California’s once travel-shy Chardonnay producers are increasingly venturing beyond their cellar doors to take their wines to the world stage. Linda Murphy picks her 10 most exciting producers, and their wines to try
A decade ago, it was hard to find 10 remarkable Californian Chardonnays sold outside the US. The UK was particularly bereft, with only bottom-shelf commercial plonk and astronomically priced treasures available, and very little in the middle.
Today, there’s a relative excess of riches, with more quality-focused Californian wineries than ever exporting their bottles. The US recession encouraged them to sell more wine offshore, as Americans cut back on wine expenditure. It also dawned on some Californian Chardonnay makers that if they wanted to be viewed as world-class wine producers, the world needed to know about them.
There is good news on the current Californian Chardonnay front in terms of wine styles, too: freshness, balance and, in some cases, minerality are creeping back into wines that previously spouted toasty oak, butter and sweetness. The number of pure, refreshing, yet flavourful Chardonnays increases by the day, and while some have dieted away so many pounds that they are positively anaemic, most top-tier wines strike a balance between ripeness, oak and acidity, sometimes with a bonus of perceived minerality.
Here are the 10 export-savvy names that, for my money, make today’s most exciting Chardonnays:
Chanin Wine Company, Santa Barbara County
Rising star Gavin Chanin joined the wine business aged just 18, working harvests in Santa Barbara County for Au Bon Climat and Qupé, while he studied art at the University of California, Los Angeles. By 21, he had his own label, which he designed himself. Since then, he has specialised in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from grapes purchased from Santa Barbara County vineyards, including Bien Nacido and Sanford & Benedict.
Chanin typically harvests at relatively low sugar levels, yet his wines have all the fullness and charm one could ask for in a Californian Chardonnay, with a perception of minerality. He buys only organically and sustainably farmed grapes, and eschews filtering and any winemaking additions.
Chanin has also partnered with Classic Wines and Price Family Vineyards owner Bill Price in a new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir brand, Lutum. Their focus is on single-vineyard California wines, including from Price’s Gap’s Crown and Durell vineyards. One to watch.
Dutton-Goldfield Winery, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Alas, the Chardonnays from this producer aren’t available in the UK, yet they beg for attention. Winemaker Dan Goldfield and grape grower Steve Dutton have combined their expertise to bottle well-mannered and succulent Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Zinfandels, as well as the stunning Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard Chardonnay. It ticks all the boxes: perfectly ripe fruit, judicious oak, mouthwatering acidity and relatively low alcohol.
Dutton’s father, Warren, planted the Rued Vineyard in 1969, and cuttings of the ‘Rued Clone’ have been propagated throughout California. The tiny berries are intensely flavoured and add floral aromatics to the wine.
The Dutton Ranch Chardonnay, a five-vineyard blend, makes use of the Dutton family’s 526ha of wine grapes in western Russian River Valley.
Goldfield has made fresh-tasting, lower-alcohol wines since day one at Dutton-Goldfield (1998), watching the stylistic preferences of critics and consumers swing back and forth, yet continuing to make the wines he wants to drink.
Flowers Vineyard & Winery, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
‘Crazy’, people muttered when Pennsylvanians Walt and Joan Flowers began planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at their 130ha property on the Sonoma Coast in 1990. Just 3km from the Pacific, their Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View vineyards appear vulnerable to storms, fog and cold temperatures in spring and late fall. How could grapes ripen here?
One word: elevation, which ranges from 350m to 570m across the two vineyards, putting vines above the fog line and into daytime sunlight. It’s a rugged existence, but Flowers Chardonnays border on delicate. Made by Dave Keatley, they’re nervy and chiselled, with citrus and lemon oil character, a pleasant sea-air salinity and alcohols in the 13% to 13.5% range. Camp Meeting Ridge is the flagship Chardonnay, while there’s also a Sonoma Coast blend of six sites: a lesser-priced wine, sort of Camp Meeting Ridge Jr, minus a touch of complexity.
In 2009, Huneeus Vintners – owner of Napa’s Quintessa and Veramonte in Chile, among other estates – took a major stake in Flowers, allowing Walt and Joan to retire. It’s not a dashing new brand, but Flowers remains a leader of the ‘real Sonoma Coast’.
Paul Hobbs Winery, Russian River Valley
One week Paul Hobbs is making wine in Argentina, the next week it’s Hungary. Then it’s on to New York, where he is developing a vineyard and winery with Johannes Selbach. When Hobbs comes home, it’s to Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, where he pulls off the neat trick of being exceptionally skilled at both Burgundy and Bordeaux varieties.
When it comes to Chardonnay, the Hobbs hand is showcased in his 2012 Russian River Valley blend, with lavish oak framing well-ripened fruit, typically a melange of citrus, peach and apple. The wine is rich but not fat, fruity but not sweet, and appealing for the style. In contrast, the 2012 Richard Dinner Vineyard Chardonnay from Sonoma Mountain has more verve and acid structure, due to the site, yet is very much a Hobbs wine, with lush fruit that handles the oak beautifully.
A second label, CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs, includes a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay which is about half the price of the Russian River bottling.
Ramey Wine Cellars, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
After making wine at Château Pétrus, Dominus, Chalk Hill and Rudd Estate, David Ramey settled into his own brand in 1996 and focused on Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and Chardonnay from Sonoma. The wines, as he says, are ‘bold, but in check’. They’re intense, vibrant and refined.
