Chardonnay is the grape Americans love to hate. It's our top-selling wine, but the only wine with its own protest group -- the ABC Club (that's Anything But chardonnay).
Ironically, our conflicted feelings are caused by chardonnay's inherent neutrality.
Like all grapes, chardonnay's constitution begins in the vineyard. But chardonnay's new juice is uniquely bland, often compared to underripe apple or hay.
Then, like an actress who blossoms into a variety of roles, chardonnay can develop a stunning range of characters in the winery.
There's easy-drinking chardonnay that winemakers offer by skipping oak maturation. Wines like Yalumba's "Unwooded" chardonnay (Australia, $13) and Airfield "Unoaked" chardonnay (Washington State, $13) are refreshing, inexpensive quaffs that allow the grape's apple-y flavors to shine.
Winemakers also offer inexpensive chardonnay by adding oak chips to fermenting juice. The primary attributes of these wines is that they are oaky and cheap.
For great chardonnay, however, with layers of flavor, caressing texture and delicious food compatibility, chardonnay requires two factors that never come cheap: oak barrels and time.
Chardonnay needs time in long, cool ferment to develop diacetyl -- the flavor compound of butter. More time in a barrel softens the hard edges of alcohol and acid and melds chardonnay's fruit and butter with toasty oak or brown spice flavor.
In successful chardonnay (such as Ross' Choice), the result is a wine that is plump but taut, unctuous but lively, with tremendous complexity -- with flavors that may include green apple, browned butter, truffles or wild honey -- while still compatible with food.
We have a love/hate relationship, too, with chardonnay's food complement: milk fat. Chardonnay's buttery accents find common denominators with creamy dressings (like the mayonnaise-based dressing on crab Louis salad), rich cow's milk cheese (cheddar or Epoisse) and buttery preparations (lobster dipped in butter.)
For autumn, both chardonnay's brown spice and butter are accented with acorn squash and pumpkin recipes.
To serve with fall mushroom recipes, ask your retailer for an earthier chardonnay like Bouchard Pere et Fils Bourgne "Reserve chardonnay" ($24). As Burgundy's largest landholder, Bouchard can blend the complexity of the world's prime chardonnay vineyards into its entry-level wine, wine that complements roast chicken with chanterelles or escargots with mushroom cream (and other recipes featured on bouchard-pereetfils.com.)
With this range of quality, styles and food complements, it's no wonder we're a little conflicted over chardonnay. And that we love it.
• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ross' choiceChardonnay Carneros District
Ÿ Suggested retail and availability: $29 at wine and liquor shops and boutiques (distributed by Winebow, Chicago)
Wine biz vet Bruce Neyers and Mother Nature did everything right to craft this complex but refreshing wine. Three Chardonnay clones, ripened to optimum fruit-acid ripeness throughout a long vintage in three of California's finest vineyards, receive long, slow fermentation to protect freshness. Restrained contact with oak coaxes the wine to reveal -- layer by layer -- flavors including yellow apple and caramel, fig and spice, all highlighted against bright acidity. The wine's opulence is nonetheless balanced enough for a mouthwatering aperitif and to complement rich veggie dishes (pumpkin ravioli), exotic seafood (grilled salmon with tropical fruit salsa), even white meats (pork chops with baked apples).