Best California Chardonnay: Panel tasting results

Styles are definitely shifting away from big and burly and towards a fresher, more balanced model, but it’s a work in progress, said our panel...

Best California Chardonnay: Panel tasting results

‘Goodbye to the burly, huge, high-alcohol wines of 12 to 15 years ago,’ said Stephen Brook with relief, after a two-day tasting of 179 wines. ‘These Californian Chardonnays have definitely become fresher over the years, and most were pretty well balanced.’

  • Scroll down to see the Outstanding and Highly Recommended wines

Andy Howard MW said, ‘You can see a shift in direction and a move away from the heavyweight, tropical style of old, but there are lots of wines that aren’t quite there yet.’

The highlights from this vast state appeared to be Santa Cruz Mountains – the origin of the highest-scoring wine – as well as Santa Barbara County and Santa Rita Hills. ‘The average UK consumer wouldn’t be familiar with these areas,’ pointed out Howard. ‘They probably associate California with Napa or Sonoma, Carneros or Monterey, but once you venture further south towards Los Angeles there are some exciting things happening.’

Sonoma put in a mixed performance, and even when you zoned in on the Sonoma Coast, ‘where the real excitement should be’, the tasters were disappointed. ‘Sonoma was a bit of a letdown in this tasting,’ admitted Andrew, ‘but I honestly believe that this is not a reflection of the reality – particularly of the Sonoma Coast.’ Especially the ‘true’ Sonoma Coast, he added, where the vineyards are closer to the Pacific.

Though Napa put in a respectable showing in the Highly Recommended list, it still came in for some flak. ‘Many of the wines labelled Napa Valley were relentlessly old-fashioned – big and blowsy,’ complained Brook. ‘If there is a move in California to more balanced, elegant wines, it certainly hasn’t reached Napa. I’m all for diversity of styles – and rewarded some fairly oaky, burly wines that were well made and harmonious – but I did expect more of the fresher style than we found here.’

Tasters agreed that these are Chardonnays to drink within the next five years or so. In terms of cost, they won’t be cheap – we’re talking premier cru Burgundy territory here – but Andrew argued that you can find value in California, if you know where to look.

Entry criteria: producers and UK agents were invited to submit their latest-release Californian Chardonnays (minimum 75%). Two wines per producer were permitted.

These wines first appeared in Decanter magazine. To receive Decanter panel tastings every month, subscribe to Decanter here.