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User's Guide to California Chardonnay

The evolution of styles continues as winemakers explore this versatile grape
James Laube, Daniel Sogg
Posted: July 31, 2008

Stylistic diversity is breathing new life into America's favor-ite wine. Whether you prefer your whites crisp and bright, with citrus and mineral notes, or lush and creamy with flavors of melon, fig, vanilla and spice, there's a California Chardonnay to suit your taste.

Today's unprecedented range of styles is the result of a generation of evolution and experimentation among California winemakers. They have sought out new vineyard sites, planted new clones and adopted new techniques in the winery, continually fine-tuning their approach to this noble grape.

Chardonnay has been a work in progress throughout its history in California. After an early period of experimentation, the traditional Burgundian model of barrel fermentation and barrel aging became the template for many California producers. For the past two decades, fermentation in new oak barrels has been the standard approach for the majority of these winemakers. New oak imparts a distinctive richness, providing an assortment of appealing flavors, including toast, vanilla, cedar, spice and even marshmallow, and adding flesh and weight to the texture.

But now the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction, as barrel-fermented-style wines are increasingly joined on the shelves by so-called naked Chardonnays, which are fermented in stainless-steel tanks or other neutral mediums—not in barrels.

This trend brings into focus the many forms that California's most popular white can take. From light-bodied wines that make fine aperitifs to rich versions that stand up to food, the range of structures and flavors is greater than ever.

Tracing the development of California's Chardonnay styles is a lesson in both gradual evolution and dramatic shifts. Vintners often say that Chardonnay is a blank slate, an ideal vehicle for showcasing their winemaking preferences. The grape doesn't have as strong a varietal personality as that of, say, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling (this is one reason that oak often plays a prominent role).

Chardonnay grapes are produced up and down the state, from the austere benchlands of Santa Barbara County to the wild slopes of coastal Sonoma and Mendocino counties. What follows is a user's guide to the leading styles of California Chardonnay, including some of the best representatives of each. There's something for everyone among these exciting wines.

When California winemakers first took an interest in Chardonnay, in the 1950s, they were inspired by exquisite white Burgundies such as Le Montrachet. But they didn't follow recipes from the cellars of the Côte d'Or. Instead, they created their own formula for working with this grape. Pioneers and early success stories included Hanzell, Mayacamas, Chateau Montelena and Stony Hill.

One factor behind California's early style was that Chardonnay producers, at that time, had not studied Burgundian methods in the great detail that Napa Cabernet producers had studied Bordeaux methods. Those explorations would come later. Another had to do with vineyard locations; Chardonnay was planted mostly in inland valleys in Napa and Sonoma—warmer areas where preserving the wines' natural acidity and avoiding oxidation became paramount.

Vintners approached their winemaking protocols in various ways, but one common goal was fruit preservation, which involves fermenting wine with cultured yeasts in stainless-steel tanks(and later, temperature-controlled tanks) or other neutral vessels such as old oak puncheons. No one used small oak barriques, and neither barrel fermentation nor sur lie aging (aging on the lees; lees comprise yeast cells and tiny pieces of grape solids released at pressing) were part of the program.

Another constant was avoiding or minimizing malolactic fermentation, which was hard to control and could lead to funky flavors. (Wines that do not undergo malolactic tend to offer more floral and green pear, apple and melon aromas, often with flinty mineral notes, and are leaner, with vibrant acidity.) Finally, the style downplayed the role of oak in aroma, texture and flavor.

The evolution of Hanzell Chardonnay is illustrative. Hanzell founder James Zellerbach's vision of transplanting the spirit of Burgundy in California began in 1953 with a vineyard in the hills above Sonoma, where the wealthy paper-products heir planted 14 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

It took Hanzell another decade to fine-tune its style, which borrowed not so much from the Old World as it came to define what might be called the traditional method for California Chardonnay-making. Three of its mainstays—stainless-steel fermentation in 1-ton tanks, little or no malolactic fermentation, and aging in small French oak barrels—formed a recipe adhered to with religious dedication by many.

Even so, Hanzell struggled. Zellerbach died in 1963, and his wife, Hana, ("Hanzell" is a combination their names) sold the inventory, both in bottle and barrel. The winery wasn't revitalized until late in the 1960s, and lacked stability until the arrival in 1973 of Bob Sessions. Sessions had worked at another old-school California winery, Mayacamas on Napa's Mount Veeder, whose methods, which did not include malolactic or barrel fermentation, mirrored Zellerbach's.

The Chardonnay that elevated California to international renown was the 1973 Chateau Montelena from Alexander Valley (an area so new to Chardonnay that the AVA was hardly known). It won the Paris Tasting of 1976, leading California to a blind-tasting triumph over a mix of elite white Burgundies. The wine was made using the popular methods of the era.

A young Hanzell, Mayacamas or Montelena Chardonnay can fool you with its pure and direct flavors. "The raw grapefruit, pithy and juicy flavors can taste thin in body and even dilute or alcoholic early on," says Michael Terrien, consulting winemaker at Hanzell, "but those flavors and the body flesh out in 10 to 15 years." The grapefruit turns to marmalade; the bread dough of youth becomes baguette, with a toastier flavor and, occasionally, roasted marshmallow.


