The first time my way better half tasted a Chablis, she was shocked. Not by how bright, clean and delicious the wine was, but because she could not guess the grape: chardonnay.

That's not uncommon with the sharp, steely wines of Chablis, since most consumers are used to having their chard with a slather of oak and a dab (or six) of butter.

But this kind of experience -- "That's chardonnay? Seriously?" -- is happening more frequently with New World wines. At a March tasting held by Liquor Barrel, none of the 70-plus attendees initially identified the light, delightful Charles Smith "Eve" as a chardonnay.

St. Supery, Morgan and Toad Hollow are among other established West Coast wineries making reasonably priced, oak-free chards, along with Argentina's Finca la Linda and New Zealand's Kim Crawford.

And then there's Chablis, from the chilly northern reaches of Burgundy, grown in chalky soils -- a geological strain that runs all the way up to the white cliffs of Dover -- with fossilized seashells clearly visible.

Producers there, aiming not to mess with the tasty grapes this terroir produces, go the stainless-steel fermenting route, although some grand cru and premier cru wines see time in oak barrels.

The 2008 and '09 vintages currently on shelves are stellar; wonderful introductions include such under-$25 "village" bottles as Drouhin Vaudon, Vignoble Dampt Vieilles Vignes and William Fèvre Domain.

Fèvre's spendier Chablis, by the way, rival François Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat (a Surdyk's exclusive) as the best Chablis has to offer.

But the beauty of chardonnay -- and the reason it's the world's most popular white wine -- is that it can have endlessly varying expressions because at its heart it is flat-out delicious. Ripe chardonnay would make a fabulous table grape.

Lettie Teague calls chardonnay "as much a winemaker's idea as it is a wine," because vintners can basically do with it what they will and get good results.

The buttery style of the most popular chards -- Kendall Jackson Vintners' Reserve and Rombauer, aka "Cougar Kool-Aid" -- comes from malolactic fermentation, which converts malic acid to lactic acid (think milk). That often takes place in oak barrels, which add vanilla aromas not found in oak-free chardonnays.

These fatter flavors and toasty elements make richer chardonnays a great match for not only milk chocolate but grilled slabs o' beef. They're also why chardonnay is considered the ideal white wine for red wine lovers.

The proliferation of rich chardonnays in the 1990s prompted British wine writer Jancis Robinson to spearhead an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. But in a very real sense, one of the best alternatives to chardonnay is ... chardonnay made in an entirely different style.

Bill Ward •