California chardonnay is arguably the most important of all American wines. Certainly it’s the most available: The state grows more of it—90,000 acres worth, or equal to three San Franciscos—than any other grape, including cabernet.
Size doesn’t necessarily matter, but quality does. And chardonnay from the Golden State has unquestionably entered a golden era—at least among its best wines. Today, a third wave of California chardonnay, one that has been emerging for the past decade, has succeeded in making its point: Chardonnay, in America, is great again.
Less than two decades ago it was difficult to find much evidence to that. For a long stretch, the style of chardonnay dominant in the Golden State could be considered silly juice: a bit sweet, low in acid, defined less by fruit (which was usually tawdry, all pineapple and overripe melon) than oaky and buttery flavors. That isn’t to say people didn’t like those flavors: They were as milquetoast as the multiplex snack bar. Brands like Kendall-Jackson built empires on such wines.
But for drinkers who sought cleaner, less worked-up flavors, chardonnay became an easy punch line, and by the turn of the millennium, the ABC movement—“anything but chardonnay”—was fully mobilized.
For those who came to wine early in the 2000s, chardonnay as pastiche may seem like the grape’s principal American narrative. But that narrative actually represents a short period in America’s history with this grape. Despite its current popularity, through most of the 20th century chardonnay in California was mostly a footnote; less than 200 acres were planted in the 1960s, mostly made in a style meant to pay homage to Burgundy, where it was the base material for legendary white wines. That was chardonnay’s first wave.
A transformation began in earnest in the 1980s, when Americans suddenly wanted to order wine by varietal name. “I’ll have a glass of chardonnay,” became synonymous with “White wine, please,” for a new generation of drinkers. And if no one really knew what chardonnay tasted like, why not sex it up a bit with a bit of sugar and butter? Thus the second wave, or what Matt Licklider of Lioco, which makes top California examples today, refers to as the grape’s “fat Elvis phase.”
The flavors of that era weren’t coincidental. They were Comic Sans versions of qualities that great chardonnay makers sought: fermentation and aging in new oak barrels (or more typically, the use of oak chips to make cheap wine taste fancier); richness from stirring the lees in those barrels and minimizing the acid. In small doses, these efforts could transform a thin white Burgundy into something less anemic. But in sunny California? You got what John Kongsgaard, one of California’s great philosopher-vintners, once described as “the vulgarity of the technique.”
This frustrated the hell out of some of the grape’s true believers. By the mid-2000s, a cohort of winemakers began a counterreformation—a mix of veterans like Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, who had never chased that tawdry style, and newcomers like Lioco and Sandhi, the latter founded by Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman. They tilted against not just the “fat Elvis” era but also a mini-wave of wines that were aged in stainless steel tanks with no fat at all (and often inaccurately described as “Chablis-like”). That style, while an admirable protest against too-muchness, didn’t fully respect California sunshine.
Thus today’s third wave: wines made with ripe but not overripe fruit, often fermented in barrels but coaxed toward an innate richness and distinction, showing savory aspects without trying to copy Burgundy. I’ve been charting this third wave for nearly a decade, witnessing the unmistakable restoration of a grape’s good name.
Our latest PUNCH tasting was yet more proof. We focused primarily on the pioneers of this new style, whose wines have grown more refined and confident. If a decade ago the wines were more deliberately lean, today they’re more deliberate in their fruit—a marked departure from that Calvinist era of all steel and no joy. You could serve many to your oak-and-butter-loving friends without worry.
If there’s a knock, it’s the cost. These wines have grown expensive, perhaps overly so in a few cases. That said, most of these winemakers still try to make less expensive bottles, including Lioco’s Sonoma County blend, better than ever in the new vintage, or the Linda Vista bottle from Steve and Jill Matthiasson, not inexpensive at $29 but not unreasonable given its Napa Valley origins.
These wines also matter because the new era of California wine is still, even today, sometimes portrayed as inhabiting the fringe. And so I’ve found it particularly important to acknowledge that the innovation in American cellars isn’t on the margins; it’s also with wines that can very well inhabit the mainstream.
THE CLASSIC | Tie
Matthiasson Linda Vista Vineyard Napa Valley Chardonnay
While Steve Matthiasson has demonstrated himself to be one of California’s most talented winemakers for a while now, he came to chardonnay somewhat later than other wines, like his uniquely Italianate Napa white blend. Linda Vista is the vineyard directly behind his and his wife Jill’s home, one that benefits from the cooling influences of southern Napa and once went into some of Beringer’s best wines. They have taken over the farming and make their wine in the mold of the classic chardonnays Napa once produced: defined by a mix of freshness and full fruit, the barrel influence almost undetectable. The current 2015, from a drought year, is perhaps the best yet, full of fig and yellow plums with a pleasant savory note reminiscent of hay, one that often comes from this site.
- Price: $29
- Vintage: 2015
Lioco Sonoma County Chardonnay
Lioco’s founders, Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor, set out over a decade ago on a quest to find greatness in California chardonnay. In both their single-vineyard wines and this blend of numerous sites, they pioneered what has become its modern, pure-flavored style. The 2015 version, which as usual combines colder (Goldridge) and warmer (Stuhlmuller) corners of Sonoma, similarly shows that drought-year intensity: more dried-fruit flavors, balanced by green-apple acidity and a talc-like mineral side. This continues to be a top example of exactly what California can do with this grape today.
See also: Tyler, Wind Gap, Varner Home Block, Hanzell Sebella, Stony Hill
- Price: $24
- Vintage: 2015
Sandhi Bentrock Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay
Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman wanted to prove their hunch that the remarkably narrow temperature band (never too cold, never hot) that defines the Sta. Rita Hills could produce world-class pinot noir and chardonnay. They harness a contemporary slate of Burgundian techniques—barrel fermentation, full malolactic, aging in wood and a stay in steel before bottling to tighten the texture—to make that point remarkably well. Bentrock is a north-facing site in the colder southwest corner of the appellation, and its wound-up, intense character shows the richness of oak aging balanced by an in-your-face minerality. The price might raise some eyebrows, though, so you might also consider their 2014 Santa Barbara County bottling, which is full of flint and tangy blood orange notes.
See also: Ceritas, Arnot-Roberts Trout Gulch Vineyard, Chanin, Littorai, Hirsch
- Price: $91
- Vintage: 2013
Failla Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
California’s new, fresh style is wonderful, but what about those fans of the richer, more gaudy wines of the past? Failla finds a way to bridge those two stylistic worlds, using western Sonoma vineyards (Olivet, Keefer Ranch) that enjoy cool weather but grow distinctly ripe fruit. The winemaking harnesses a bit of new oak but also old barrels and concrete eggs, which explains the innate richness. The result is a note shy of opulent, with a smoky side and oregano and sesame-seed savory accents to match a lot of luscious fruit.
See also: Porter-Bass, Au Bon Climat, Sanford & Benedict, Peay, Mount Eden Vineyards, Calera
- Price: $34
- Vintage: 2014
Liquid Farm White Hill Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay
Nikki and Jeff Nelson, both wine-industry veterans, also had a hunch about the Sta. Rita Hills and its potential with chardonnay. But they largely tapped the region’s north valley, and its slightly richer soils. The White Hill is their less oak-influenced wine, and while we respectfully disagree with their comparison to Chablis, it finds that uniquely Californian duality of texture—both rich and starkly mineral at the same time. Like the Lioco, it is a standard-bearer for the state’s best chardonnay accomplishments today.
See also: Trail Marker, Enfield, Wenzlau
- Price: $40