Cabernet Sauvignon may be the king of Napa Valley, but throughout the rest of California, Chardonnay rules the roost. Given how large the state is, and how many different areas are planted to Chardonnay, you can easily imagine how varied the wines are.
Climate plays a critical role, and while Chardonnay can be grown in a warm territory, the varietal performs best in a cool climate. Given that much of California is a Mediterranean climate – this is certainly true for much of wine territory throughout the state – there are several areas where the cool temperatures are ideal for growing Chardonnay, an early ripening varietal; three prime examples are the western reaches of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, the Sonoma Coast appellation, and a good portion of Monterey County, some 120 miles south of San Francisco. Here, proper acidity helps preserve acidity and freshness, and the wines often have aromas and flavors of tropical fruit; this is more apparent in warmer vintages.
But style also depends on winemaking, and as cellar approaches with Chardonnay are quite varied, so too are the wines. A winemaker will have dozens of decisions to make with this varietal, especially with wood aging. Does he or she use barriques exclusively, or only partial new wood? Are the barrels toasted to add spicier flavors to the wine? Or perhaps no wood will be used at all in the cellar. Deciding one way or the other can alter the style of any wine, especially Chardonnay.
So there’s more to determining the quality of a Chardonnay than a numerical review in a publication, or even learning exactly where the grapes were grown. Wine is a sensory experience, as just as your sense of smell and taste are different than someone else’s, so too your likes and dislikes will vary. So while reviews are helpful, learn what style of Chardonnay you like and go from there.
Here are notes on some recently released California Chardonnay, each representing different styles:
Brendel Chardonnay “Noble One” 2019 (Napa Valley) – You don’t see this often in California, but here is a Chardonnay treated solely in stainless steel. Bright, medium yellow; aromas of lemon peel, pear and yellow crocus. Medium-bodied, this is a nicely balanced Chardonnay with textbook varietal character that has a medium long finish with lively acidity and a delicate note of tangerine. Not a powerhouse or meant for long aging, but a well-made Chardonnay for enjoyment over the next 2-3 years with shellfish or poultry. (89)
Mount Veeder Winery Chardonnay 2021 (Napa Valley) Barrel fermented and aged in new French oak barrels for nine months. Bright, medium deep yellow; aromas of lemon juice, Anjou pear and hints of caramel and vanilla. Medium-full with a rich mid-palate, good acidity and an earthy finish with a light nuttiness. This is an old-fashioned California Chardonnay to some extent, with ample wood notes; this style was popularized in the 1980s and ‘90s. This is a well-made wine with very good varietal character that is very well balanced, and offers excellent Chardonnay character. Enjoy with richer seafood or poultry over the next 3-4 years. (91)
Kistler “Les Noisetiers” 2020 (Sonoma Coast) – Kistler is a Chardonnay specialist and has been recognized as one of the most influential producers of this varietal in California. They produce a dozen or so examples, and each is made with a singular clone planted across fifteen different vineyards; the parent material of this clone was imported from Burgundy in the early 20th century.
The name “noisetiers” comes from the French word noisette, meaning “hazelnut,” and yes, there are distinct notes of hazelnuts in the aromas along with notes of golden apples and lilacs. This is a rich, highly complex Chardonnay with very good acidity, excellent persistence and outstanding varietal character; this is quite rich and demands seafood of notable texture (halibut, swordfish, lobster). A marvelous wine from this exemplary producer; enjoy over the next 5-8 years. (94)
Robert Mondavi Winery Chardonnay “The Estates” 2019 (Carneros) – I call this style California Chardonnay 2.0, as it represents a classic approach, but with a more refined manner than wines from the 1980s or 1990s. Medium-intense yellow; expressive aromas of baked apples, orange blossom and hints of vanilla and mustard seed. Medium-full with excellent ripeness, a rich mid-palate, very good acidity and notable persistence. There is notable varietal character and harmony, along with impressive complexity. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. (93)
Heitz Cellar Chardonnay Quartz Creek Vineyard 2020 (Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley) – Going back to my statement about cool climates being the best for producing the most complete examples of Chardonnay, the Oak Knoll District, just south of the town of Yountville is a great example. Here, morning fog blankets the vineyards, making for fewer sunshine hours per day, an ideal situation for Chardonnay, as the grapes will receive longer hangtime.
Bright, medium deep yellow; aromas of lemon curd, golden apple and yellow poppy. Medium-full, with impressive concentration; the rich mid-palate displays a delicate creaminess. The wood notes are beautifully restrained, and there is very good acidity, along with notable persistence. This is quite delicious and offers wonderful varietal character and freshness, and the overall harmony is quite remarkable; enjoy over the next 5-7 years. (93)
The Quartz Creek Vineyard is the first single-vineyard designated Chardonnay from Heitz Cellars, and it’s obvious the team there made a very wise decision. What is remarkable about this wine is that is very reminiscent of a Premier Cru or Grand Cru Chablis; wines that combine richness on the palate along with lively acidity. As with the finest examples of Chablis, the Heitz Quartz Creek Vineyard Chardonnay brings together many components, including texture and persistence, but what impresses most about this wine is its subtlety. When I told Erik Elliott, Estate Director and Master Sommelier at Heitz that I compared this wine to Chablis, his response was, “Chablis is the primary region we take inspiration from when crafting the Quartz Creek Vineyard Chardonnay.” Quite a lofty goal, but one they realized extremely well.