Reviews & Recognition

California’s Best Chardonnays

By James Laube, Wine Spectator, July 2012
WS CA Best Chard

Chardonnay from California has become embedded in American wine culture for good reason: If you are seeking a white of distinction and complexity, whether for casual drinking or fancier dining, Chardonnay is the go-to wine. It's that good, and that reliable.

With that in mind, we've put together a list of producers that represent the cream of the crop. There are many delicious Chardonnays that merit attention; no one list would do justice to all. Yet in looking over the hundreds of Chardonnay producers I've rated in recent years, 30 stand out for their track records of quality. Taken as a group, these wineries set the gold standard for California Chardonnay excellence.

Their ranks include longtime quality stalwarts such as Kistler, Mount Eden, Marcassin and Peter Michael. There are also newer names-Three Sticks, Shibumi Knoll and Peirson Meyer-that have made their presence felt over the past few years. And with an impressive quality turnaround in recent years, longtime producer Rodney Strong makes the list.

As great as the diversity is in the California Chardonnay category, there are common traits. Its winemakers are part of a fraternity that has benefited from a cross-pollination of philosophies and techniques. They are a mobile group that has gained experience through a variety of means-some learning the ropes at established Chardonnay houses, some striking out early on their own, some honing their craft with other varieties. Most share an inspiration based on emulating the great whites of France's Burgundy region, where site is paramount and barrel fermentation and lees stirring are key.

I've been following the evolution of California Chardonnay for three decades. During that time there has been a steady shift to sourcing grapes from cooler appellations, predominantly along the coast, though Chardonnay can also thrive in warm-climate areas such as Napa Valley. California winemakers are also exploring terroir more closely and creating more single-vineyard wines; most of the producers profiled here make several Chardonnays. While we've focused on their best efforts, many of the wineries make multiple bottlings of high quality. 

Regardless of the vintage, Chardonnay seldom stumbles. It is relatively easy to cultivate, ripens early and is highly adaptable. It grows well in a variety of soil types and climates, accounting for a wide range of expressions and styles. In addition, California's best Chardonnays are amazingly complex and ageworthy. The wines drink well early and can also reward cellaring, developing rich flavors and complex nuances.

Chardonnay is often referred to as a "winemaker's wine." It can be left largely unattended or put through a variety of hoops. It is the vinous equivalent of giving a winemaker a blank canvas and a full palette. If a vintner decides on minimal intervention, the grape's purity of flavors-white peach, apple, citrus, mineral-shine through. There are also flinty, steely versions, driven by vibrant acidity.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chardonnay can be highly sculpted. In warmer years and sites, the flavors extend to apricot, pineapple, tropical fruit and fig. When put through secondary, or malolactic, fermentation, the wines are fuller and broader. If aged in oak, Chardonnay can display hazelnut, nutmeg, butterscotch and roasted marshmallow accents. 

Sonoma and Napa producers dominate the list for this story, joined by two wineries from Santa Cruz Mountains. While we considered wines from all the major regions, including Santa Barbara and the greater Central Coast, the lack of consistent track records for quality precluded their inclusion.

Whatever style you prefer, whatever flavors you seek, Chardonnay from California can deliver. Use these profiles as a guide to the amazing quality on offer by top producers of America's favorite white wine.


Napa Valley

Jayson Pahlmeyer's Chardonnays feature a rich, hedonistic style. The Napa bottling, which came first, is a blend of several sites, mostly Waters Ranch. The Wayfarer Farm estate vineyard is in Sonoma Coast, with Pahlmeyer tracing the footsteps of his mentor Turley at Marcassin. The Napa bottling is richer and more powerful than the Sonoma Coast wine, which displays focused fruit flavors riding on flinty acidity. Erin Green oversees winemaking.

Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2010 94 $75

Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa Valley 2010 92 $70