A few years ago, I gathered with a panel of colleagues—wine and food critics and writers—around a table in Fort Bragg to decide which Mendocino wine was the best match for Dungeness crab that year. (It was an annual ritual, part of the county’s then-large-format crab and wine festival, and was always followed the next day by the task of judging the best crab cakes from local chefs. Good work if you could get it!)
Facing mounds of freshly shelled crab on our plates and a lineup of about eight Chardonnays, we took a collective deep breath (some on the panel weren’t huge fans of Chard, or at least of the somewhat fat, oaky versions still popular then), swirled and stuck our noses into the first glass, then sipped and chased the first sip with a little crab. There was a pause, and then one panelist, a prominent food editor from Los Angeles, said out loud what we were all thinking: “Well, if there’s ever a time for buttery California Chardonnay, it’s with Dungeness crab!” The pairing was fabulous.
The pairing is still fabulous. Only now, especially in the hands of the state’s best winemakers, Chardonnay has evolved into vibrant balance. It still carries sweet-seeming fruit—apple, pear, citrus and sometimes hints of stone fruit or pineapple—born of our warm, sunny growing season, making it a perfect foil for the sweet succulence of the crab. But, in broad strokes, there’s more judicious use of malolactic fermentation (the secondary, bacterial ferment that transforms harsh malic acids into rounder, more dairy-like lactic ones) and of oak itself—with many winemakers opting to reduce the percentage of new barrels for less oak spice and structure and more transparency of fruit character from exciting sites.
In the resulting brightness and nuance of today’s great Chardonnays, terrific pairings can be found beyond crab across a range of the season’s best, and most comforting, dishes. Think butter-poached lobster (or Newberg or, okay, make it lobster mac ‘n’ cheese), creamy seafood risotto (throw in mushrooms, a bridge to the earthier, minerally side of the wine), French onion soup (Chardonnay loves onions and root vegetables), chicken and dumplings (to say nothing of simple roast chicken or glorious chicken potpie), Southern shrimp ‘n’ grits (Chardonnay’s a sucker for corn), traditional pork chops with spiced apples or even the oh-so-popular cacio e pepe.
Here are 13 beautiful bottles that will turn any of the above into a winter feast.
Amici Cellars 2019 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay Carneros, Napa Valley
This bright and vividly textured Chardonnay from Amici comes from a star vineyard in Carneros. The cool weather shows in vibrant acidity from the nose through the finish. Smells of an apple orchard just after a rain—earth joining fruit—are edged with hints of lemon meringue. And a pretty citrus palate is a little pucker in its energy (a good thing), with Asian melon and pear carried into a long, minerally finish.
Benovia 2019 Three Sisters Chardonnay Fort Ross Seaview, Sonoma County
From chilly far-west Sonoma Coast—third ridge in from the Pacific, in fact—this elegant, savory white from Benovia lets its cool-climate character show, even to hints of a salty ocean breeze. Preserved-lemon aromas join delicate orchard blossom, juicy apple and stone fruit, with oyster-shell minerality underneath. More saltiness follows on a palate marked by vivid textures, energetic tension and great acid structure layered with white peach, creamy lemon and more apple.
Boich Family Cellar 2018 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
From one of Sonoma’s iconic vineyards, Boich Family brings us a bright but powerful Chardonnay. Fresh aromatics spill from the glass—apple mixed with lemon drop, white blossoms and a hint of ocean breeze. There’s impressive weight in the mouth—structure wrapped in velvet—with grapefruit leading to white peach and apricot, puckery with lime zest. Savory herb notes and a touch of stony minerality balance the intense fruit.
Darioush 2019 Chardonnay Napa Valley
Here’s a bright Chardonnay from Napa icon Darioush that’s refreshing for all its aging in 66 percent new French oak. Juicy apple pops on the nose, swirling with pretty citrus, a wrap of honeysuckle and a pleasant hint of saltiness. A gamut of citrus runs through the lovely palate, with more fresh apple and just the right amount of richness. An oyster-shell minerality adds interest to a long finish.
