California winemakers have pretty much gotten over the desire to be “just like Burgundy” when it comes to making chardonnay. But, just as in Burgundy, certain regions have gained reputations for producing the best chardonnays and demanding the prices that go with that reputation.
The Carneros region, which spans parts of Napa Valley and Sonoma County along San Pablo Bay, has held a high reputation for chardonnay for the longest time, followed by Napa farther up-valley and Sonoma’s Russian River watershed appellations. More recently, the Sonoma Coast appellation has attracted much investment and attention.
Farther south, the Central Coast between the cities of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara has also enjoyed a long reputation for producing superior chardonnays.
Here are eight wines from these regions with a heavy dose of Sonoma.
Gloria Ferrer Carneros chardonnay 2012 ($17)
Very nice, with ripe apple flavors and mild toast — more rounded than big with good finishing acidity.
Three Sticks “Durrell” Sonoma Coast chardonnay 2012 ($50)
Mellow apple with lots of fresh oak flavors. A fairly big wine that’s a little hot (14.6 percent alcohol) in the finish.
Sojourn “Durrell” Sonoma Coast chardonnay 2012 ($48)
Spicy apple flavors with some eau-de-vie notes (much have been a hot harvest at Durrell) with a lemon-pie finish. Good acidity, but not an overly crisp finish.
Gary Farrell Russian River chardonnay 2012 ($32)
A combination of flavors of mellow apples and pulpy oranges with a smooth texture and good acidity.
Gary Farrell “Westside Farms” Russian River chardonnay 2012 ($35)
Same flavors as the Russian River, but with more texture and some luscious brioche notes.
Paul Hobbs “Edward James” Russian River Valley chardonnay 2012 ($82)
This is a lovely wine, but I would decant it first, as I would many of Hobbs wines — they need to gasp air once the cork is pulled. The fruit is almost stunning — dried peach and other dried-fruit flavors — with a creamy finish.
Newton Napa Valley chardonnay unfiltered 2012 ($47)
This wine is evidence that you can have a big wine (15.5 percent alcohol) that doesn’t taste “hot.” It has rich, golden-apple and spiced-apple components with barrel-influenced creaminess (is there a chicken in cream sauce on the menu?).
Austerity Arroyo Seco chardonnay 2013 ($15)
Good mixture of oak toast and ripe apricot flavors — like a smooth crème brûlée — with a long, light-custard aftertaste.
8 Impressive Chardonnay Wines Around $20
The chardonnay grape—originally grown in the Burgundy region of eastern France—now grows worldwide from the United States to New Zealand. This relatively “low-maintenance” vine adapts to a variety of climates, resulting in fairly high yields. Translate that into millions of bottles of chardonnay wine available for consumption, and it's hard to know a good one from a knockoff. Luckily, when it comes to chardonnays, expensive doesn't always mean better. Excellent, everyday wines are available in the $15 price range.
On Wine: California chardonnay
SOMETHING NEEDS to be done about the sad state of California chardonnay. I sample several dozen of them every month, and I hardly ever find one that’s truly interesting or distinctive. A lot of the wines are downright undrinkable, with noticeable alcoholic “heat,” too much residual sugar and/or oak that’s way too aggressive.
But my chief complaint is that too many California Chardonnays are simply boring. In some cases, one bottle is virtually indistinguishable from the next. And that’s not just the case with inexpensive chardonnay. The pricey stuff &mdash $30 or more &mdash doesn’t fare much better in my blind tastings.
Nevertheless, chardonnay continues to be very popular. It’s the country’s top-selling varietal by far, with roughly 20 percent of sales volume, according to store scanner data collected by the Nielsen Co. Maybe the wineries are just coasting, knowing that a lot of people will buy chardonnay no matter how mediocre it is. But I think we should be expecting more from our wines, no matter how they’re priced.
A few years ago, after judging more than 60 moderately priced Sonoma County Chardonnays at a competition, I made the observation that a lot of the wines seemed to be made to a recipe. The winemakers who churned out some of these wines couldn’t possibly have been proud of them. I suspect that the marketing departments determined that their wineries needed to have an $18 chardonnay in the portfolio, so the winemakers just did what they were told. The wine was treated like a commodity.
But the news isn’t all bad. I have tasted a few exciting Chardonnays in recent months, wines that made me sit back and say, “Wow, that’s a really delicious wine that I would gladly drink any day.” The best ones haven’t been cheap, but some weren’t super-expensive, either.
One chardonnay that caught my attention was the 2007 Pfendler Chardonnay ($38) from the Sonoma Coast. It’s rich but still quite racy, with lemon cream flavors accented by some tropical notes. It was made in very small quantities.
A perennial favorite of mine is the chardonnay from Trefethen Vineyards in the Oak Knoll District in the Napa Valley. The 2007 ($30) is taut and bright, with lemon, apple and green pear flavors. Trefethen’s Chardonnays tend to age well, too &mdash something that can’t be said for many California Chardonnays these days.
Morgan Winery in Monterey County is a very good producer of chardonnay. Its 2007 Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($36) is creamy and bright, with citrus and green apple flavors and brisk acidity. (Fans of unoaked chardonnay should look for Morgan’s Metallico Chardonnay, a good value at $20.)
I’ve also admired the 2007 chardonnay from Rossi-Wallace and the 2007 single-vineyard bottlings from the Ojai Vineyard (especially the one from Solomon Hills Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley), but all are very limited and may be hard to find.
