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Dazzling California Chardonnay

By W Peter Hoyne

The most widely planted grape varietal in the world is Chardonnay. The earliest recorded history of this grape dates back to the 1300’s when it was planted by Cistercian monks in France. Its ancestral home originates within the east-central region of Burgundy. This region is also home to some of the most expensive renditions of this grape.

In California, Chardonnay remains the most widely planted white grape varietal in the state with over 100,000 acres of vineyards. The cool climate influence and Pacific Ocean fog of California’s North Coast offers the ideal breeding ground and microclimate for Chardonnay. There is an array of diverse styles from California stretching from the northern latitudes of Anderson Valley through Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Santa Cruz Mountains into the Santa Lucia Highlands and down past the southern fringes of Santa Barbara County.

California DNA studies have identified Chardonnay as a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Presently, there are over 100 clonal variations of Chardonnay in California. Winemakers have had a love affair with this grape for some time as it is easy to grow, earlier ripening and is very versatile. It has higher yields and can be grown in different climates, although it prefers cooler coastal regions. Chardonnay is a malleable grape that can be easily influenced by the talents of the winemaker and exposure to oak.

Styles of Chardonnay can vary based on barrel fermentation, aging on the lees, clonal selection, types of barrels, toasting techniques and, of course, the region where the grape is grown. It has a myriad of personality traits and interpretations. Over the years Chardonnay has had a metamorphosis, transitioning between an extroverted personality to a more introverted, classic style. During our tastings, we noticed that this current era of Chardonnay reveals some of the finest wines in decades. The wines are highly aromatic, complex and finely balanced.

The narrative of California Chardonnay began in 1882 when Charles Wetmore secured cuttings from Meursault vineyards in Beaune, France. He established the first vineyard in Livermore, California and planted this budwood in his Cresta Blanca vineyards. In the late 1800’s C.H. Wente immigrated to the US from Hamburg, Germany and purchased a 47-acre parcel of land in Livermore, where he would establish his winery. By 1908, he would plant Chardonnay in his Livermore Valley vineyard. A few years later in 1912 C.H. Wente’s son, Ernest, would persuade him to purchase Chardonnay cuttings from a nursery in Montpellier, France. Ernest would propagate these vines on his Livermore property. The cuttings became known as Wente Clone Chardonnay and today accounts for 75% of the vines used for Chardonnay in California.

Burgundy native Paul Masson arrived in California in the late 1800’s, becoming the winemaker at Almaden. Masson secured cuttings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from France, planting them at his La Cresta Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

There were a host of post-prohibition entries into the Chardonnay arena, most notably Stony Hill and Hanzell Vineyards. In 1953, Eleanor McCrea would found Stony Hill Vineyards using Wente Chardonnay cuttings in her Spring Mountain appellation of Napa Valley. After returning from Burgundy, American Ambassador to Italy, James D. Zellerbach planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on his property in the Mayacamas Mountains on the southern fringes of Sonoma Valley.

The turning point for California Chardonnay occurred during the Judgment of Paris wine competition in 1976. At that time, Mike Grigich served as winemaker for Chateau Montelena in northern Napa’s Calistoga appellation. Mike purchased a portion of his Chardonnay grapes from the Bacigalupi vineyards in Russian River Valley. California Chardonnay attained worldwide acclaim as the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay eclipsed top French white Burgundy wines in a blind tasting by mostly French judges. This changed the momentum of Chardonnay as its world-class status was etched in stone.

One of the icons, David Ramey, had a deep respect for the French whites of Burgundy and the Old-World techniques used in winemaking. After establishing a series of successful achievements at Matanzas Creek, Dominus and Rudd wineries, he embarked on his own winery in Sonoma. I summarized David’s skillset with Chardonnay in a recent article: “David is a classicist with a minimalist approach, allowing nature to do its work. His wines have an exuberance, wielding an artistic touch and a sophisticated gentle approach”. He has mastered Chardonnay while influencing many in the industry.

The 1990’s were a tumultuous time for Chardonnay as it developed a personality disorder. Producers tried to modernize the style by harvesting grapes at higher levels of ripeness. Although a few producers continued to craft a balanced and fresher style of Chardonnay, others appeased critics in crafting a wine that was voluptuous, yet sometimes overdone. During this time, winemakers were allowing their Chardonnays to completely undergo a secondary fermentation called malolactic. This fermentation converted the tart green apple malic acid into a soft, creamy lactic acid. The resulting wine became softer and creamier with an overt butterscotch personality. These Chardonnays also displayed a heavier influence of new French Oak and toasted barrels. When producers met resistance to this style, they crafted an unoaked version of Chardonnay that was aged in stainless steel without the influence of the barrel.

Consumers began to grow weary of these changes, looking for a white wine substitute. The term ABC, anything but Chardonnay, evolved as consumer awareness of other grape varietals grew. In 2011, vintners Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr started the trend “In Pursuit of Balance Movement (IPOB)” which had a short shelf life.

Producers have learned a lot in these past two decades, as Chardonnay has taken center stage and is re-emerging as one of consumer’s sweethearts. In an effort to enhance consumer confidence in Chardonnay, producers are becoming more adept in their winemaking skillset and continue to evolve. Single vineyard Chardonnays have emerged as site-specific examples of the region where they grow. Throughout our comprehensive tastings of Chardonnay, we have found that most wines offer immense pleasure with a textural quality, complexity and depth of fruit that we have not tasted in several decades. Chardonnay is ushering in a new era of prominence and renewed interest.

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