Dutton Goldfield 2019 Rued Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Here’s a complex, multi-faceted Chard from iconic Dutton Goldfield. High-toned aromas of spicy jasmine and citrus blossom give way to creamy lemon, bruised apple and tropical notes, with layers of earth and minerality. Rich but not heavy, the palate dances with Meyer lemon, puckery citrus zest, crisp pear and hints of exotic spice and pleasant salinity.
Kosta Browne 2018 Bootlegger’s Hill Chardonnay Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
In a slight detour from the conventional path, to amplify this wine’s pure fruit and energy, after barrel fermentation and 17 months in French oak (45 percent new), Kosta Browne winemaker Julien Howsepian puts it into stainless steel for four months before bottling it. On the lovely nose, baked quince is layered with jasmine, Meyer lemon and hints of stone fruit. Bright citrus pops on the palate, joining white nectarine in a rich but vibrant package with a distinct vein of savory minerality. This is one gorgeous wine.
Pisoni 2019 Estate Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County
This lively but elegant Pisoni Chardonnay is consistently one of Monterey County’s beauties. A fresh and delicate nose opens with oyster-shell minerality that unfolds into citrus blossom, kaffir lime, green apple and a hint of pineapple. Lovely, intense but creamy lemon follows on the palate, interplaying with green apple and juicy melon.
Ramey Wine Cellars 2018 Westside Farms Estate Chardonnay Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
This lovely white—from Ramey’s own Westside Farms—is poised between delicacy and richness. Honeysuckle and hints of toasted lemon meringue waft around juicy apple and pear notes, with vanilla and spice lurking underneath. The palate is amazingly fresh, for all the wine’s barrel fermentation (just 25 percent new French oak) and lees stirring, but it also offers mouth-filling fall apples brightened with Meyer lemon.
Sangiacomo 2018 Roberts Road Vineyard Chardonnay Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast
From well-known winemaker James MacPhail and the Sangiacomo Family, who have been growing for almost a century, comes a Chardonnay shaped by the cool, fog-influenced Petaluma Gap, one of Sonoma’s newest AVAs. A long, even growing season gave this white depth and layers, with a vibrancy maintained by the climate. Appealing minerality opens, along with fleshy quince, spicy pear and fragrant jasmine. The palate gives up juicy layers, which nectarine and peach share with creamy lemon, a puckery bit of grapefruit, green melon and hints of tropical fruit. This one is fresh but mouth-filling.
Theorem Vineyards 2019 Estate Grown Chardonnay Moon Mountain District, Sonoma County
Here’s a rich but vivacious Chardonnay from Thomas Rivers Brown for Theorem vintners Jason and Kisha Itkin. (The historic property they restored is on the Napa side of Diamond Mountain, but this Chard is from their vineyard over the line in Sonoma.) Tropical floral aromas lead in a swirl of fall apples and pears with hints of honeyed pineapple and vanilla. The palate walks a fine line between plump, sweet fruit and brightness, with brightness winning out in the end. Lemon brûlée and juicy white peach are lightened with good acidity and lovely minerality on the finish.
Three Sticks 2019 Durell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast
Three Sticks 2019 Durell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast
There’s alluring depth on the nose of this signature single-vineyard Chardonnay from Three Sticks. Classic apple and fleshy pear lean both bright and rich, with a spritz of lemon and hints of hazelnut. Perfect balance on the palate among fruit, weight and energy delivers creamy lemon with a kick of lime zest and more juicy apple and pear. This is an elegant white, with lovely textures and tension.
Vice Versa 2019 Platt Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma County
This Sonoma Coast offering from Vice Versa is an exotic-leaning number for those who aren’t fond of Chardonnay cliché and convention—and who crave exclusivity, since only three barrels were made. Fragrant and spicy jasmine leads in an unusual aroma mashup with crushed herbs and baked apple. Flavors follow in a rich but refreshing vein—yuzu citrus in a balancing act with tropicals (a little kiwi, Asian melon and pineapple), with white stone fruit unfolding as the wine opens up through a bright, creamy finish.
Williams Selyem 2019 Lewis MacGregor Estate Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
This vibrant, savory version of a Chard from Russian River Valley icon Williams Selyem is fresh and delicate up front, opening with perfumed white blossoms layered with yuzu citrus, Asian pear and wet-stone minerality. Spiced citrus and tart stone fruit flavors are balanced with crushed herbs and bright, vivid acidity for a bit of an Old World character.