Chardonnay is often called the queen of California grapes. In that metaphor, of course, Cabernet is king. But the truth is, Chardonnay is our first love in the US. According to the California Wine Institute, 18.6 percent of the wine we drink is Chard, far more than Cab. And for better or for worse, depending on your taste, much of that ocean of white earned the reputation for a “California style” through generous whiffs of butter and oak you get when you stick your nose in the glass. To put it bluntly, too many Chardonnays are simple, fat, and flabby, and—when its at low-ish price points—the oak’s not honest; it came in the form of chips or powder.
Granted, that describes more bottom- and middle-shelf bottles than those on top or locked in the glass case. But through the years, even the best producers (think Helen Turley, of Marcassin) loaded up their Chardonnays with new oak, so that what exuded from the glass was vanilla and toast, not fruit or other flavors derived from the site. All of that spawned a movement I joined myself: the ABC drinkers (Anything But Chardonnay). Now, though, I’m abandoning my membership in that club. Tastings in the last several years have made it clear that new values have taken hold at the top. Descriptors in high demand run along the lines of “freshness,” “energy,” and “tension.” (That last has become an asset instead of a liability in the language of wine much like “disruptive” has in the worlds of business and technology.) Another current favorite adjective in the Chardonnay lexicon now is “Burgundian.” The reference attempts to channel the source of some of the world’s most highly regarded Chardonnays, of course, but in truth, its meaning is more than a little squishy in the context of California. What, exactly, is Burgundian winemaking or wine character?
Clarity on that front spooled out in a recent retrospective tasting of Hyde de Villaine Chardonnays going back to 2003. Jointly owned by the Hyde family, whose Carneros vineyard has been a California gem for decades, and the Villaine family, who co-own and codirect France’s legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (the two families are related by marriage), HdV can claim the ultimate Burgundy chops. But Aubert de Villaine, founding partner and director of winemaking, makes it clear that they are not trying to make white Burgundy in Carneros. “We bring our heritage, our experience,” he says, “from the Old World to the New. We don’t copy Burgundy, but translate it to California.”
The vintages in our tasting vary widely from year to year (surprising, at first, to French-born consulting winemaker Stéphane Vivier, who admits he came with the preconception that in California, every year is the same), but through all runs a vividness, a brightness, with unashamed minerality and a savory salinity. “Our job,” says Vivier, “is to translate the energy from the vineyard to the glass.” And the minimalist winemaking he and winemaker Guillaume Boudet (also French-born) describe is inspired by their Burgundy heritage. “The biggest part of our job as winemakers happens in the vineyard,” says Boudet. “We do everything possible there to achieve the finest quality and balance in the grapes so once they get to the winery, there is nothing to change.”
Where it sits in Carneros, the Hyde Vineyard enjoys constant breezes off San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean, with cool temperatures and fog. “This allows us to retain the natural acidity in the grapes as they ripen, because the sun and heat don’t degrade it,” explains Boudet. And Larry Hyde has worked to capture that weather, reorienting vine rows parallel to the wind channels instead of perpendicular, so the wind runs inside the rows, along each vine.
Beyond establishing perfect vine balance, the decision about when to pick is crucial. According to Boudet, “It’s about finding the right window where skins, seeds and stems are ripe [they whole-cluster press] and sugars, acidity and flavors are balanced. After that, he makes it sound easy: “Our job in the cellar is to babysit the wines and let them fully express their natural characters independently, with very minimal intervention.” He admits, though, that’s not exactly a cake-walk. “It’s much more challenging to take a step back rather than always trying to fix something in the wines.” His “babysitting” generally involves aging on fine lees (but no stirring) in French oak chosen for preserving structure, not introducing sweetness, with only 15 to 20 percent new. That’s it—no racking, no fining, no filtering.
If Hyde de Villaine brought inspiration from Burgundy from the get-go, in Sonoma, legendary Kosta Browne (known for Pinot Noir), is cooking up more of a Chardonnay revolution, which is number two on our list of why we’re into this white wine again. With the 2015 vintage, according to winemaker Julien Howsepian, they “took a leap of faith” and picked some vineyards much earlier than usual. The two wines that came of the experiment—the 2015 El Diablo and the 2015 Bootlegger’s Hill—shaped their Chardonnays of the future. Howsepian describes them as “energetic in spirit but rich in body. It wasn’t until those two wines,” he says, “that we identified a style of Chardonnay that we enjoyed producing, enjoyed drinking, and believed in as the future of Kosta Browne Chardonnay.”
