Top Ten Chardonnays of California
Originating in the Burgundy region of France, with more than 400K acres planted, Chardonnay is grown on every continent except Antarctica. Perhaps more so than any other variety, Chardonnay is a blank canvas. Climate, terroir, fermentation and stylistic choices drastically influence vinification and result in a broad range of versions. From lighter-bodied, crisp, clean, minerally bottlings brimming with bright acidity, to full-bodied, opulent offerings with broad mouthfeel and pronounced toasty oak and creamy vanilla flavors; the grape lends itself to many interpretations.
Much of California’s Chardonnay comes from the famed Wente clone. Over one hundred years ago, Chardonnay cuttings arrived from Montpellier, France. What started with mere 100 acres in Livermore has resulted in 100,000 acres in California that are planted largely to Wente clone; thanks to combined efforts of Wente, Hanzell, Mayacamas, and Stony Hill historic wineries.
A note on the price range of the wines below, which spans the spectrum of $50 to $300. Consider this: an overwhelming majority of the word’s most expensive Chardonnay hails from France. Prices from top French producers range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Would California Chardonnays, the most expensive of which is around $300, stand up to the higher priced Burgundies?
I say a resounding “yes.” Remember the Judgment of Paris, when 1973 Chateau Montelena took top honors against French producers? Well, California vintners had an additional thirty years to hone their skills, which ought to make French very nervous.
I recently attended the Chardonnay Symposium in Pismo Beach, which served as a powerful reminder of how much I love the varietal. I love it with abandon. Therefore this is the most excruciating Top Ten list that I have written to date. Choosing only ten from an ocean of great, and wildly diverse wines, was torturous.
The following producers simply don’t miss. They are the Top of the Heap. Each consistently offers eloquent wines that are balanced beyond reproach.
A Napa native, whose resume includes working at Peter Michael alongside Helen Turley, and Ann Colgin, Mark Aubert is well-known for his Pinots and Chardonnays. His first vintage, ’00 Chardonnay, made with grapes from now famous Ritchie vineyard, was an instant hit. Several other vineyard designates followed, all to high praise from critics and whispers of “cult wine” from adoring public. Made in tiny quantities, sold by strict allocation, with a lengthy waiting list, the wines are highly refined, perfectly balanced, simply superb in every respect.
Chateau Boswell’s wines have always thrilled me, especially for the last couple of years, when some “voodoo” may have occurred in their dazzling caves…performed by the inimitable Russell Bevan. An extraordinarily talent, he crafted some jaw-dropping Chardonnays from Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley which caused him to join the rarified ranks of vintners that have scored 100 points from Robert Parker. Laser-like focus on viticulture, vineyard to bottle mentality ensured wines of class, style, impeccable varietal character and uncommon intensity. Bravo!
Kistler Chardonnays have been a staple in my wine vault for as long as I have had a cellar. This veteran producer makes ten Chardonnays from Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain. All vineyards are planted to the same clone, and the wine is made using the same time-honored, minimal-intervention techniques. Yet each wine is remarkably different, and reflects the unique terroir traits. The wines personalities vary, but the common thread remains: quality and respect of the site shines through in each and every sip. My favorite is the incomparable Cuvee Cathleen, queen of Sonoma Mountain.
John Kongsgaard is a living legend, revered by his peers like few others. His fearless, purist style of winemaking has been turning heads for decades. His career began at Stony Hill and blossomed at Newton, where he pioneered the unfiltered style of Chardonnay. His very own bottlings of Chardonnay, sourced from Hudson and Hyde vineyards, are outstanding. Particularly noteworthy is the 300 case Judge, made with fruit from forty-year old vines. It is unlike anything you have ever tasted. A complete story in every way, it is perfection personified – think intense, tall, dazzling model dressed in the most exquisite Haute Couture.
Unobtainable? Yes. Worth seeking? Absolutely.
Helen Turley, the “Goddess,” has made waves in the winemaking world since day one. Unbelievably talented and strong-minded, she paved the way for women winemakers to become rock stars. She has made wine for “cult” brands such as Peter Michael, Kapcsandy, Blankiet, Colgin, and Bryant Family. Her own label, Marcassin, has a twenty year waiting list and is the most expensive Chardonnay (aftermarket value) in the US. Some would argue that it is also the ultimate. I recently had a bottle of 1998 Marcassin Vineyard, I’m not sure that I’d disagree.
Paul Hobbs is a notable winemaking consultant. He makes wines all over the globe, as far away as Argentina and Armenia. He produces many remarkable wines, among them some stunning Chardonnays. One, however stands out in its annual grandeur: Cuvee Augustina – Richard Dinner Vineyard. Its brilliant golden straw color and warm apple pie à la mode flavors, along with just enough sinful citrus, will make you forget where you are. The generous palate is all about exotic fruit and spice, leading into a lengthy finish, a complete experience that sates the most demanding aficionado.
It was Paul’s powerful Pinots that first proved irresistible to me, and now it’s his Chardonnays. A Polish immigrant with a heart of gold and obvious raw talent, he worked his way from a sommelier to one of the most cerebral and intuitive winemakers of our time. The Chardonnays he crafts, using fruit from Hilliard Bruce, Pisoni and Sierra Madre vineyards are nothing short of transcendent. Incredibly pure and harmonious, their texture is reminiscent of cat’s paws tiptoeing across your palate. Intriguing and intricate, they are immensely satisfying.
Established in 1982, Peter Michael Winery immediately established a reputation for using old world techniques to produce wines of uncommon elegance and finesse. Their terroir-driven offerings, made in small quantity with sharp focus on indigenous yeasts fermentation, caught favor with consumers and critics. They immediately became a benchmark for California Chardonnays. Attention to detail in the vineyard, along with masterful blending, result in wines that are full of integrity, inherently age worthy and drop dead gorgeous. My favorite has always been Point Rouge, a pinnacle of white wine winemaking.
When it comes to Chardonnay, Ramey is royalty. David Ramey founded Ramey Cellars in 1996 following a wildly successful winemaking career at Chalk Hill, Dominus, Matanzas Creek and Rudd Estate. His pioneering work in oxidized juice utilization, sur lie aging and native yeast fermentation resulted in the style of Chardonnay that is opulent and texturally superior. His portfolio of gems hail from some of the best vineyards in Carneros, Russian River Valley and Sonoma. His Chardonnays are incredibly well-priced, given their exceptional quality and extraordinary balance.
I have been a fan of Rochioli single vineyard Chardonnays for a decade and a half. I believe they are some of the best in the world. Made in tiny quantities, they are challenging to acquire, but worth an extra special effort. Tom Rochioli is a legendary grower whose living legacy serves as an inspiration to everyone who understands great wine. His single vineyard Pinot Noirs are some of the most prized wines in any serious Pinophile’s cellar. His Chardonnays evoke a similar sentiment. Planted to Hanzell, Wente and Clone 95, the vineyard blocks deliver fruit of unreal texture, spectacular flavor, ravishing minerality and succulent white fruit. Aged bottlings of River Block are mind-bending.
Treat Chardonnay as your playground. Make it your own, have fun, and enjoy the world’s most versatile variety.