93 Hanzell Chardonnay Sonoma Valley Ambassador's 1953 Vineyard 2005 $180 93 cases
A beautifully defined Chardonnay. Fragrant fig, apricot and melon scents turn delicate and creamy on the palate, with a burst of flavor and a long, lingering finish that sails on and on.
90 Hanzell Chardonnay Sonoma Valley 2005 $65 4,636 cases
A ripe, flashy style, showing a burst of pear, apple, melon and citrus, with a dash of hazelnut and spice. Complex and well-proportioned.

88 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Napa Valley 2006 $42 7,000 cases
A crisp, clean and refreshing style, with spicy apple, melon and pear flavors that show no evidence of oak, ending with a clean, pure, fruit-driven aftertaste.

Despite the success of the '73 Montelena, however, the approach described above eventually gave way to one modeled directly on white Burgundy. In the cellars of the vast majority of California's best modern producers, primary fermentation occurs in part if not entirely in new oak barrels, and the wines undergo malolactic fermentation. But there have been noteworthy variations on the theme, especially in the past two decades, and techniques can differ significantly depending on the vineyard, vintage and winemaker.

One trend affecting wine style is that of riper grapes. Sonoma winemaker Paul Hobbs attributes this shift in part to advances in the vineyards and cellars that allow winemakers to harvest maturer fruit without fear of stuck fermentations. (Yeasts struggle in the presence of excessive alcohol—a by-product of ripeness—and if yeast activity ceases while fermentable sugar remains in the barrel, the wine can be ruined. But these problems are less frequent now as vintners better understand how to facilitate successful fermentations.)

Californians have also put their unique stamp on the old Burgundian standby of oak treatment. As in Burgundy, Golden State winemakers tend to ferment Chardonnay in barrel because it promotes richness and facilitates harmonious integration of the oak flavors. But an increasing number of California Chardonnay estates now seek less new-oak character than was standard just a few years ago. James Hall, winemaker at Sonoma-based Patz & Hall, once used as much as 70 percent new oak for Chardonnay, but he's reduced the portion to usually about one-third. He also gets lighter toast on the barrels, and has the coopers air-dry the staves for three years rather than two so that the oak will be subtler.

Elias Fernandez, winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley, has made major changes since the label's initial Chardonnay vintage in 1994. At first, Shafer started fermentation in stainless steel, only moving the wine into barrel when it had nearly fermented to dryness. After a few vintages, stainless steel was replaced by new oak. Now, Fernandez uses three-quarters new oak barrels and one-quarter 70-gallon stainless-steel vats. "I find that gives the best of both worlds, the fatness of the barrel ferments and the freshness and perfume of the stainless," he says.

Fernandez, Hall and Hobbs prefer indigenous, rather than cultured, yeasts. Indigenous yeasts, which grow in vineyards and wineries, produce slightly less alcohol than cultured varieties. Because grapes are picked cold at night and in the early morning, it takes about four to seven days for fermentation to begin. But winemakers say this slow start builds complexity and adds weight to the mouthfeel. Depending on the ambient temperature, most of the sugar is fermented after four weeks, though it can take several additional months to go completely dry.

With a few exceptions, top-tier Chardonnays undergo complete malolactic fermentation. The process helps integrate oak flavors and also produces the buttery overtones often associated with the variety. Of course, winemaker preferences vary: Hall has experimented with batches of non-malo Chardonnay, but didn't like the results; Hobbs also prefers the richness and texture that come from malo. At Shafer Vineyards, however, Fernandez prevents malolactic by adding sulfur dioxide at the press and by sterile filtering before bottling.

High quality California Chardonnays usually remain in barrel for 10 to 15 months; occasionally, a winemaker such as John Kongsgaard might leave his Chardonnay in new oak for two years. He, like Hobbs and the Burgundians, ages his Chardonnays sur lie. "The solids give more depth, more richness, and they protect the wine from oxidation. They're important to the aging potential," Hobbs says. Most vintners frequently stir the lees, a technique called bâttonage, in order to add richness. Fernandez considers bâttonage especially important for the Shafer Chardonnay because it doesn't get that malo fleshiness. Hall finds that the process harmonizes the oak and fruit.


93 Kistler Chardonnay Russian River Valley Vine Hill Vineyard 2005 $75 3,645 cases
Aromatically complex, with a mix of ripe pear, fig, citrus and hazelnut flavors that are focused. Lingering finish repeats the fruit and oak themes.
93 Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River Valley Ulises Valdez Vineyard 2005 $70 270 cases
Smooth, rich and elegant, with a creamy texture that lets the ripe pear, tangerine and hazelnut flavors weave together. Ends with a long, persistent finish and a hint of smokiness.

92 Chasseur Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Twin Hill Ranch 2005 $45 238 cases
Ripe and fragrant, with a mix of peach, lemon, citrus, fresh earth and mineral, joined by a flash of smoky, toasty oak, which gives this a nice range of flavors.
90 Staglin Chardonnay Rutherford 2006 $75 1,200 cases
Clean and refreshing, with snappy citrus, green apple and melon notes that unfold to reveal hints of clove, spice and floral scents. Complex and concentrated, this is a wine that can stand short-term cellaring.

