For longer than I can remember, California chardonnay has been a wine that many discerning consumers love to hate. It is by far the most popular white grape grown in California, with about 90,000 acres planted in 2021, dwarfing runners-up like sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and colombard, with about 16,000 acres each.
What accounts for this discrepancy? It has far more to do with chardonnay’s image than with California chardonnay itself. It’s still an easy-to-remember synonym for white wine in supermarkets, restaurants and bars, which makes up a significant portion of the wine’s popularity.
Through the 1990s, California chardonnay was the focal point of a stylistic divide. Mainstream critics of the time lauded voluptuous, oaky, flamboyant wines, both red and white, which became the dominant styles in California. That gave rise to a counter movement, favoring more restrained and subtle wines.
The most vocal component of this counter movement came to be summarized as “Anything but Chardonnay,” or ABC, even as it applied in principle to overdone wines of all sorts.
Those battles seem long over. For the last 15 years, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Wines around the world have become far less extravagant, aiming instead for freshness and finesse. This has absolutely happened with California chardonnay.
You can still find the older lush, full-blown style, and a lot of people still like it. But it’s no longer the prevailing style. These days, many chardonnay producers are aiming for grace rather than for power.
I recently went shopping for California chardonnays that reflect this new reality. I’ve never been a fan of the bombastic style, so I did not try to find them. Instead, I picked a dozen bottles, ranging from $20 to $100, that reflect a more incisive, energetic approach.
The wines come from some of the top regions for California chardonnay, like the Sonoma Coast, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County.
But they also come from some unexpected places, like Calaveras County southeast of Sacramento and the heart of Napa Valley, where much of the chardonnay has given way to cabernet sauvignon, which fetches higher prices.
It’s important to understand that these are not the 12 best California chardonnays. They are simply 12 bottles that I found in New York retail shops at a variety of prices and that I don’t hesitate to recommend.
I still hear a lot of the stereotypical criticisms of California chardonnay. People tell me, “I hate oak,” or “I don’t like the taste of butter in wine.”
I don’t like oaky, buttery wines either. But it’s past time to stop thinking that these descriptions capture California chardonnay. Any of these 12 bottles, listed in order of price, will offer an entirely different perspective.
Valravn Sonoma County Chardonnay 2020, 14.2 percent, $20
Valvavn, which produces wines from Sonoma County, is a label associated with Banshee and a few others that specialize in good, moderately priced bottles. The 2020 comes from vineyards in three parts of Sonoma: the Sonoma Coast, the Russian River Valley and the Petaluma Gap. It is a fine, entry-level chardonnay, rich and juicy, yet focused and balanced.
Lola Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2020, 13.4 percent, $25
Lola is an intriguing California producer that sells the usual chardonnay and pinot noir, and for fun also makes wines like muscat, chenin blanc and malvasia. I’ve very much enjoyed those wines, but this is the first time I’ve tried Lola’s chardonnay. Like all the Lola wines I’ve tasted, it’s fresh and lively, subtle and unpretentious.
Hanzell Sebella Sonoma County Chardonnay 2019, 13.9 percent, $28
Hanzell Vineyards is a piece of California wine history. It was founded by James D. Zellerbach, an industrialist and ambassador, in 1953 and became, along with Stony Hill Vineyard and Mount Eden Vineyards, a progenitor of the best in modern American chardonnay. Sebella is an introduction to its style: rich, precise and intensely stony, made from younger vines and purchased fruit. It’s always a great value.
The Ojai Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard 2020, 13 percent, $31
Adam Tolmach is one of the pioneers of modern Santa Barbara wine culture. With Jim Clendenen, he started Au Bon Climat in 1982 before they split ways in 1991. Mr. Clendenen maintained Au Bon Climat and Mr. Tolmach focused on the Ojai Vineyard, which until then had been a side venture. Since then, Mr. Tolmach has been a questing winemaker, constantly adjusting farming and winemaking in hopes of finer, more precise wines. This bottle, from one of the top vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, is excellent: savory, focused and refreshing.
Matthiasson Napa Valley Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay 2020, 12 percent, $32
I’ve been a fan of Matthiasson almost from its inception in 2003. Its tense, energetic wines then stood out stylistically from the California mainstream. Nowadays, as California styles have diversified, the Matthiasson wines are far more appreciated. But they still stand out for their consistent quality. This chardonnay is vivacious and alive, not particularly complex but delightfully fresh and energetic.
Sandhi Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay 2020, 12.8 percent, $33
Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman, the partners in Sandhi, have achieved a lot of successes in the wine and food businesses, too numerous to recount here. Suffice it to say that the sum of their combined experiences and skills has made Sandhi a paragon of classically styled chardonnays and pinot noirs since its start in 2010. This bottle, from the cool western end of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, is almost contradictory in its pleasures: lean yet voluminous, savory yet generous, deep yet not weighty. In a word, delicious.
Little Trouble Wine Company Calaveras County Rorick Heritage Vineyard Chardonnay 2020, 12.2 percent, $36
As with many younger people entering the wine business, Jennifer Reichardt and Sara Morgenstern, the principals of Little Trouble, have day jobs to earn their keep. For Little Trouble, they seek grapes from more affordable areas outside the high-status regions. Calaveras County is on few people’s wine itinerary, but Rorick is a superb vineyard, and this chardonnay is lovely, light-bodied, refreshing and deliciously saline.
Ramey Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2019, 13.5 percent, $39
David Ramey is one of the wise men of the modern California wine industry. He’s had 40-plus years in the business, making wine for others and for Ramey Wine Cellars, his family label. This succulent, energetic chardonnay from selected vineyards in the Russian River Valley is a picture of balance and harmony, tightly wound with floral, herbal and lively fruit flavors.
Florèz Wines Santa Cruz Mountains Moonmilk “Goldtop” Chardonnay 2019, 12.2 percent, $50
James Jelks makes small lots of natural wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains and other parts of the Central Coast. This bottle was made from organically farmed grapes that were crushed by foot and then fermented with native yeasts in older barrels. The cork is topped with gold wax to differentiate it from a different Moonmilk bottling. It’s deeply flavored and well focused, with savory herbal and grainy flavors and a slight lactic quality that is true to the name.
Peay Vineyards Sonoma Coast Estate Chardonnay 2018, 13.2 percent, $58
Over 20 vintages, Peay Vineyards has demonstrated that the northern Sonoma Coast can be an exceptional site for growing grapes. This singular 2018 chardonnay is a great example, simultaneously rich and taut, complex and refreshing. It’s mellow while full of energy, fruity yet savory.
Lioco Santa Cruz Mountains La Marisma Vineyard Chardonnay 2018, 13.2 percent, $70
Lioco is one of those rare producers that excels with both moderately priced introductory bottles and more expensive single-vineyard entries like this excellent chardonnay from La Marisma Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Lively acidity holds together this expressive and textured wine, with flavors of herbs and a saline, almost oily citrus component.
Littorai Sonoma Coast Mays Canyon Chardonnay 2018, 12.7 percent, $100
For 30 years, Ted and Heidi Lemon of Littorai have set a California standard for making beautiful wines of finesse and subtlety from the Sonoma Coast and the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. They farm conscientiously and make wines without artifice. This 2018 from Mays Canyon is a great example. After four years it’s just beginning to blossom, with a lovely texture and complex flavors of herbs and lime that sneak up and linger.