Chardonnay has long been the apple of Ramey’s eye. He produces six: four vineyard designates plus appellational blends from the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley. The only one from Napa is the Hyde Vineyard Carneros, and it was Larry Hyde who sold David and Carla Ramey their first load of grapes for their new brand nearly 20 years ago. Ritchie and Woolsey Road vineyards are in Russian River Valley, Platt on the Sonoma Coast.
In late 2012, the Rameys bought Westside Farms in Russian River Valley, near the famous Rochioli Vineyard. It’s their first vineyard acquisition, and grapes from the 17ha of Chardonnay there will go into the bottle with the 2013 vintage. A new winery and tasting room are also planned.
Ramey embraces Old-World winemaking techniques and applies them, plus a modern twist or two, to sunny Californian fruit. ‘Kids don’t get trained that way anymore,’ he laments.
Sandhi Wines, Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma County
Sommelier Rajat Parr has been joined by Charles Banks (Mulderbosch, Leviathan) and winemaker Sashi Moorman in this Santa Barbara County brand. As leaders of the In Pursuit of Balance brigade (ie, lower alcohol content, less new oak), they produce keen, high-acid Chardonnays that range in potency from 12.6% to 13.1% from the warm 2012 vintage.
They use mostly neutral barrels, concrete fermenters and natural yeast, and don’t stir the lees – all in an effort to express vineyard character and vibrancy. Sourcing grapes from throughout Santa Barbara, with a special interest in the Santa Rita Hills area, they are specific in their vineyard needs: old vines, cold temperatures, close proximity to the ocean, windy exposures, north-facing expositions and clay and diatomaceous soils.
Sandhi’s three single-vineyard Chardonnays – Sanford & Benedict (first planted in 1971), six-yearold Bentrock (formerly Salsipuedes) and Rita’s Crown – are in Santa Rita Hills. A Santa Barbara County Chardonnay is a blend of three appellations within the county. All the wines are marked by citrussy succulence, with the Bentrock the fleshiest.
Shafer Vineyards, Napa Valley
The Napa Valley producer best known for Cabernet Sauvignon also has a deft hand with Chardonnay. Its Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, made from Napa Carneros-grown grapes, is a non-malolactic, barrel-fermented style, with about 25% of the juice fermented in stainless steel barrels. It’s juicy and luxuriant, yet also remarkably fresh and structured.
Long-time Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez hit upon the stainless steel barrel idea a decade ago as a way to brighten the opulent fruit grown on the winery’s Red Shoulder Ranch, and many winemakers have followed suit. Shunning malolactic fermentation preserves natural acidity, and the result is a big yet balanced wine.
Most of Napa’s Chardonnay makers have left the warmer valleys for breezy Carneros. Shafer’s Red Shoulder proves what can be achieved there.
Stony Hill Vineyards, Napa Valley
Little has changed at Napa Valley’s Stony Hill Vineyard in the 63 years it has produced wine: same family ownership; same winemaker for 42 years; no fancy tasting room; no new oak; and no malolactic fermentation for the Chardonnay.
When Fred and Eleanor McCrea produced their first vintage in 1952 on Spring Mountain, they sought purity of fruit, minerality from their rocky soils and firm, natural acidity to give the wines a long life. This style continues today: delicate and tightly wound, Chablis-like when young and then blossoming with cellaring.
Peter and Willinda took over Stony Hill after his mother’s death in 1991. Winemaker Mike Chelini came on board in 1973 and hasn’t left. There have been two relatively new changes (Sarah McCrea joined her parents in the business, and Stony Hill began producing Cabernet Sauvignon in 2009), but nothing that impacts the Chardonnay. While many California Chardonnays have become trimmer, Stony Hill’s has been there all along.
Trefethen Family Vineyards, Napa Valley
A recently tasted magnum of Trefethen’s 1996 Napa Valley Chardonnay was stunningly good: still very much alive, with no hint of oxidation. And it was built to last, with a low pH (3.31), solid acidity (0.56) and only 9% malolactic fermentation.
The Trefethen recipe hasn’t changed that much since, although the portion of wine fermented in barrels has slowly risen to 79%. Still, the wines beg for cellaring and are often misunderstood by those who open a current release and wonder why they aren’t tasting fruit salad.
Peter Luthi, who set the tone for the Chardonnay programme retired after 25 years as Trefethen’s winemaker in 2009. Current winemaker Bryan Kays, working with the same vineyard in the cool Oak Knoll District just north of Napa city, produced another bracing wine for the cellar in 2013.
Truchard Vineyards Carneros, Napa Valley
This Napa Carneros producer doesn’t get the credit it should for its remarkably fresh, balanced Chardonnays. Winemaker Sal De Ianni has been with Truchard for 18 years, dodging the spotlight while making wines that are brilliantly refreshing and energetic, as well as excellent value.
His bosses, former Texans Jo Anne and Tony Truchard, own 160ha in Carneros and grow Roussanne, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Tempranillo, among other varieties, for themselves and others; the Chardonnay is particularly notable, year after year.
De Ianni has a deft hand with oak; his Chardonnays are pure, mid-bodied and kissed with vanilla and spice – not fancy, just delicious.
Based in California, Linda Murphy is Decanter’s former West Coast correspondent