If you think you know what a California Chardonnay tastes like, you might be surprised to find out how diverse this varietal can be. It’s time to find out why Chardonnay from the Golden State is a worthy addition to your fine wine collection.
What Makes California Chardonnay So Unique?
The Chardonnay grape is second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of popularity, but at 95,000 acres and counting, it is no. 1 for vineyard acreage in California.
Why is this white wine so popular among wine enthusiasts and collectors? In one word, versatility. California Chardonnay grows in a diverse array of climates and elevations, and it is surprisingly adaptable to a variety of soil types.
While California Chardonnay was once known for being big and buttery, it has branched out. There's a lot to like about buttery Chardonnay, but if it's not to your tastes, you’ll want to sample newer Chardonnays, where crispness and balance take center stage.
Oaked vs. Unoaked
Typically, warmer climate Chardonnays – those grown in Napa, Sonoma Valley, Lake County and Paso Robles – age in oak barrels that give them vanilla, cinnamon and oaky flavor notes.
Most oaked Chardonnay also undergo malolactic fermentation as well, which changes malic acid to lactic acid and provides creamy, buttery flavors. Of course, cooler climate Chardonnays can experience malolactic fermentation as well, so you can have a crisper, citrus-driven Chardonnay that also happens to have a hint of butteriness.
Cooler climate Chardonnays are found in Monterey, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Valley and the Sonoma Coast. Some of them skip the oak barrels and age in stainless steel, but this isn’t a hard rule. You’ll find many cooler climate Chardonnays with a hint of oakiness too.
Top Rated California Chardonnay to Seek Out
Here are some of the best California Chardonnay wines for your wine collection.
1. Chateau Montelena
Hailing from Napa Valley’s Calistoga AVA, Chateau Montelena Chardonnay blends richness with acidity for a well-balanced wine. These characteristics come from warm daytime temperatures and cool nighttime temperatures, along with a generous dose of volcanic soil. Chardonnays typically age in French oak for about 10 months.
2016 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay
2. Kistler Vineyards
Kistler Vineyards has acreage in the Russian River Valley AVA, but its 11 Chardonnay vineyards reside in the Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountains and Carneros-Sonoma AVAs. These AVAs have cooler climates that create Burgundian-style Chardonnays using native yeasts and older French oak barrels. Kistler produces many vineyard designate wines, although sometimes the bottlings come from regional AVAs instead. Kistler Chardonnays age on the lees for 11 to 18 months.
2017 Kistler Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain
Kongsgaard produces two types of Chardonnay, with The Judge being the winery’s most limited production. The Judge Chardonnay comes from a small 5-acre vineyard southeast of Napa in the Napa Valley AVA. The volcanic, rocky soils help to create a mineral-driven wine rich in stone fruits. This wine ages in the barrel for up to 22 months, and it has an extended and memorable finish.
Aubert specializes in Chardonnays grown and harvested from vineyards across the Sonoma Coast AVA and the Carneros-Napa AVA. These Chardonnays are decadent and full-bodied, with plenty of balance to finish them off. There are several vineyard designate wines, such as Lauren, Sugar Shack, Power House and Eastside. Chardonnay wines age in French oak barrels for a long, slow fermentation.
Marcassin Chardonnay is harvested in the Sonoma Coast AVA and transported to the winery via chilled trucks. Marcassin focuses on using whole cluster fermentation and natural yeasts for Chardonnay, letting the grape must ferment on the lees for up to 8 months. These wines barrel age in 100 percent new French oak for up to 12 months, and they aren’t filtered prior to bottling.
6. Peter Michael
Chardonnay from Peter Michael Winery comes from four different vineyards in the Knights Valley AVA. These wines have good acidity and crisp flavors thanks to their cooler climate vineyards, and they are all vineyard designate as well. Two additional Chardonnays – Point Rouge and Cuvee Indigene – are barrel selections from exceptional years, which blend the best barrels from each vineyard.
2013 Peter Michael Winery Chardonnay Mon Plaisir
Ramey produces several good California Chardonnays from its vineyards in the Russian River Valley AVA and Sonoma Coast AVA, where the cooler climate drives a more Burgundian brightness. These wines have malolactic fermentation and fermentation on the lees. They age for up to 12 months in French oak and receive fining for clarity. Ramey Chardonnays are rich in citrus and floral notes, with a hint of sweeter fruits.
2014 Ramey Chardonnay Ritchie Vineyard
8. Rochioli Vineyards
Proximity to the Russian River leads this winery in the Russian River Valley AVA to create Chardonnay with plenty of acidity and minerality. The winery has a select number of single vineyard bottlings, but they specialize in Chardonnay blends from their extensive collection of block vineyards. Chardonnays age in 40 percent new French oak for about 8 months.
Pahlmeyer Chardonnay is a Napa Valley specialty. Its grapes come from the Atlas Peak AVA that has an average elevation of 1,900 ft above sea level. This location provides plenty of sun but slower maturity, while the cool nights maintain crucial acidity and structure. Pahlmeyer Chardonnay ages in 100 percent new French oak and undergoes malolactic fermentation for a complex buttery-bright taste. Chardonnays have medium to full body and plenty of stone fruit notes.
2016 Pahlmeyer Winery Chardonnay Napa
Harvested from the Russian River Valley AVA and Sonoma Coast AVA, DuMOL Chardonnay exhibits many of the cooler climate characteristics like crisp fruits and good acidity, along with hints of stone fruits and spice. Grapes from the Russian River go into the Chardonnay blend, which ages in French oak for 12 months and ends with 3 months of settling for malolactic fermentation. Grapes from the Sonoma Coast go into the Estate bottling, experiencing 15 months of aging and 4 months of settling.
DuMOL Chardonnay Russian River Valley
To find these and other fine wines, visit our collection of California Chardonnays. We’d be happy to help you narrow your choices or offer you personalized recommendations suited to everything from dinner parties to a budding wine collection. Our wine experts are ready to help you find just the bottle you need.