Comfort Zone

Chardonnay remains preeminent in California, as greater diversity drives higher quality

Excerpted from the July 31, 2018, issue

To hear California vintners tell it, not only is the supremacy of Chardonnay still unquestioned, but the best is yet to come. The reason for this lies in Chardonnay’s inherent character, which is defined by diversity. Chardonnay allows winemakers to work on a blank canvas as big as the state, giving them the freedom to create a range of styles from an immense variety of locales.

Chardonnay has long ruled the roost of Golden State whites, though competition is fiercer than ever. Tastes are changing and more wines are vying for attention. There are outside challengers such as Sauvignon Blanc, as well as internal pressures stemming from the growing interest in single-vineyard bottlings. Some wineries that weigh in with Chardonnay now offer a half-dozen different wines or more from the variety.

“People are looking for more expression, more fruit, more minerality and more texture,” says David Long of David Arthur Vineyards in Napa Valley.

The Chardonnays from the 1980s that triggered the original Chardonnay boom have given way to new interpretations. The grape’s modern profile is fruit-driven, delivering an assortment of flavors that extend from pineapple and guava to apple, pear, peach and nectarine to lemon-lime and even honeydew melon and fig.

Winemakers wonder whether consumers’ preferences have changed or whether the old-style wines simply aren’t as interesting as the new breed. (In fairness, the most frequently asked question I get year after year continues to be, “Where can I find a buttery Chardonnay?”) Either way, the high-end Chardonnays of the future will be from specialized regions that are equipped to grow this grape and maintain naturally occurring high acid levels.

“What inspires me are the cooler sites,” says Bob Cabral, who makes the wines for Three Sticks and for his own new label, Bob Cabral Wines. A fan of Chablis, he has a taste for wines marked by flinty acidity and prefers Chardonnay from Sonoma, where he lives.

Since my previous report on the category (“Shining Star,” July 31, 2017), senior editor Kim Marcus and I have tasted more than 575 new releases in our Napa office, the majority of them from the 2015 and 2016 vintages. Overall nearly 40 percent earned outstanding marks of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

A look at our top-rated wines shows how Sonoma dominates the landscape, yet there’s diversity to be found as well. Outstanding versions can be found from every key region or appellation in the state and across various price points. Though the same brands tend to top my annual charts, there are always new faces. A couple of producers have broken into the highest echelon, most notably Arista and Scherrer.

Among the year’s classic-rated efforts, the Lewis Russian River Valley Barcaglia Lane 2016 (95 points, $70) is a full-tilt version, reliant on fancy oak and extracted flavors. (For more on the other classic-scorers, all from Aubert, see our profile of Mark Aubert.) A dozen more wines rated 94 points, including the Knights Bridge Knights Valley West Block 2015 ($65), Peter Michael Knights Valley Belle Côte 2015 ($95), Pahlmeyer Napa Valley 2016 ($75), Scherrer Russian River Valley Helfer Vineyard 2015 ($50) and Tor Napa Valley Carneros Torchiani Beresini Vineyard 2016 ($65).

A number of factors contribute to the stylistic diversity of Chardonnay. Primary among them is place, with California’s wide range of regions giving vintners latitude in terms of where they grow or source their grapes, a variable that can have a profound effect on style. The next set of choices occurs in the vineyard, and these can have a major impact as well. Picking decisions help determine a wine’s acidity and alcohol levels, as well as its range of flavors. Then there are the choices made in the cellar regarding fermentation and aging. Vessel selection—whether oak, stainless steel or concrete—can mean the difference between light or heavy toast or none at all. Even bottling and release dates can influence style.

What many producers have found, says vintner Karl Wente, is that consistency is vital to success regardless of style. Wente makes the wines for his family’s historic estate in Livermore Valley; at 135 years old, it’s one of the Golden State’s oldest wineries and a Chardonnay pioneer. The grape’s most popular clone was even named after the family for its role in developing this wine. Roughly 80 percent of Chardonnay grapes in California are derived from Wente clones.

“I believe that it is key that wines and labels have a consistency from year to year so that consumers know what to expect,” Wente says, adding that most winemakers understand the market and provide consumers with a range of options. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as too many styles so long as the wines are well-made and fairly priced.”

Wente’s lineup is a good example of what a single producer can offer. The Eric’s Small Lot Unoaked 2016 (87, $30) is fermented in stainless steel, while the Morning Fog (87, $18) is about half barrel-fermented in 3- and 4-year-old barrels, with the rest fermented in stainless steel to allow the natural flavors and minerality of the Chardonnay to shine.

“It feels like we’re still going through an experimental phase with Chardonnay,” says Matt Courtney, owner of Ferren and winemaker for Arista. “I think we’re still in that expansion mode as an industry. Winemakers are not content with assuming we’ve made the best wines we can make out of the variety, or that we’ve discovered and planted all the best sites.” Chardonnay vintners, he adds, are always tinkering as they look for ways to push quality higher.

With so much riding on the success of Chardonnay, producers occasionally wonder how worried they should be about the challenges from other grapes and other countries. Wente, for instance, has about 40 percent of his production in Chardonnay. “Burgundy has certainly stood the test of time,” he says. “California Chardonnay, while relatively young, is standing up to time and not showing signs of slowing down. Personally, I think Chardonnay will remain the No. 1 white wine for my lifetime and beyond. Why? Because it is so good and can be made in so many beautiful styles. There are so many white wine grapes and nothing compares.”

He hasn’t forgotten the “ABC” kerfuffle (Anything But Chardonnay) a few years back, leading to a few stabs at Albariño and Rhône-style white blends. No doubt these are exciting options for those seeking something different, but even popular alternatives such as Sauvignon Blanc ultimately bump up against Chardonnay. For Wente, there are no real challengers to the throne.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the state’s Chardonnay producers have grown complacent. As Courtney says, “Winemakers are more energized than ever.”

Senior editor James Laube has been Wine Spectator’s longtime lead taster on California Chardonnay. He is being succeeded by senior editor Kim Marcus.

For the complete California Chardonnay tasting report, including scores and prices, read the full article, “Comfort Zone,” in our online magazine archives.