There was a time, and not all that long ago, when too much California Chardonnay tasted like little more than movie-theater popcorn, popsicle sticks, and overripe tropical fruit. There were exceptions, of course, but the great white grape of the Golden State had found itself in a definite stylistic rut. What started off as an homage to the nuanced, oak-kissed white wines of Burgundy—Montrachet, Meursault and the rest—had devolved into some sort of syrupy, overwrought stereotype. (There were, of course, exceptions.)
Many of these super-ripe and oaky Chardonnays earned high scores from critics, and, as the years rolled on, that particular style grew to become synonymous with the Chardonnays of California. My personal experience with them is that they tended to be pleasant for a glass or two, but were more difficult to pair with food than they should have been, and often so assertive in their texture and alcohol levels that consuming them over the course of an evening was rarely a pleasant experience.
Inevitably, a backlash came about, and despite the fact that the pendulum has been swinging in the direction of more balanced, nuanced wines, many consumers still feel the sting of that era. At most of the events I host for my private and corporate clients, I still encounter members of the “ABC” crowd, those wine-lovers who proclaim a willingness to drink “Anything But Chardonnay.”
I always try to talk them off the ledge. Because these days, with every passing vintage, there are more and more Chardonnay options, produced in a range of styles from fleshy and ripe to leaner and more acid-driven, than the grape variety tends to get credit for among the California-Chardonnay-drinking public. Indeed, even highly regarded producers with a long history crafting well-respected California Chardonnay have evolved stylistically.
Jordan Vineyard & Winery, for example, whose first vintage of Chardonnay was in 1976, “started out as an Alexander Valley Estate Chardonnay in the 1980s with tropical flavors and a creaminess from malolactic fermentation,” winemaker Rob Davis explained in an email. “Still elegant and French-inspired [but] different from our last 10 vintages. By the 1990s, we’d moved entirely to the cool-climate Russian River Valley as a fruit source due to how the area and soils highlight acidity and stone fruit flavors—more Burgundian in style, which is our inspiration. In 2005, as we continued to refine our vineyard sources and precision farming techniques, [and] we started moving toward less malolactic fermentation. In 2014, we increased the amount of stainless-steel fermentation for our Chardonnay. When you have beautiful fruit with bright acids, the wine speaks for itself without much work in the cellar.”
Jordan’s 2014 Chardonnay is exceptionally food-friendly, like so many of California’s best examples of the grape variety.
This is a trend that’s finding its footing all over California these days. And while there are certainly plenty of fuller, flashier Chardonnays being crafted, they no longer define the category as they once did.
Kathleen Inman, owner and winemaker at Inman Family Wines, produced the lightest-bodied Chardonnay among my recommended ones below, yet without sacrificing an iota of complexity. “I don’t think the high alcohols, slightly sweet, oaky, buttery Chardonnay HAS to be the California style, but internationally many people think it is,” she told me in an email. “Like Pinot Noir, I believe Chardonnay is very sensitive to the place it is grown and to the hand of the winemaker. Style (the winemaker’s influence) is personal and I think California, and Sonoma County in particular, have a tremendous range of potential Chardonnays. I love the diversity.”
Over the past several months, I’ve tasted through countless California Chardonnays from all over the state. What has been most striking about the process is how much I’ve enjoyed them no matter how they express themselves: From more austere examples to fuller-bodied bottlings, a sense of balance and honesty seems to tie the best of them together. No matter how ripe they may be, the best of them still possess enough acidity to slice through that richness, keep the wine fresh and structured, and work well alongside a meal.
This trend toward stylistic diversity benefits everyone, and breaks down old stereotypes in the process. “Many consumers believe that all Chardonnays taste the same,” Robert Mondavi Winemaker Megan Schofield wrote in an email. “One of the most interesting, challenging and enjoyable things about Chardonnay is that it really can be made in so many different ways depending upon the fruit sourcing, the winemaker and the vision. It is so widely planted, not just in California, but around the world, that delving into and really exploring the many different approaches globally can be an extremely interesting and fun journey. I believe that with the vast range of terroirs here in California, there is potential to make great Chardonnays in many styles to please every palate.”
Below are 11 that I recommend for your own Chardonnay journey. They may differ in style, but each of them is indicative of what is shaping up to be an incredibly exciting time for California Chardonnay, which is being produced all over the state, in a range of microclimates and soil types, and crafted with ever more care and attention to the needs of that particular juice.
Albatross Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2013, Carmel Valley, Monterey County – Lemon curd, flowers, and mineral, all carried on a frame more lithe than the denser nose implies.
Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2014, Carneros – Butterscotch and honeysuckle on the nose are joined by vanilla and lemon curd, and turn to a palate nicely spiced with oak that frames flavors of tropical fruit and mandarin orange, all ending with a nutty finish.
Inman Family Chardonnay 2013, Russian River Valley – Hazelnut, pear, mineral, and key lime on a bracingly lithe frame—the opposite of stereotypical California Chardonnay, and all the more exciting for it.
Jordan Chardonnay 2014, Russian River Valley – Crunchy green-apple acidity slices through flavors of hard apple, citrus, and concentrated minerality. Fresh and clean, yet with a subtle creaminess to the texture.
Kutch Chardonnay 2014, Santa Cruz Mountain – Winemaker Jamie Kutch doesn’t produce a lot of this, but what he does make is stunning: It’s a wine worth cheering, as close to a California-born Meursault as I’ve ever had. [Note: I consult for one of Kutch’s distributors; that, however, has no bearing on my affection for this remarkable wine.]
MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast – Complex and concentrated, with a savory, almost salty edge to the crunchy apple and citrus notes.
Reuling Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma Coast – Burgundian through and through, with smoky minerality, hard orchard fruit, fennel bulb, flowers, and lemon oil. Delicious now, and even more stunning in a decade.
Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Chardonnay 2013, Carneros, Napa Valley – Effusive aromatics of butterscotch swirled up with lime, vanilla pod, toast, sweet apple, and a bit of honeydew, and flavors of persimmon, passionfruit, pineapple, and fresh ginger. Generous and balanced.
Sandhi Rita’s Crown Chardonnay 2012, Santa Rita Hills – Lemongrass, stone fruit, and lemon oil, all carried on a fantastic structure that frames excellent acid and richness at the same time.
Stony Hill Chardonnay 2013, Napa Valley – Subtle and bracing, with saline-tinged minerality, lemongrass, fresh lime, and pear.
Three Sticks “Origin” Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma County – Honeyed aromas of buttercream and jasmine turn to a silky palate of ripe pineapple, coconut, and crème brûlée. For all that richness, however, this remains beautifully detailed and balanced.
— Brian Freedman