For longer than I can remember, California chardonnay has been a wine that many discerning consumers love to hate. It is by far the most popular white grape grown in California, with about 90,000 acres planted in 2021, with about 16,000 acres each, dwarfing runners-up like sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and colombard.
What explains this discrepancy? It has much more to do with the image of chardonnay than the California chardonnay itself. It is still an easy-to-remember synonym for white wine in supermarkets, restaurants and bars, which is a significant part of the wine’s popularity.
In the 1990s, California chardonnay was the focal point of a stylistic divide. Regular critics of the time praised voluptuous, oaky, flamboyant wines, both red and white, which became the dominant styles in California. This gave rise to a counter-movement, which favored more subdued and subtle wines.
The most vocal component of this countermovement was summed up as “Everything but Chardonnay”, or ABC, even if it basically applied to exaggerated wines of all kinds.
Those battles seem long overdue. Over the past 15 years, the pendulum has swung the other way. Wines around the world have become much less extravagant, striving instead for freshness and finesse. This has definitely happened with California chardonnay.
You can still find the older lavish full style, and many people still like it. But it is no longer the prevailing style. Today, many chardonnay producers strive for grace rather than power.
I recently went shopping for California chardonnays that reflect this new reality. I’ve never been a fan of the bombastic style, so I haven’t tried to find them. Instead, I chose a dozen bottles ranging from $20 to $100, which reflect a more bold, energetic approach.
The wines come from some of the top regions for California chardonnay, such as the Sonoma Coast, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County.
But they also come from some unexpected places, such as Calaveras County southeast of Sacramento and the heart of Napa Valley, where much of the chardonnay has given way to cabernet sauvignon, which brings higher prices.
It is important to understand that these are not the 12 best California chardonnays. It’s just 12 bottles that I’ve found in New York stores at various prices that I have no hesitation in recommending.
I still hear a lot of stereotypical criticism of California chardonnay. People tell me, “I hate oak,” or “I don’t like the taste of butter in wine.”
I also don’t like oak, buttery wines. But it’s time to stop thinking these descriptions capture Californian chardonnay. Each of these 12 bottles, listed by price, offers a very different perspective.
Valravn Sonoma County Chardonnay 2020, 14.2 percent, $20
Valvavn, which produces wines from Sonoma County, is a label associated with Banshee and a few others that specialize in good, reasonably priced bottles. The 2020 comes from vineyards in three parts of Sonoma: the Sonoma Coast, the Russian River Valley and the Petaluma Gap. It’s a fine entry-level chardonnay, rich and juicy, yet focused and balanced.
lola Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2020, 13.4 percent, $25
Lola is an intriguing California producer who sells the usual chardonnay and pinot noir, and for fun she also makes wines like muscat, chenin blanc and malvasia. I enjoyed those wines very much, but this is the first time I’ve tried Lola’s chardonnay. Like all Lola wines I’ve tasted, it’s fresh and lively, subtle and unpretentious.
Hanzell 2019 Sebella Sonoma County Chardonnay, 13.9 percent, $28
Hanzell Vineyards is a piece of California wine history. It was founded by James D. Zellerbach, an industrialist and ambassador, in 1953 and, along with Stony Hill Vineyard and Mount Eden Vineyards, became a forerunner of the best in modern American chardonnay. Sebella is an introduction to his style: rich, precise and intensely gritty, made from younger vines and purchased fruit. It is always a great value.
The Ojai Vineyard 2020 Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard, 13 percent, $31
Adam Tolmach is one of the pioneers of modern wine culture in Santa Barbara. With Jim Clenden, he started Au Bon Climat in 1982 before splitting up in 1991. Mr. Clendenen maintained Au Bon Climat and Mr. Tolmach concentrated on the Ojai vineyard, which until then had been a sideline. Since then, Mr. Tolmach has been a questing winemaker, constantly adapting farming and winemaking in the hope of finer, more precise wines. This bottle, from one of the top vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, is excellent: savory, concentrated and refreshing.
Matthiasson Napa Valley Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay 2020, 12 percent, $32
I’ve been a fan of Matthiasson almost since the beginning in 2003. The tense, energetic wines then stood out stylistically from the California mainstream. Today, with Californian styles diversified, Matthiasson wines are much more prized. But they are still distinguished by their consistent quality. This chardonnay is lively and lively, not particularly complex but wonderfully fresh and energetic.
sandhi 2020 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay, 12.8 percent, $33
Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman, the partners in Sandhi, have had many successes in the wine and food industry, too many to list here. Suffice it to say that the sum of their combined experiences and skills has made Sandhi a paragon of classically styled chardonnays and pinot noirs since its inception in 2010. Hailing from the cool western end of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, this bottle is almost contradictory in its delights: lean but voluminous, savory yet generous, deep but not heavy. In a word, delicious.
Little Trouble Wine Company Calaveras County Rorick Heritage Vineyard Chardonnay 2020, 12.2 percent, $36
As with many younger people entering the wine business, Jennifer Reichardt and Sara Morgenstern, the directors of Little Trouble, have day jobs to earn a living. For Little Trouble, they source grapes from more affordable areas outside the high-status regions. Calaveras County is on the wine route of few people, but Rorick is an excellent vineyard, and this chardonnay is delicious, light in taste, refreshing and wonderfully salty.
Ramey Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2019, 13.5 percent, $39
David Ramey is one of the sages of the modern California wine industry. He has over 40 years of experience in the business, making wine for others and for Ramey Wine Cellars, his family label. This juicy, energetic chardonnay from select vineyards in the Russian River Valley is a picture of balance and harmony, wrapped tightly with floral, spicy and vibrant fruit flavors.
Wines from Florez 2019 Santa Cruz Mountains Moonmilk “Goldtop” Chardonnay, 12.2 percent, $50
James Jelks makes small batches of natural wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains and other parts of the Central Coast. This bottle is made from organically grown grapes that have been crushed on foot and then fermented with native yeasts in older barrels. The cork is covered in gold wax to distinguish it from another Moonmilk bottling. It is deeply flavored and well focused, with savory herbal and grainy flavors and a slight lactic acid quality that is true to its name.
Peay Vineyards 2018 Sonoma Coast Estate Chardonnay, 13.2 percent, $58
With over 20 vintages, Peay Vineyards has shown that the northern coast of Sonoma can be an exceptional location for growing grapes. This unique 2018 Chardonnay is a great example, rich and sleek, complex and refreshing at the same time. It is soft and full of energy, fruity yet savory.
lioco 2018 Santa Cruz Mountains La Marisma Vineyard Chardonnay, 13.2 percent, $70
Lioco is one of those rare producers that excels with both reasonably priced introductory bottles and more expensive single-vineyard entries like this excellent chardonnay from La Marisma Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Vibrant acidity holds this expressive and textured wine together, with aromas of spice and a salty, almost oily citrus component.
littorai 2018 Sonoma Coast Mays Canyon Chardonnay, 12.7 percent, $100
For 30 years, Ted and Heidi Lemon of Littorai have set a California standard for making beautiful wines of finesse and subtlety from the Sonoma Coast and the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. They farm conscientiously and make wines without artifice. This 2018 from Mays Canyon is a prime example of that. After four years it is just starting to flower, with a delicious texture and complex aromas of herbs and lime that creep and linger.