The following Chardonnays are a little less distinctive, but they offer good balance in a variety of styles and prices:
The 2008 Alma Rosa Chardonnay ($19) from Santa Barbara County is lean and a little minerally, with lemon and green apple flavors. The 2008 Valley of the Moon Unoaked Chardonnay ($16) has a similar flavor profile, as does the fresh, lively 2008 Husch Chardonnay ($15). The 2008 Luli Chardonnay ($20) offers juicy Golden Delicious apple and citrus flavors and a lovely texture. The 2007 Sanford Chardonnay ($22), with its flavors of pear, grapefruit and a touch of oak, is also very good.
The 2008 Lake Sonoma Chardonnay ($17) is a little creamier, with lemon and green apple, while the 2007 Murphy-Goode Chardonnay ($17) displays lemon cream accented by some oak.
For a richer style, look for the 2007 MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay ($35), a fleshy Sonoma Coast wine with a firm core of acidity and some mineral, and the 2007 Gloria Ferrer Chardonnay ($18), which offers lemon cream and mango flavors and some toasty oak.
Finally, for a great bargain, check out the 2008 Black Box Chardonnay ($25 for 3 liters), which is fresh and citrusy, with lemon and apple notes. That price works out to $6.25 a bottle.
My Top 10 Chardonnay’s Under $10 (in no particular order):
1) Bogle Vineyards Chardonnay: This wine is a favorite among my girlfriends. It is peachy, light and slightly creamy with a nice buttery finish.
2) Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Chardonnay: Not only is this a tasty, light-bodied chardonnay, this wine is always dependable and affordable.
3) Mark West Chardonnay: I love Mark West wines. This chardonnay is medium-bodied, smooth, easy to drink and has some yummy citrus flavors!
4) Chalone Chardonnay: Pretty young chardonnay but delicious, creamy and citrusy.
5) Morro Bay Split Oak Vineyard Chardonnay: Talk about creamy! With hints of apple this chardonnay will not disappoint!
6) Robert Mondavi Private Selection: Delicious, creamy, oaky and easy to drink. Robert Mondavi wines stand the test of time!
7) A by Acacia Chardonnay: This chardonnay is a little drier than others on my list but still has some yummy creaminess. Bright, crisp, and a great wine to enjoy with some cheese and appetizers.
8) Estancia Chardonnay: This is more of a full-bodied chardonnay with lots of fruits flavors. It is a smooth, fabulous everyday wine.
9) Sebastiani Chardonnay: This is a full-bodied, zesty chardonnay with citrus flavors. Excellent sipping wine.
10) McManis Chardonnay: This is a rich, beautifully colored chardonnay. With a lot of fruity flavors, smooth and easy to sip on.
Chardonnay: California's great white grape
The most-planted grape variety in California is also its most versatile. Like a blank slate, Chardonnay, the great white grape of Burgundy, lacks a strong character of its own, infinitely malleable by its maker. Plantings can thrive in warm and cool climates alike, and winemaking practices such as oak treatment, malolactic fermentation and battonage (the stirring of the lees, or dead yeast cells, during barrel aging) can drastically alter a wine&rsquos character. Just about every coastal region in the state does brisk Chardonnay business. If you&rsquore interested in learning by sipping, take the Chardonnay Style Spectrum Tour.
Chardonnay&rsquos history in the Golden State has various stylistic chapters. The first wave of producers, in the mid-twentieth century, like Hanzell, Stony Hill, Mayacamas and Mount Eden, often made wines that were lean and crisp: fermented in steel, without malolactic conversion. These decisions may have had as much to do with ensuring chemical stability in the wine as they did with style.
As technology advanced, some vintners introduced winemaking practices more clearly inspired by Burgundy&rsquos. Fermentations in barrel, malolactic, sur-lie aging and battonage and large proportions of new oak all produced wines that were, like those of Burgundy&rsquos famous vineyard Le Montrachet, rich and buttery.
STYLES OF CHARDONNAY
If you&rsquove considered yourself part of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club, it&rsquos likely because you&rsquove had examples of Chardonnay in that rich style, tasting of vanilla and buttered popcorn. Indeed, the popularity of that style over recent decades has produced plenty of wines that veered too far beyond Burgundian ideals: over-oaked, excessively high in alcohol, often carrying residual sugar.
But contemporary California&rsquos spectrum of Chardonnay is exciting. There are many examples of rich, barrel-fermented, sur lie-aged Chardonnays done exceptionally well, their richness in beautiful tension with nervy acidity. There are likewise many excellent bottlings of wines that see no oak, or only neutral oak did not undergo malolactic and taste juicy, crunchy and tart. Chardonnay can do it all.
Major California regions:
Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties and sub-AVAs Central Valley
Green apple, lemon, fig, butter, vanilla, butterscotch, brioche, hazelnut
What’s the difference between unoaked and oaked Chardonnay?
You’ve probably seen winemakers or brands promote their Chardonnay as oaked or unoaked. A winemaker who wants their Chardonnay to taste crisp and bright often uses stainless steel to ferment and store the wine before bottling. This limits the influence of oxygen and retains the wine’s fresh character. When a winemaker seeks to create a fuller-bodied wine with secondary flavors of vanilla and spice, they can ferment and age the wine in oak, or ferment in stainless steel and age in oak afterward. Oaked Chardonnay often undergoes partial or full MLF while in barrel, as well as sees contact with the lees (dead yeast). The vanilla and spice flavors, plus round, creamy texture from micro-oxygenation, lees contact, and MLF produce a wine that is the stylistic opposite of unoaked Chardonnay.
25 of the Best Chardonnays for 2020
Allow us to reintroduce you to Chardonnay. The backbone of French white Burgundy and Chablis, Chardonnay remains the most popular white wine grape in the United States. Sure, it got a bad rap at the end of the 20th century due to the number of overly oaky “butter bombs” being produced, but it’s easier now than ever before to find fantastic Chardonnays that do the storied, versatile grape justice.
