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What does “California Chardonnay” even mean?

What does “California Chardonnay” even mean?

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There was a time in my life that California Chardonnay haunted me. It popped up like a poltergeist at family parties; commandeering my palate and coating my glass in butter. I’d hide ‘better’ bottles in the fridge under lettuce and steal away to top up my glass. 

Jeremy Carter, winemaker at the new-school Tarpon Cellars in Napa Valley, was in a similar camp. “I thought California Chardonnay was a highly complex grape burdened by overprocessing. It was popcorn butter, unbalanced oak, and headaches.”

“There are so many misconceptions around the grape,” Ted Glennon of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association finds. “The public is often either Chardonnay avoidant or drinks anything but Chardonnay. They think the grape is buttery, oaky, flabby; that imported Chardonnays are better.”

But the first words that come to mind when he thinks of California Chardonnay? “Pleasure.  California gold.”

My tone over the years has changed. I fill my glasses with steely wines with racy acidity. I drink rich, opulent whites. I drink wines grown at the tippy top of mountains and kissed with alpine air, balanced Burgundian-ish wines, and odder but exciting glasses of amber wine. All are California Chardonnays.

So has Carter’s. “I’m seeing more and more young producers release outstanding wines — it shows how versatile the grape can be based on the vineyard site and winemaker.”

But why is California Chardonnay stuck in such buttery stereotypes? 

The first recorded planting of Chardonnay in California dates back to 1882, when vintner Charles Wetmore planted Meursault clones in his Livermore vineyard. More cuttings came over in suitcases in the early 1900s — Paul Masson brought over Chardonnay from Burgundy, and Ernest Wente hauled some from Montpellier.

In the 1970s, California started its rise to royalty when Chateau Montelena 1973 swept the Judgement of Paris — a wine that was California in zip code but Puligny in posture and presence. Decanter described it as “positive but not excessive; dryish, more body than a Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, but not heavy. Very good acidity. Perfect.”

But trends shifted and producers started looking at the grape through a moreish lens, pushing Chardonnay to the maximum — more aging, more concentration, more malolactic fermentation, more oak integration, more. By the ‘80s, Chardonnay was over-oaked and over-sexed — a wine catering to drinkers of neon-blue cocktails and Moscato.

From there, Chardonnay became an oaky, alcoholic punchline.

Lewis Vineyard, Napa Valley | Photo Credit: Frank Family Vineyards

In the aughts, a third wave of Chardonnay hit in the valley — a counter revolution. New producers released racy, lithe wines aged in stainless steel. Light,with screaming acidity, these wines became impossibly cool anti-heros to the buttery chardonnay it’s become hip to hate.

“Chardonnay used to be big and oaky, then the pendulum shifted to light and lean,” says Sarah Quider, the senior vice president of winemaking for Foley Family Wines. “Now? It’s right in the middle.”

A new generation of winemakers like Matthiasson, Walter Scott, Madson, Arnot-Robert, Whitcraft, Sea Smoke, Homewood, Enfield Winery, Thomas Fogarty, and many others (“If I started listing all the awesome California Chardonnay it would be a long list,” says Glennon) isn’t sticking to one side of the argument or the other. They’re working with malolactic fermentation and oak, just in more studied doses—interpreting a more accurate and authentic version of California.

Todd Graff, winemaker at Frank Family Vineyards, reckons this shift is charged by consumer demands. “The evolving palate of consumers plays a pivotal role in shaping the future landscape of Chardonnay,” says Graff, who produces a range of Chardonnay in Calistoga. “The emphasis now is on showcasing the grape’s inherent richness while preserving a vibrant, crisp character that appeals to contemporary tastes.’

Matt Dees, winemaker at The Hilt, finds that the real California Chardonnay is defined by that flirtation with fruit. “Most producers endeavor to make wines that are built on balance, elegance, and vibrancy, where fruit is the center of the conversation, but supported and framed by acidity and structure.”

While style is an important topic, the California conversation isn’t simply buttery versus not. It’s a broader conversation on location, elevation, and terroir. “So many people believe California Chardonnay only comes from the Napa Valley, where it’s only oaky, overwhelmed and old-school; big, buttery, and butterscotch-driven,” says Bertil Jean-Chronberg, award-winning sommelier and owner-operator of Bonde Fine Wine Shop.

There are 98,000 acres of Chardonnay planted. Only 7,000 are in the Napa Valley. As you move through the state, California Chardonnay takes on different identities and speaks in different accents.

Climb up into the mountains to Mendocino Ridge where vineyards are rugged and isolated, with understandably low yield. There’s Sta. Rita Hills, where Chardonnay crawls to ripeness in a fog-soaked, wine-whipped pocket of the state, and the Santa Cruz Mountains, the coldest Cabernet Sauvignon producing region in California.

Glennon finds these coastal vineyards are “legendary.” Santa Cruz vineyards reach over 3,000 feet in the mountains, following the fog line along the Pacific Coast “and in the Santa Lucia Highlands, we have a super cool climate and long, intense sunshine days,” he says. 

Many consider these pockets of high-elevation Chardonnay the future of California. For some it’s a stylistic change, for others it’s a necessity — in the face of climate change, vintners are considering new locations to help battle drought, fire, and rising temperatures. Napa vintners are purchasing vineyards in Sonoma, Mendocino, or up into the hills surrounding the valley.

Photo Credit: The Hilt Estate

“Our estate vineyards, Radian and Bentrock, are marked by our proximity to the Pacific Ocean—we’re a very cold site—as well as the influence of diatomaceous earth in our soils,” says Dees. “The porosity and permeability of these soils affects grapevines in a similar way that limestone does in great wine-producing regions of Champagne and Chablis.”

But instead of imitating Chablis or Champagne, California winemakers have learned to mold the grape into a more California form. “Winemakers are coming into their own and they aren’t trying to be Burgundy or Chablis anymore,” says Jenna Foster, owner of Heirloom Vine Imports. ”They’re just trying to make cool wine out of what the land gives them — California wines. Thankfully, they don’t have the buttoned up laws of Burgundy, so they have the legal space to make gorgeous wines.”

Instead of catering to one style or another; oaky or not, the new world of California Chardonnay is digging into microclimates, playing with terroir, terrain, climate, and of course, California sunshine. “I don’t think we need to shy away from the fruit — we’re a state graced with sunshine,” says Dees. 

Essentially, California Chardonnay is whatever you want it to be. “When it comes to California Chardonnay, the first words to come to mind are versatility and diversity,” says Todd Graff. “The wine’s expressions and flavor profiles can vary immensely, which is a testament to the interplay of winemaking techniques and diverse vineyard locations where it is grown.”

“California viticulture is still young, but we’re in a very fascinating era now,” says The Hilt’s Dees. “We’ve been studying our parcels for decades and are transitioning from a study of meso-climates to a deeper understanding of micro-climates. The future of

Chardonnay in California is bright.”

But first, the everyday drinker needs to wise up to Cali Chard’s potential. “I think the general public is still catching up with the idea that not all California Chardonnay is made the same way,” says Tarpon Cellars’ Carter. “It can be bright and crisp, it can certainly have less (or zero) oak, and it can even be made with skin contact, which I tend to enjoy.”

“Consider California Chardonnay like music genres,” says Glennon. “Some stuff will suck, but within each category there are badasses playing beautiful music. You just need to search them out.”