California Chardonnay: Different Styles Offer Enjoyment for All

As warmer weather emerges, many of us begin to pay more attention to white wines, rosés, and lighter red wines. Among the whites, Chardonnay is the undisputed favorite of American consumers.

Luckily, this may be the best time to drink California Chardonnay in decades. A focus on cooler climate vineyards where chardonnay thrives and more respect in handling the fruit has led to an abundance of good wine at reasonable prices in a variety of styles.

More than half of the wines in my tastings made the cut for this column. Most followed a Burgundian approach: significant oak, malolactic fermentation, and lees stirring to achieve texture and richness. These deftly walked the line between opulence and freshness. I present them here in order of my preference but all are recommended.

• 2015 Dutton Goldfield Dutton Ranch ($38) lovely elegant fruit, luscious
• 2015 Pahlmeyer “Jayson” Napa Valley ($50) vibrant, butterscotch, tropical
• 2015 Duckhorn Napa Valley ($35) energetic, caramel, apricot
• 2015 MacRostie Russian River Valley ($34) ocean breeze, apple, stone
• 2014 Bouchaine Estate ($30) fresh, elegant, meringue
• 2015 Effort Estate Bottled ($24) brisk, apple, brioche
• 2016 Frank Family Carneros ($35) invigorating, juicy, citrus
• 2015 Byron “Nielson” ($27) taut, citrus, spice
• 2015 William Hill Benchland Series ($40) creamy, viscous, apple
• 2016 Dry Creek DCV Estate Block 10 ($30) citrus, spice, anise
• 2016 Wente Riva Ranch ($22) lively, vanilla, apple
• 2015 Rodney Strong Chalk Hill ($22) intense lemon, cinnamon
• 2016 J. Lohr Arroyo Vista ($25) toasty, orange, brown butter
• 2015 La Crema Arroyo Seco ($30) citrus, butterscotch, spice
• 2016 J. Lohr October Night ($25) juicy, pear, lush



At the other end of the spectrum, some wineries emulate more of a Chablis style: limiting new oak, malolactic, and lees contact or even eschewing them altogether. The intent in both approaches is to allow more of the pure, fresh fruit to shine through unencumbered. Two fine examples of the former are the bright, elegant 2015 Stony Hill Spring Mountain District ($48) and the zesty, lightly spiced 2016 FEL Anderson Valley ($32).

One wine in my tastings, the 2016 Wente “Eric’s” Small Lot ($25) is “unoaked” as the juice was fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. And the result is a citrusy delight.

Nowadays, most producers navigate a path somewhere between these two extremes. Generally, this means less oak, less new oak and less time overall in barrel. They use oak but judiciously – to provide seasoning not to dominate the wine’s character. Many still employ full malolactic for texture and richness but many use only partial malolactic. They also use more neutral oak or combine some oak with some stainless steel (and even concrete.) They might still age the wine on its lees to add richness and complexity but for less time to keep the fruit in the forefront.


• 2015 Chateau Montelena Napa ($58) refreshing, flinty, citrus, tropical
• 2015 Dutton Estate Kyndall’s Reserve-Dutton Ranch ($42) brisk, fruitful, succulent
• 2015 Sea Smoke Santa Rita Hills ($60) dramatic fruit, seamless
• 2015 Ladera RRV Pillow Road Vineyard ($50) intense, exuberant, creamy
• 2015 Sanford Santa Rita Hills ($30) elegant, apple, pear

Finally, I offer a feature on Migration, a winery founded in 2001 by Duckhorn Vineyards. Migration has built a reputation for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from top vineyards that balance vitality and refinement. Each wine shows enticing combinations of honeyed apple, citrus, and stone fruits. This whole portfolio was impressive.


• 2015 Charles Heintz Vineyard ($55) spirited elegance but rich, highly fruited, and hints of mineral
• 2015 Dierberg Vineyard ($55) bracing, brown butter, toast, spice, satiny
• 2015 Running Creek Vineyard ($55) substantial yet elegant, glossy frame, crisp, mineral finish
• 2015 Bien Nacido Vineyard ($55) savory, spicy notes, creamy texture
• 2015 Russian River Valley ($32) punches above its weight, light creamy accent to pure fruit

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.