To help convert even the most ardent Chardonnay skeptics, we’ve pulled together a list of the best we’ve tried in the past year. The wines on this list all scored a B+ or higher in our wine reviews and are arranged by score and price. Surprisingly, over half the wines on this list are under $30, and none are over $100, proving that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor for affordability when it comes to Chardonnay. And yes, for those who love the butterscotch flavors — there are some terrific big, oaky California Chards here, too.
Here 25 of the best Chardonnays you can buy right now, with reviews by VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers.
These Are Our All-Time Favorite, Best Selling Everyday Wine Glasses
Rusack Vineyards Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2017 (A+) ($29)
This is one of the best examples on the market for quality and inherent varietal characteristics of one of the most famous grapes on the planet. I know that’s a big statement, but damn, is this wine good. Everything, and I mean everything, is in harmony here. Put the word “subtle” before the words: oak, vanilla, toast, and butter and that only begins to convey the awesomeness. Acidity aids fruit and fruit aids a structure that grips your palate in a bear hug (who doesn’t like a bear hug?). Want an example of how an American Chardonnay can be in almost complete balance but doesn’t cost the house? Here ya go and for this quality, $29 is a steal.
Rusack Vineyards Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Chardonnay 2017 (A+) ($60)
I’m only going to the Catalina wine mixer if Rusack is served. This wine is stupendous. It is impeccably balanced, elegant, and expressive in its subtlety. Sound a bit poetic? Well, dammit, that’s how this wine makes me feel. I want to wax on and off about the perfectly balanced aromas of light oak toast and just the right amount of vanilla. I want to shout from the rooftops about the perfect push and pull between acidity and grippy wood tannin, and shed a tear of joy regarding how amazing it tastes and feels on my palate. $60? Only available on their website? Yeah, it’s worth it.
Domaine Matrot Meursault-Charmes Premier Cru 2017 (A+) ($99)
If you’re going to spend a cool C-note on a white wine, this would be one to consider. This is the OG style of Chardonnay the New World tried to emulate back in the day, with balanced vanilla and baking spices never tipping over into too much. The aromas and mouthfeel of this wine are just right. The wine excites the palate with added aromas of pear and green apples with the slightest grip. You may have some trouble sharing the bottle.
Bravium Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2016 (A) ($20)
This is a great example of restraint when it comes to this grape. Chardonnay is so malleable that it’s nice when a winemaker dials the extreme characteristics back a bit to make a very nice and refreshing white wine with just a kiss of oak in the form of subtle vanilla aromas. The mouthfeel won’t weigh you down because the alcohol, at 13.5 percent, is just right. There is great acidity lifting the wine up so the deeper aromas — a hint of butter, a skosh of nutmeg — aren’t all up in your business. It is a true summer Chardonnay, and an even better date starter.
Gundlach-Bundschu Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 (A) ($25)
Creamy, balanced, and rich — this is how it’s done. California is known for their big ol’ Chards with heavy oak, vanilla bean intensity, and high alcohol, but what if all these things were in actual harmony? You’d have this wine. The balance here is great. The oak is soft and plays well with the creamy mouthfeel. The acidity is just right, and the alcohol is very well integrated. At under $30, this is one helluva great wine.
Talley Vineyards Estate Chardonnay 2016 (A) ($26)
Chardonnay can be so fun when the alcohol is in check. This wine has all the depth of some of the bigger Chards out there, but with restraint and good retention of acidity, you can enjoy said depth without hot hot heat burning your nose hairs. It’s very balanced, with a nice, juicy, round palate, and classic aromas of apples and pears mingling with subtle hints of vanilla and that fancy French butter made in bistros. If you’re going to spend almost $30 on a Chardonnay, you deserve this kind of balance.
Cantina Kellerei Tramin Selections ‘Stoan’ 2017 (A) ($33)
This wine makes me want to scream and curse. It’s so good. The varieties used are represented in the blend right down to the floral, orange blossom aromatics of the Gewürztraminer. The balance on the palate is impeccable, with depth and salinity pushing and pulling the mouthfeel between grip to velvet (a word used for red wines, but dammit, it’s here), only to let you go and wanting more.
Domaine Matrot Saint-Romain 2017 (A) ($33)
You really can’t go wrong here. It has all the Burgundy/Beaune vibes you are looking for in an elegant white from this region. This little area is void of grand or premier cru, so the prices are easier to swallow. It has a nice tart nose of ripe pear fruit and toasty vanilla. The palate has a great grip, too, with some dryness around the edges. This is a great wine to impress and not break the bank.
Big Table Farm ‘The Wild Bee’ Chardonnay 2016 (A) ($43)
It’ll cost you, but this wine is worth it. It is such a nice, well-rounded Chardonnay made with restraint and focus. The nose has classic pear and apple aromas, with a toasty hint of vanilla. The palate is calm, broad, and not weighed down by high alcohol or too much oak. It’s a wonderful wine and deserves to be shared with good friends.
Balletto Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay 2018 (A-) ($18)
This wine is ridiculously good for under $20. It’s crisp and refreshing while having great depth. There’s no oak, so you get the full Russian River personality without the wooded distraction. It has a great grip on the palate, and feels nice and broad. I want to bring this to the next cookout and wash it down with some grilled chicken and butter-laden corn on the cob… damn.
Oberon Chardonnay 2018 (A-) ($20)
For $20 you get a very balanced Chardonnay that will not knee you in the head with tons of oak and alcohol, but instead bring you in with the embrace of soft earthy aromas that will remind you of peaches and concrete after a rainstorm. It is a great wine to gift and help drink, as well as a good bottle to impress the parents. They’ll love the old-school vibes of just enough oak, and you’ll dig the new-school vibes of mineral-driven fruit. Welcome to a new go-to.
