

*2009 Overlook Chardonnay, Sonoma County: green apples, citrus and spice aromas and flavors, rich and full-bodied; $28.

*2009 Deep Sea Chardonnay, Central Coast: rich, golden apple and mineral aromas and flavors, full-bodied; $24.

*2010 McManis Family Vineyards Chardonnay, River Junction: hint of oak, crisp and clean with green apple flavors; $11.

*Nonvintage Simply Naked Chardonnay, Woodbridge, Calif.: with no oak aging, it's soft and sweet, with ripe pear and orange flavors and light body; $10.

*2010 Kendall-Jackson "Avant" Chardonnay, Calif.: light and lively, with crisp green apple and pear flavors; $14.

*2008 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay, "Cold Creek" Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Wash.: generous oak aroma, green apple, lemon and mineral flavors, crisp and medium-bodied; $25.

*2009 Benziger Family Winery Chardonnay, Carneros: light and crisp and clean, with lemon-lime aromas and flavors; $16.

*2010 Beringer Founders' Estate Chardonnay, Calif.: ripe pineapple and lemon flavors; $9.