California Chardonnay is arguably in the best place it’s ever been.
Growers are planting it in better spots, winemakers are toning down the oak and fruit, and Chard-wary consumers are opening their minds to how incredible a wine it can be. (Many of us, by the way, never gave up on Chardonnay in the first place.).
Chardonnay is a less vintage-dependent grape than other common Northern California varieties like Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, which are more prone to displaying the heat (or lack of it) in a given year. It is both heartier to the changing conditions of a growing season and often picked earlier than its red friends. Still, like with Pinot and Cabernet, the 2019 and 2021 vintages are extraordinary for Chardonnay. The 2020s, when you can find them, are also well above average from high-quality producers.
Overall, California Chardonnay these days is cooler, brighter and more nuanced, with an increasing tendency to plant the variety closer to the coast, where it can breathe in the freshness of the Pacific Ocean and carry that same energy to the resulting wines. Sonoma Coast, Fort Ross-Seaview, Russian River Valley and Carneros are producing especially interesting Chards right now, but don’t limit your field of view: it’s a great time to be a drinker of Chardonnay from all over Northern California.
There might not be any finer Chardonnay winemaker in the state of California than David Ramey. His recent vintages of Ritchie, Rochioli and Hyde vineyard-designates help prove the point and seeing him make a Westside Farms estate wine is truly gratifying (he had to fight a long time to make that property his own).
Meanwhile, Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay from Carneros is a bigger, richer style of Chardonnay but nonetheless outstanding year after year, and always fresh and vibrant despite its concentration of fruit – yet another reason to love longtime winemaker Elias Fernandez.
Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge is about as close to the ocean as a site can get; it reflects its place in the world well. Joseph Phelps Pastorale Vineyard is another that captures the true essence of the coast.
Chardonnay runs a wide gamut of price ranges, but, as with so many things, a higher price does tend to reflect a higher quality of wine. Many of the best producers offer an introductory or appellation wine, which is a very fine way to find value. Even Ramey makes a few appellation wines that way, way, way over deliver on their price points. Same with Flowers, Patz & Hall and Dutton-Goldfield.
California Chardonnay ranks among the great wines of the world, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun. Massican makes a traditional Chardonnay from Hyde Vineyard that is outstanding; it also makes Annia, blending Chardonnay with Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla. The Copain Daybreak White is another light, fun wine to try – Chardonnay is just one of eight white grapes in the mix.
And while Di Costanzo is deservedly well-known for making Cabernet Sauvignon, its first-ever white wine being a Chardonnay from Moon Mountain’s Deering Vineyard is a statement and incredibly good. Another top-notch producer that may not be front and center yet is Small Vines in the Sonoma Coast; its TBH Vineyard Chardonnay is from estate dry-farmed, high-density, yes, small vines meant to achieve concentrated, balanced wines. They do.