VineSmoke Chardonnay 2017 (A-) ($20)
This wine is only available on their website (which also promotes their bags of vine cuttings that can be used for grilling) and the Chardonnay is damn good. It has depth and structure to jive with whatever you’re grilling — though chicken and veggies would pair best — and enough acidity so it won’t weigh you down on a nice, sunny cookout day. It’s crisp and soft with subtle aromas that will complement the char.
Niner Wine Estates Chardonnay 2018 (A-) ($27)
This is oaky Cali Chard with harmony. If you dig that rich vanilla-and-butter style of this grape, then this is your bottle. But the difference here is that all those intense characteristics are kept in absolute check by crazy vibrant acidity. It’s a great bottle for a light afternoon lunch with some homemade chicken salad sandwiches and a cheese plate, or even a sunset get-together with roasted chicken and some grilled veggies sprinkled with sea salt and some cumin.
Fort Ross Vineyard Sea Slopes Chardonnay 2017 (A-) ($27)
Ripe, tart, and creamy all in one mouthful of this awesome wine. This is a very refreshing Chardonnay and won’t weigh you down with a bunch of oak and heat. It is soft, with vibrant acidity, like the grapes were grown on a sea slope (see what I did there). It has a nice briny character that is complemented by classic Chard aromas such as freshly sliced green apples and juicy pears. It’s just under $30 and worth your pennies. It’s also under a screw cap so easy, no muss no fuss!
Rappahannock Cellars Chardonnay 2017 (A-) ($28)
This wine is only available on the winery’s website but is worth your time if you want to get to know Virginia wine. It sees some oak, but you almost wouldn’t know it. There is a tart apple aroma happening and a crisp snap on the palate. The acidity is vibrant, and the wine lifts on the palate. This wine is for good friends and some nibbles (I’m thinking a cheese-and-meat plate with some chicken liver paté, whaaaat?).
Sokol Blosser Estate Chardonnay 2018 (A-) ($38)
Well, this is interesting. This bottle has that lean, grippy, mineral-driven feel to it. It says “nah” to oaky and vanilla-y. It says “what’s good” about aromas like freshly sliced green apples and mountain rocks after a rainstorm. It’s pricey, but an awesome idea for the next fish fry, or to wash down a roasted chicken.
Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay 2018 (A-) ($58)
This is how rich, full-bodied California Chardonnay should feel. It’s big and grippy, with a significant amount of oak. But that intensity doesn’t overwhelm, and ends with a nice medium finish (sticks to you, but not for too long). It’s the kind of fine wine you would jam out with some good friends and a legit cheese plate. You could do more food with it, but it may take over the table. Cheese, pals, and a sunset and you’re good here. It’s worth your dollars if you dig that big Chard vibe and crave balance.
Domaine Matrot Meursault-Blagny Premier Cru 2017 (A-) ($80)
Coming from the higher elevations of this region, this wine is more mineral-driven than others from these slopes on stony soil. The result is an elegant wine with racy acidity that’s softened by a touch of malolactic conversion (the process in winemaking that converts harsher acids to the creamy butter of lactic acid). Candied pears and apples abound, with flitting aromas of soft vanilla. The palate has a prominent grip from the oak tannins and will hold up to a meal of herbed and grilled poultry, even a rotisserie from the store.
Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Chardonnay 2017 (B+) ($20)
This wine is as intense in aroma as any other Chardonnay in Cali with toasted oaky vanilla stuff and some butterscotch. But what sets it apart is the bracing acidity cleaning up the wine, not letting those intense aromas weigh you down. Also, it’s only 13.6 percent alcohol, which is glorious. It still has that classic big ol’ butter thing going on, but it’s much more approachable.
Calmere Estate Winery Chardonnay 2018 (B+) ($25)
For the price, this wine delivers. It’s rich and buttery, with some restraint on the oak. It has a nice grip on the palate as well, with aromas that will remind you of vanilla and coconut. All this makes up a classic Napa Chard that won’t kick you in the teeth with intensity. It’s nice, balanced, and ready for an afternoon on the terrace with some light nibbles.
I’M Wines Isabel Mondavi Chardonnay 2018 (B+) ($25)
Clean, crisp, and grippy is this wine’s MO. It has a nice balance to it and will be an awesome gift for a gracious host. The oak is restrained, too, which is a nice departure from the norm in Napa. It’s a great bottle to bring to a family event with various palate preferences.
Scott Family Estate Chardonnay 2017 (B+) ($26)
This wine will coat your palate. The acidity is low, so the weight is persistent with a long, creamy finish. If you dig rich oaked aromas and high alcohol in your Chard, this wine is for you. Even though it’s intense, the wine is balanced and would do well as a gift at a dinner party or wine-and-cheese night.
Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis 2016 (B+) ($26)
This is an attractive wine that will raise the brow of someone used to oaky Chardonnay. It sees no oak, and is crisp and refreshing, while holding on to the fruit depth just beneath the surface. Lemon and white flower aromas wind through the wine and carry to the palate. The zippy mouthfeel allows for a great pairing, with grilled or roasted poultry, and may convert people happily to unoaked styles.
Santa Barbara Winery Chardonnay 2018 (B+) ($27)
This Chardonnay is crazy refreshing. It smells like honeydew melons drizzled with lemon juice. The palate has nice depth with a cool sweetness from the high-ish alcohol that adds to the enjoyment of the wine. It’s sunshine in a bottle, and is affordable enough to make it a wind-down-the-day wine to share with friends. It would even jive with a sunset and a cheese plate.
