The news in chardonnay is that some producers of that wine, which is known for having an oaky flavor, are ditching wood barrels for stainless-steel tanks and letting the grapes do the talking. Most chardonnays, however, still occupy the territory between the two basic styles: fruity or woody/buttery (woody from oak barrels; buttery from a process called malolactic fermentation).
Our wine experts found four very inexpensive chardonnays that are very good and seven that are good. The very good, including a 7-Eleven wine, are described in the Ratings chart (available to subscribers). The good chardonnays were generally less complex, with more generic fruit flavors. They include Alamos Medoza 2008, Fetzer Valley Oaks 2008, Frontera 2009, Harthill Farms and Paul Varmer 2007 (both from Whole Foods), Oak Leaf (Walmart), and Trader Joe's Charles Shaw Blend 2008. A 12th cheap choice, Black Box Monterey County boxed wine, $5 for the equivalent of a 750-milliliter bottle, is nothing special. It had low fruit flavor and some of the ones we tried had metallic and cardboardy off notes.
You can buy a very good chardonnay for $5 to $9. Check the "taste" column in the Ratings (available to subscribers) to see which sound best to you. If you don't mind spending more, try Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve 2008, $14. Our experts judged it especially tasty. It has heavy butter, vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch flavors balanced by crisp acidity and light fruit flavor.