Winemakers who prefer not to manipulate the pure "blank slate" of Chardonnay are attracting a wider audience. A small contingent of California Chardonnay makers now embrace an aesthetic that shuns new oak and emphasizes bright acidity.

"There's no place to hide. It's a chef without a sauce," says Sta. Rita Hills winemaker Greg Brewer, who produces "naked" Chardonnays under the Diatom and Melville labels. Brewer debuted the Melville Chardonnay Clone 76-Inox with the 2000 vintage; "Inox" comes from inoxydable, the French word for stainless steel.

Charlie Wagner, winemaker for Monterey-based Mer Soleil, added a Chardonnay called Silver to its portfolio in 2005. They made 4,600 cases that year, and the wine was so well received that in 2006 they increased production to 20,000 cases. Mer Soleil also sources grapes from the same vineyard blocks used for the Silver to make 30,000 cases of a barrel-fermented Chardonnay. "It's a way of showing off the vineyard with two completely different styles. I'm looking for opposite ends of the spectrum: one is a classic California Chardonnay, big, buttery and oaky, while the Silver is sharper and more focused," says Wagner.

Chardonnay made in stainless steel, without new oak, has a long track record in France's Chablis region, and California producers have been experimenting with the stainless-steel style for decades, though with mixed results.

When made without new oak and without malolactic fermentation, Chardonnay tends to be lean, bright and crisp. Rather than showing the richer spectrum of fig, peach and pear flavors, naked Chardonnays highlight tangy citrus, especially lemon and lime, as well as green apple flavors. Mineral nuances, which might be buried under oak character, come to the surface, and mouthfeel is also more streamlined.

"My goal is to make a killer oyster wine, something like a Sancerre or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc," says Christian Tietje, winemaker for Paso Robles-based Four Vines, which has produced its Chardonnay Santa Barbara County Naked since 2000.

There is no single template for producing the style. Growers emphasize that viticulture has to be especially attentive. Overcropping will result in dilution; unripe, overripe or unhealthy fruit will also stand out because vintners can't conceal flaws behind the oak. "If you have uninteresting fruit done in this style, the wine won't be interesting," says Brewer.

After pressing the grapes, vintners let the juice settle for about one to three days, then rack it into fermentation vessels. Brewer ferments the Melville Inox at very cold temperatures (in the mid-40s° F) in square, 550-gallon stainless-steel tanks (he uses the same vessels for Diatom, as well as some neutral oak). Fermentation in stainless steel at such low temperatures can last two to three months, but preserves freshness and raciness. The wine remains on the lees for two or three more months. At Mer Soleil, Wagner ferments in 950-gallon concrete tanks. The concrete is not lined with glass, so, like a barrel, it's semipermeable, which translates to added fleshiness in the wine's texture; the fermentation takes place at 58° F and lasts about four weeks.

Producers need to be proactive to prevent malolactic fermentation. They can reduce its likelihood by fermenting the wine in vessels where malolactic has never occurred. Sulfur dioxide also inhibits malolactic bacteria. But the only guarantee is to perform a sterile filtration before bottling, which removes yeast and bacteria from the wine.

Tangy acidity can make the wines less accessible at first, but it also makes them more flexible with food, and potentially more ageworthy. For impassioned practitioners of the style, however, the pleasures are philosophical as well as gustatory. "I think this aesthetic is a purer, well-intentioned expression of Chardonnay," says Brewer.


89 Diatom Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills Huber 2006 $42 230 cases
Crisp and flinty, with citrus, mineral, lime and quince flavors joining tart pippin apple notes on the finish and a nice earthy edge.
87 Mer Soleil Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands Silver Unoaked 2006 $42 20,000 cases
Fresh and tangy, with vibrant peach, nectarine and citrus flavors that are clean and refreshing.

86 Melville Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills Clone 76-Inox Small Lot Collection 2006 $32 914 cases
Fresh, fragrant, floral aromas join citrus, melon and herbal, cedary notes that are focused, intense and persistent.
86 Four Vines Chardonnay Santa Barbara County Naked 2006 $14 22,000 cases
Fresh and floral, crisp and refreshing, with a mix of tropical fruit, apple and melon, enlivened by snappy acidity.

As California vintners have deepened their knowledge of Chardonnay, they have expressed the grape in ever more varied styles. Perhaps liberated by a lack of the traditions that anchor white-Burgundy makers, they have taken advantage of the array of microclimates and soil types that California offers and drawn on a wide range of winemaking techniques to create a spectrum of distinctive wines.

The widespread complaint that "all California Chardonnays taste alike" and the "anything but Chardonnay" battle cry of the varietal's detractors seem, if ever they were justified, outdated in light of the multifaceted personality Chardonnay shows today. California is too diverse and too restless a place to settle into a single style for any grape, and Chardonnay's malleability and popularity, especially at the dinner table, ensure that its evolution will continue. Creative winemakers and curious wine lovers will see to that.

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