Oceano Chardonnay 2017 (B+) ($40)
The vines used to make this wine are very close to the ocean, and you definitely get that in the wine. The nose and palate have a distinct briny vibe going on. The oak is pretty intense and fights with the briny acidity for your attention, and it almost wins, with the vanilla and butter aromas on this wine all up your face. All that said, it is still well balanced, and a nice wine to share at sunset, especially if you like the more upfront flavor profile.
Italian barolo, California chardonnay top Chronicle wine tasting panel picks
Our tasters: Gave it a unanimous recommendation with 10 scores of at least 9. &ldquoRed plums, pomegranates and mushrooms. Big tannins.&rdquo My score: 9. &ldquoClassic flavor profile, Langhe tar and great fruit expression. Needs a little time.&rdquo
Varietal/blend: 100 percent nebbiolo
Alcohol: 14.5 percent
Winery/vineyards/winemaking: Ferruccio Grimaldi is a third-generation winemaker presiding over a property that consists of two important nebbiolo vineyards, one in Le Coste near Cannubi, the historic heart of Barolo, and the other in nearby Novello.
Winemaker notes: &ldquoBroad, warm, velvety, caressing, balsamic and lingering, the result of grapes from two decidedly interesting vineyards.&rdquo
Critical acclaim: James Suckling awarded a score of 93-94 to all three of Grimaldi&rsquos 2013 Barolos, this two-vineyard blend and the two single-vineyard wines: &ldquoThese are well-crafted and hugely enjoyable Barolos that deserve a place in any cellar.&rdquo
Pairings: Risotto with Parmesan and white truffles
Eight to 12 tasters, a mix of industry professionals and knowledgeable consumers, convene once per month to sample dozens of wines with Dale Robertson, the Chronicle's wine columnist. The grape varietals are identified, but the labels are covered. A 10-point scale is used, with a taster's score of 8.5 or higher considered a recommendation. The quality score is the average of the tasters' scores. The value score and, hence, the overall score are determined by Robertson once a wine has been selected to receive a recommendation. Value is based on the price listed.
Price: $46 from [email protected] (713-365-0905)
Overall score: 18.9 (8.9 for quality, 10 for value)
Our tasters: Gave it a unanimous recommendation with four scores of 9. &ldquoSweet and citrusy with some creaminess.&rdquo My score: 9. &ldquoFlowery, elegant.&rdquo The second label of Amici Cellars (owned in part by former Houstonian John Harris), Olema taps vineyards in both the Sonoma Coast AVA and the Russian River Valley for this value-priced chardonnay. The wine aged in oak barrels, providing a creamy richness, and stainless steel, which accounts for the crisp and bright flavors. Alcohol: 13.8 percent.
Price: $15.99 from wine.com
2016 Clos du Val Chardonnay
Overall score: 18.9 (8.9 for quality, 10 for value)
Our tasters: Gave it a unanimous recommendation with six scores of at least 9. &ldquoFruit salad.&rdquo My score: 9.1 &ldquoFresh and lively, with a hint of spice, yet buttery on the nose.&rdquo The grapes, from the winery&rsquos estate vineyards in Carneros, were fermented in French oak and underwent 40 percent secondary malolactic fermentation before the wine was put back into barrels (35 percent new) for nine months of aging. Alcohol: 14.5 percent.
California’s Grand Cru Chardonnay Vineyards
The greatest Chardonnay vineyards of Burgundy—Montrachet and Corton- Charlemagne, to name two—bask in near universal acclaim from the world’s wine collectors. For centuries, winemakers have coveted the fruit from these grand crus, which are concentrated within walking distance of the town of Beaune.
In California, winemakers also have identified their top sites for Chardonnay—vineyards that make wonderful, distinctive and sometimes ageworthy wines year after year. But unlike Burgundy, these prized plots are scattered along more than 300 miles, from northern Sonoma County to Santa Barbara.
Many are just two or three decades old, but a few go back to the 1960s, and at least one dates to pre-Prohibition. Our California reviewers give their picks of the state’s grand cru Chardonnay vineyards and call out the producers making wines from them.
Ritchie / Photo by Michael Housewright
Ritchie Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Farmed since 1972 by Kent Ritchie, a Detroit transplant and former semipro hockey player, the vineyard is a place that winemakers revere as a site of rare intensity and complexity, located along Eastside Road near Forestville. “Smack dab in the middle of the Russian River Valley appellation, its climate is a great balance of cooling ocean fog and slightly warmer inland temperatures,” says winemaker David Ramey, who has worked with the site for 15 years. “There’s always great acidity, but…the slightly inland location provides an extra richness that adds to the deliciousness.”
Next in terms of importance, Ramey says, is the soil, which is Goldridge loam speckled with gravel. It provides great drainage while limiting vine vigor and yield. Third, the clone, the majority of which is Old Wente, provides what he believes to be a classic Chardonnay profile, without tropical fruit notes.
“Next, vine age,” Ramey says. “It’s rare to have access to 45-year-old Chardonnay. This, I think, is where the depth and length on the palate comes from. And lastly, the careful attention of Kent Ritchie, who oversees the farming with a detailed eye.” —V.B.
Arista, Aubert, De Loach, Flanagan, Joseph Swan, Paul Hobbs, Ramey, Red Car, Ten Acre
Savoy Vineyard, Anderson Valley
A tiny 5.5-acre parcel of Chardonnay in the cool “deep end” of Anderson Valley first planted in 1991, it came along with 35 acres of Pinot Noir when Napa-based FEL bought the property in 2011. Radio-Coteau first put Savoy Chardonnay on the map. FEL winemaker Ryan Hodgins credits light yields and afternoon breezes for the wines’ great balance. —J.G.
