This magnificent wine, glorified, misunderstood, over-rated, widely maligned, over-priced and, most importantly from the pecuniary perspective, consumed in vast, ocean-full quantities, is demystified in my latest article.
“We had to learn to turn the volume down.”
This is the late Jim Barrett, founder of Chateau Montelena, the Napa winery that made the Chardonnay that beat the best white Burgundy at the now famous 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition.
He was talking about the learning curve involved in making Chardonnay in California, and his observations offer perceptive insight into why California Chardonnay has evolved the way it has over the last four decades.
“When we started making Chardonnay we thought we’d do things the way they did in Burgundy. What we didn’t realize is that they often have trouble getting their grapes ripe. But we have plenty of sunshine here in California, so when we follow Burgundian methods we wind up with over-ripe lumberjack wines. I didn’t like our wine at first, it didn’t taste like the Corton-Charlemagne or the Meursaults I had had. We had to learn to turn the volume down.”
By this he means not pick the grapes too ripe, not use too much oak, keep the alcohol level down and learn how to make balanced, food-friendly wines.
This lesson he and his son, Bo, have learned well, and Chateau Montelena is still one of my favorite California Chards. But many fellow producers did not – they weren’t as interested, or as ambitious – so before you could say Chassagne-Montrachet, America had developed a taste for these big, creamy Chardonnays – this is, after all, a Coca-Cola culture – so now most producers, whatever their personal tastes, are forced by the market to make these wines.
But the California wine industry is continually evolving, and recently there has been a move away from these big, blousy, showoff wines to a style with more elegance and structure.
As Tara Sharp of the Paul Hobbs Winery told me: “For years California Chardonnay was known for heavy oak, heavy mallo, high sugars, and those wines certainly have a strong following. However, over time, wine growing has become better understood, and wine making more refined, so we’re finding more and more examples of really beautiful Burgundian-style Chardonnay.”
It’s an argument of power versus finesse, but while the ever-expanding California wine industry today offers a Chardonnay to suite every palate, I know where my preferences lie.
Here is my list of the top twenty California Chardonnays.
Antica Chardonnay 2010, Napa Valley || $36
A perfect crescendo of high harmony. A triumph of restrained winemaking by the Antinori family of Tuscany who have bought their 26 generations of experience to the remote, rugged eastern slopes of Napa Valley.
Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Carneros Napa Valley || $55
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2010, NapaValley || $50
The winery that started the whole California Chardonnay explosion by winning the Judgment of Paris wine competition in 1976 is still making supremely lean, slatey Chardonnay with great potential for long aging.
Clos du Val Reserve Chardonnay 2010, Carneros || $45
French owner John Goelet and long time French winemaker, Bernard Portet, now retired, set out, from the beginning, to make wines that took advantage of California’s ripe opulence while holding potential excess in check with French style restraint. And this they achieve, vintage after vintage, with their flavorful, intense Chardonnays. They don’t command the absurd prices of their rivals’ oak bombs, but that is to the benefit of drinkers looking for elegance rather than power.
De La Guerra Chardonnay, HdeV Wines 2010, Carneros || $45
Stunning! Full of Burgundian grace and poise. Intensely rich but as light and delicate as a Mozart sonata, not surprising characteristics when you know that the cuvée is the result of a collaboration between famed Napa grape grower Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine, equally famed owner of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti.
El Molino Chardonnay 2010, Rutherford || $50
Leans towards California oakiness but not too excess, and possessed of a rich palate of flavors thanks to prolonged sur lie aging, along with a delightfully refreshing crispness on the finish. Bone dry, despite the abundance of tropical fruit suggesting otherwise.
Etude Chardonnay 2010, Carneros || $35
Some Etude reds can be over-the-top but winemaker Jon Priest has shown restraint here, and this is as about as pure an expression of Chardonnay as you’ll find in California. It’s packed with layers of complex minerality, while displaying an aristocratic elegance. A lady amongst cowgirls.
Hartford Court Four Hearts Chardonnay 2009, Russian RiverValley || $35
Part of the Kendal-Jackson empire but run independently by Don Hartford, the late Jesse Jackson’s son-in-law, Hartford Court is located in the depths of the bucolic Russian River Valley. A cool climate Chardonnay that shows a rich California mouthfeel with a layered minerality and a tart, green apple finish.
Hanzell Chardonnay, Sebella 2011, Sonoma || $35
Almost Chablis-like in its lean angularity. Hanzell was one of the pioneers of CA chard in the 70’s and is still making lovely wine. This one needs at least a couple of years before it settles down and its true brilliance begins to shine through.
Kistler Chardonnay, Kistler Vineyard 2010, Sonoma Mountains || $115
Perhaps the epitome of cult California Chard and, despite large production of multiple single-vineyard cuvées, Kistler can be hard to find as much of it ends up on the lists of high-end restaurants as trophy offerings. The original Kistler Vineyard version shows great depth and concentrated minerality thanks to high elevations, volcanic soil and 25 year old vines.
Lewis Chardonnay 2011, Napa || $50
Migration Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley || $30
“It’s one of the coolest parts of the Russian River, so it’s where the fog comes in first and burns off latest so it’s very cool.” This is winemaker Neil Bernardi’s explanation of how, along with vines planted in the ’70’s and ’80’s, this lovely Chardonnay achieves its poise and grace.
Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay, Searby Vineyard 2008, Russian River Valley || $42
Paul Hobbs Chardonnay, Ellen Lane Estate 2010, Russian River Valley || $75
No one would mistake this for a Burgundy thanks to its lush tropical fruit ripeness and mouth-filling generosity, but it’s not over the top; there’s a tension in the mouth, along with a savory element and a refreshingly zingy finish. For a more restrained effort try the elegant 2011.
Pierson Meyer Untitled #5 Chardonnay 2009, SonomaCounty || $75
Ramey Wine Cellars Chardonnay, Platt Vineyard, 2009 SonomaCoast || $70
David Ramey makes rich, powerfully intense Chardonnays of real complexity. Despite his liking big flavors, the Platt Vineyard, the latest addition to his vineyard-designate bottlings, is located at 800’ and just five miles from the Pacific, so yields classic cool-climate Chardonnay.
Sea Smoke Chardonnay 2010, Santa Rita Hills || $65
Santa Barbara Chardonnay at it’s best. The name refers to the fog that rolls up the Santa Ynez River Canyon from the Pacific Ocean moderating the abundant sunshine streaming down on the south facing vineyards. The result is an vibrant, cool-climate Chard that stands head and shoulders above most of its over-worked Santa Barbara rivals.
Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2009, Carneros || $45
Too often overlooked thanks to the rock-star status of its Hillside Select Cabs, the Shafer’s California Chard is a standout. It gets no malolactic fermentation so the lush, tropical fruit flavors are nicely moderated by a refreshing crispness.
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