Bacigalupi Vineyard, Russian River Valley
The vineyard dates back to 1956, when Helen and Charles Bacigalupi bought 121 acres along Westside Road outside of Healdsburg. It’s maintained today by the third-generation, twins Nicole and Katey Bacigalupi, with their parents, John and Pam, who grew up in the Korbel sparkling wine family. The vineyard found fame 40 years ago when it sold Chardonnay grapes to Chateau Montelena, which made the winning white at the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting. —V.B.
Bacigalupi, Gary Farrell, Kobler, Peter Paul
Rochioli Vineyard, Russian River Valley
The pioneering Rochiolis have several vineyard sections across 140 planted acres, including Wente, Hanzell and Mt. Eden selections of Chardonnay within Sweetwater Vineyard, Rachael’s Vineyard, South River, Little Hill and River Block. It was first tended to by Joe Rochioli Sr., and his son, Joe Jr., has been on the property since he was born in 1934. He planted Pinot Noir first, in 1968, followed shortly after by Chardonnay. Today, son Tom Rochioli makes the family wines. —V.B.
Gary Farrell, Longboard, Rochioli
Zio Tony Vineyard, Russian River Valley
In 1990, Lee Martinelli Sr. planted Zio Tony, his uncle’s former apple orchard. The property, a 45-acre plot with low yields and Goldridge-rich soil, transformed Martinelli from high school teacher to farmer. He planted here further in 2001 and 2006. Patz & Hall has made a Zio Tony Chardonnay since 2003, capturing its high acidity, lush mouthfeel and flavors of honey, peach and apricot. “The Martinelli family does some of the best farming in Sonoma County,” says Anne Moses, one of Patz & Hall’s founders. —V.B.
Martinelli, Patz & Hall
Durell Vineyard, Sonoma Coast/Sonoma Valley/Carneros
Rob Harris, vineyard manager for Durell, calls its land a clash of geographic forces in an area of great transition.
“Few, if any other vineyard properties can boast such a diversified topography and related effects in such a relatively small and finite physical area,” he says. “These differences have become the principles and hallmarks of Durell’s long history of producing Chardonnay in a wide array of styles, from many producers.”
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On the western edge of Sonoma Valley, with areas that fall within the Sonoma Coast appellation and portions that straddle Carneros, Durell’s soils are highly differentiated in structure and composition. Light, sandy soils can typically be found beneath the gentle slopes of the vineyard, with heavier, darker soils within its subvalleys.
“Durell can be imagined as a microcosm of quality Chardonnay production unlike anywhere in the world,” Harris says. “It just so happens that many of these divergent influences and inherent differences are prevalent and powerful in just over 160 acres on one property.” —V.B.
Chardenet, Chasseur, Dunstan, Gary Farrell, Lutum, Patz & Hall, Ram’s Gate, Saxon Brown, Sojourn, Three Sticks, Tor Kenward
Richard Dinner Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain
This northwest-facing plot sits between 600 and 800 feet in elevation and was first planted to Chardonnay by Buddy Dinner in the 1980s. Here, the grapes grow long and slow, thanks to cool breezes that sweep in via Bennett Peak and the San Pablo Bay, and the fog that parks at night. Paul Hobbs has long featured this vineyard as his flagship Chardonnay, capturing its combination of richness and acidity, accented by beautiful floral aromatics and baked pear. —V.B.
Paul Hobbs, Rocky Hill
Charles Heintz Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
Family-owned since 1912, Heintz is set along the second ridge in from the Pacific Ocean at 900 feet above sea level. Half of third-generation farmer Charlie Heintz’s 100 Goldridge-rich (sandy loam) acres are planted to vines. Chardonnay makes up 25 of the acres, with the original plantings dating to 1982. Cool yet protected from the extremes of the Pacific, the grapes mature in a relaxed state, marked by balanced acidity. —V.B.
Banshee, Ceritas, DeLoach, DuMOL, Heintz, Landmark, Littorai, Migration, Radio-Coteau, Von Holt, Williams Selyem, Zepaltas
Hanzell Vineyard, Sonoma Valley
Founded in the 1950s outside the town of Sonoma on a steep outcropping of the Mayacamas, Hanzell has just 46 planted acres, offering ageworthy Chardonnay as well as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard, a 2-acre plot, is the oldest continuously producing Chardonnay vineyard in North America, responsible for what is now called the Hanzell Clone of Chardonnay. For 35 years, Jose Ramos Esquivel has tended the vineyard, known for its rocky, terraced, contoured terrain. —V.B.
Mount Eden Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Fine California winemaking began in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1800s with Paul Masson. Masson recommended this precipitous plot of land to his protégé, Martin Ray, who planted it in 1943. The soil is Franciscan shale, and the bud wood is French in origin, perhaps from Corton-Charlemagne, though no one knows for sure. Half of the property’s 40 acres are planted to Chardonnay, with the remainder a mix of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Our wine has a more savory-driven character versus fruit-driven,” says Ellie Patterson, who’s run Mount Eden with her winemaker husband, Jeffrey, since the early 1980s.
“It tends to be a little more like white Burgundy, and our wine ages so well because of the climate and the soil and the clonal selection.”
Further evidence: What’s the most prominent heritage clone of Chardonnay in America? Mount Eden. —M.K.
Hudson Vineyard, Carneros
Lee Hudson’s 2,000-acre spread in the heart of Carneros has had wine grapes since the 1970s. Today, he sells them to 35 producers. Steve Kistler was the first to encourage Hudson to get into fine-wine growing, especially Chardonnay, which Hudson began planting in 1982. He began with 10 to 15 acres at a time, most to what’s called Old or Shot Wente. He’s focused on heritage selections ever since. —V.B.
DuMOL, Failla, Hudson, Kistler, Kongsgaard, Marcassin, Patz & Hall, Ramey, Ram’s Gate, Tor Kenward
Hyde Vineyard, Carneros
Chardonnay is priority No. 1 at 200-acre Hyde, where the oldest block is 35 years old. Grower Larry Hyde suspects it’s one of the oldest Chardonnay blocks in California, still on AXR rootstock and challenged by phylloxera, the cuttings first procured from Wente. Hyde has donated Chardonnay clones to Foundation Plant Services at University of California (Davis) to be heat-treated and made available to the public, including one known as the Hyde clone. —V.B.
Aubert, Domaine Carneros, Hyde & Sons, Hyde de Villaine, Kongsgaard, Miner, Patz & Hall, Paul Hobbs, Ramey, Saxon Brown
Wente Estate Vineyard, Livermore Valley
Wente is virtually synonymous with California Chardonnay. A large portion of the state’s 100,000 Chardonnay acres are populated by vines descended from those planted on the family’s Livermore Valley property in 1912. In 1936, Wente was the first to put “Chardonnay” on its labels, and today, the winery produces 250,000 cases annually. The portfolio’s two most distinctive Chardonnays are made in small quantities: layered and ageworthy Nth Degree, and crisp, unoaked Eric’s Small Lot. Both come from 11 acres in long-held estate vineyards, where the soil is deep and gravelly, and daytime breezes and nighttime lows encourage complex flavor development. Fifth-generation winemaker Karl D. Wente says the combination of Old Wente Clone or 2A—easy to recognize for its “hens and chicks” berry sizing—and the more vigorous Clone 4 is a winner. “It’s not just luscious fruit that comes through, but rather luscious fruit that’s layered with a really interesting intangible minerality,” he says. —J.G.
Thomas Fogarty Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Planted more than 30 years ago at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, on the top of Skyline Ridge, this vineyard is sometimes not harvested until November.
“The flavors are unmistakably California, but there is a structure that’s not particularly common here,” says Nathan Kandler, the winemaker. “Doctor Fogarty’s decision to plant on the northern Skyline ridge was, at the time, seen as slightly crazy.” —M.K.
Stony Hill Vineyard, Spring Mountain
One of the Napa Valley’s earliest wineries, Stony Hill was established in 1943 on a ridge north of St. Helena. It began as vineyards, and in 1952, founders Fred and Eleanor McCrea added a commercial winery to make Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sémillon. The McCreas are thought to be among the first growers in California to plant Chardonnay following Prohibition. Their wines are lauded as delightfully balanced, elegant, lightly oaked and food friendly. Many have likened their Chardonnay to Chablis. —V.B.
Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
Planted in 1973 by the Miller family, this sprawling, nearly 900-acre vineyard, about one-third Chardonnay, spills out of a north-south canyon onto the east-west benchlands that rise above the Santa Maria River.
“We feel that the classic BNV Chardonnay character is most truly expressed from the bench,” says Vineyard Manager Chris Hammell, who credits its gravelly, alluvial soils. Hammell says the 100 acres of own-rooted Chardonnay are particularly coveted.
“The reasons for this are a great terroir, our clients’ winemaking skill and promotion of the vineyard, and the owners’ unwavering commitment to the brand and the land.”
Considered the “most vineyard-designated vineyard in the world,” Bien Nacido rose to acclaim on the backs of such winemakers as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard, and Bob Lindquist of Qupé. While most of the grapes are still sold, after more than 40 years of just growing grapes, the Millers launched their own Bien Nacido Estate wine brand in 2010. —M.K.
More than 30 producers, including Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Foxen, Kynsi, Liquid Farm, Scar of the Sea, Sine Qua Non, Stephen Ross, Timbre
Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
Planted in 1972 on hillsides 13 miles south of the Monterey Bay, this 565-acre vineyard features many loamy soil types, numerous clones and a variety of aspects.
“The diversity of Sleepy Hollow gives us the ability to make wines with a range of expressions, while preserving the signature tropical fruit flavors and minerality of the vineyard in each wine,” says Dan Karlsen, a winemaker for E&J Gallo, which purchased the vineyard and Talbott Winery last year. —M.K
Double L Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands
Owner Dan Lee, the founder of Morgan Winery, says these 48.5 loamy acres make up the only organically farmed vineyard in the appellation, and that its north-south row orientation captures the chilly effects of the nearby Monterey Bay best.
“In the mouth, they display the fleshy richness or a yummy factor that make Chardonnays so popular, but this richness is held in balance with the natural acidity of our sub Region I coolness,” he says. —M.K.
Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
Uriel Nielson planted this as Santa Barbara County’s first commercial vineyard in 1964. Byron Winemaker Jonathan Nagy says the site—sandy soils with outcrops of shale and limestone—benefits from cool spring and summer temperatures.
“This lends itself to more hangtime for flavor development and lots of natural acidity,” says Nagy. “We often get bud break in mid-February because of our mild winters.” —M.K
Byron, Ken Brown
Talley-Rincon Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley
In 1984, the Talley family recognized that the calcareous clay soils seven miles from the ocean would be a special place to grow Clone 4 and other Wente clones of Chardonnay.
“It’s a cool site that affords a long growing season with concentrated flavors at relatively low brix levels,” says Brian Talley. “The wines always have distinct minerality.” —M.K
Stephen Ross, Talley, Tantara
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
There’s still healthy 44-year-old Chardonnay here planted on its own roots in 1972 by Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict. This gently sloping, north-facing vineyard sits on calcium-rich, oceanic soils on the south side of the appellation.
“The breezy, maritime climate, combined with a very long growing season, gives us richly textured Chardonnay that has a firm backbone of acid,” says Steve Fennell, the winemaker for Sanford Winery. “The wines are quite distinctive in their flinty, mineral qualities along with saline notes. They have as much in common with their counterparts in Burgundy as they do the more fruit-forward Chardonnays coming from most of California.”
Of its 144 acres, 23 hold those old 1972 vines. Since taking ownership in 2007, the Terlato family has grafted an additional 10 acres over to Chardonnay. —M.K.
Au Bon Climat, Chanin, Deovlet, Lutum, Sandhi, Sanford, Tyler
Mt. Carmel Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
Unlike much of the appellation, this vineyard faces due south, giving the resulting wines a creamy richness as well as the electric acidity typical in this gusty, cool climate. The vines were planted on loose, well-drained clay, limestone and diatomaceous earth soils at elevations of 800 to 1,000 feet back in 1990. —M.K.
Babcock, Brewer-Clifton, Longoria, Mail Road, Rusack
Rancho Salsipuedes Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
Home to Bentrock and Radian vineyards, this windswept site is the farthest southwest boundary of the appellation.
5 things to know about chardonnay, the world’s most popular white wine
Chardonnay is so popular that it is nearly synonymous with white wine. We feel comfortable with it. It’s easy to say, and it sounds like it ends with a smile. And because chardonnay is so ubiquitous, it can be easy to take for granted. Here are five things to know to make your chardonnay experience more meaningful.
Chardonnay's homeland is Burgundy
Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy region of France, and takes its name from a small town in the Maconnais, an area in southern Burgundy that makes relatively inexpensive, high-value chardonnays. Because it is now grown nearly everywhere wine is made, and because we label it by the grape variety rather than the place of origin, we tend to forget that appellations such as Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are synonymous with chardonnay.
Got bubbles? So does chard
Chardonnay is one of the three main grapes used in champagne, along with (reds) pinot noir and pinot meunier. A blanc de blanc champagne is all chardonnay, and in my opinion the ultimate expression of the grape. Many New World sparkling wines use a significant amount of chardonnay as well.
It's the most popular white wine — by far
California had 93,148 acres of vineyards planted to chardonnay in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual report. The next most common white wine grape was French colombard, far behind at 18,246 acres, followed by pinot gris and sauvignon blanc. (Cabernet sauvignon, California’s main red grape, surpassed chardonnay by a mere 100 acres.)
Winemakers love chardonnay because it is easy to grow. And since its flavors are not as distinctive as other varieties such as riesling or sauvignon blanc, chardonnay has a “blank canvas” aspect that allows winemakers to flex their technique and leave their own imprint on the wine.
David Ramey, who played a major role in developing the current style of California chardonnay, recently explained the grape’s appeal during an interview with sommelier/journalist Levi Dalton on the podcast “I’ll Drink to That.”
“Chardonnay is the most compelling and popular white wine in the world, because it is the red wine of whites,” Ramey said. “It’s so complex, so interesting. And it’s the red wine of whites for two reasons: barrel fermentation and malolactic.”
Which brings us to our next point.
Chardonnay should not taste like a tree or a bucket of buttered popcorn
Fermenting the wine in barrels gives added tannin and structure, as well as some flavors of toast and spice, such as clove, vanilla or nutmeg. New barrels impart more of these flavors to the wine, while aging in older barrels gives texture. A generation of U.S. wine drinkers was introduced to chardonnay fermented and aged completely in new barrels, and we came to identify those flavors with the wine rather than the barrel. Today, winemakers tend to ferment only a portion of the wine in new oak, reusing older barrels for the rest. That results in a more balanced wine and saves money on expensive barrels.
The malolactic Ramey mentioned is a secondary fermentation that transforms tart malic acid into softer lactic acid. (Think green apples to cream.) All red wines have this fermentation, but chardonnay is the only white wine that routinely has it. “Malo,” as it is often called, softens tannin and decreases bitterness that can come from the grape skins. It is attributed as the cause of buttery flavors in chardonnay, though there are other chemical factors involved in that phenomenon. Toasty flavors come from the char on the new oak barrels, but the butter on that toast comes from malolactic fermentation. Chardonnay goes well with buttered popcorn, but it shouldn’t taste like it.
New World chard makers have toned down the oak, even to the point of making “naked,” or unoaked chardonnay. Chehalem Winery in Oregon makes one called Inox, for stainless steel, and Virginia’s Chatham winery makes a tasty version called Steel. Many chablis producers traditionally do not use new oak, preferring to let the region’s chalky soils express themselves through the wine.
Ramey is skeptical of the move toward unoaked chardonnay. “Can you use too much new oak? Absolutely,” he said. “But the answer to using too much new oak isn’t fermenting it in a stainless steel tank. Then you take away too much of the nuance. I personally think non-malo chardonnays are a shadow of what they could be, and just because you go through malo doesn’t mean you end up with a fat, flabby wine.”
Chardonnay expresses terroir
That blank canvas aspect means chardonnay is a good mirror of its climate and location — the mysterious quality wine lovers call terroir. In warmer climes, it can taste tropical (pineapple, mango), while cooler settings match the grape’s refreshing acidity with flavors of orchard fruit like peaches and apricots. The winemaker’s art is to capture that expression without obscuring it with too much oak or other techniques.
Some of my favorite chardonnay producers, other than the French classics and those mentioned above, come from cooler climates that emphasize racy complexity. Look for wines from Tasmania (Tolpuddle), the high-altitude vineyards of Argentina’s Mendoza (Catena, Salentein), Sonoma County (Gary Farrell, Hirsch, Flowers), Oregon (Domaine Drouhin, Adelsheim), and Virginia (Linden, Michael Shaps).
Good chardonnay can be found up and down the price spectrum, including some pricey grand cru burgundies and blanc de blancs champagnes. Two bargain chardonnays I find consistently delicious and easy to find are Cousiño-Macul from Chile and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi from California.