In pursuit of “precision, purity and pleasure,” Howsepian chooses cool vineyard sites (no tropical notes allowed) and, like Boudet at Hyde de Villaine, picks at maturity as balanced as possible. Kosta Browne fermentations are natural and slow and its oak both new and used, in various shapes and sizes, from traditional barrels to puncheons to casks, to tease out complexity. (Sometimes the oak is even Austrian.)
Howsepian doesn’t shy away from comparisons to France’s great Chardonnay region: “Burgundy is synonymous with the highest quality, complexity, intrigue and fascination,” he says. “However, it’s important for us to remain unique and stylistically at arm’s length. We strive to one day evoke Californian Chardonnay across the globe in a similar vein as Burgundy, in terms of quality and distinction.”
Clearly, he’s talking about a new California distinction, not the unfortunate style of old. Here are 10 bottles from recent tastings that are advancing the cause as well.
The Hyde de Villaine 2017 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, Carneros
The Hyde de Villaine 2017 Chardonnay ($74) shows remarkable balance between generous fruit—exotic citrus, touches of stone fruit—and earthy minerality. Delicate florals are contrasted by vibrant, mouth-filling textures that carry through an endless finish. It promises a long life, much as a white Burguny does. But delivering on that promise in our tasting was the Hyde de Villaine 2004 Chardonnay, with a gorgeous concentration of honeyed fruit and juicy freshness. These are Chards for the cellar.
Kosta Browne 2017 Bootlegger’s Hill and El Diablo Chardonnays, Russian River Valley
The third vintage of the Kosta Browne Bootlegger’s Hill Chardonnay, the 2017, Russian River Valley, brings oyster-shell minerality to the nose, along with apple skin, peach, and lemon blossom aromas. The palate is vibrant with textures, delivering concentrated fruit flavors, from apple, pear, and creamy lemon to stone fruit, with a fantastic finish. The Kosta Browne 2017 El Diablo Chardonnay, also from Russian River Valley, ($165) opens with slightly more opulent fruit, a touch of peach skin with lemon cream. But across the amazingly textured palate (the definition of tension), juicy acidity offsets the opulence, ending with a puckery touch of orange peel.
El Diablo ($165)
Bootlegger’s Hill ($165)
Alma Rosa 2017 El Jabali Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills
This well-balanced version from Alma Rosa in Santa Barbara County has a rich mouthfeel, to be sure. But that’s offset by bright minerality and acidity (accentuated by being made partly in stainless steel and partly in wood, with only partial malolactic fermentation allowed). White blossom aromas and exotic citrus float over focused pear flavors and hints of tropical fruit.
Anaba 2017 Westlands Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
This beautiful (but small) production from Anaba helps define the up-and-coming, very cool growing region that is far west Sonoma County. It’s flinty and lean, its green apple layered with lime peel, and its bright acidity melding into a wet-stone character.
Blue Farm 2017 Laceroni Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
Here’s a beautifully balanced, complex Chard from Blue Farm. Oyster-shell minerality pops on the nose, along with delicate acacia blossom; flavors of apple, lemon and lime zest carry through a long finish marked by distinctive textures.
FEL 2017 Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay, Anderson Valley
This vibrant bottle from FEL shows what Mendocino’s cool-climate valley is capable of. The nose is downright perfumed with honeyed apple, creamy citrus, stone fruit and hints of almonds, while the palate—pure and focused—delivers white nectarine and lime zest with a sense of taut energy. Made in 500-liter French oak puncheons and aged sur lie, with no stirring, the wine’s focus is clearly on the flavors of the vineyard.
La Jota Vineyard Co. 2017 W.S. Keyes Vineyard Chardonnay, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
This stunning new Chard from La Jota’s Christopher Carpenter (who, incidentally, had never made a Chardonnay before this) leaves its mountain site transparent, with less than 10 percent new oak. Juicy orchard fruit, from apple and pear to white nectarine, is underscored by impressive minerality, and textures built from lees-stirring add to a structure of acidity, suggesting a long life.
Lioco 2017 La Marisma Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
This lively white from Lioco makes an eloquent case that the Santa Cruz Mountains is an undersung gem of a region. Asian pear, lemon blossom and lime zest aromas give way to vibrant citrus on the palate, with intriguing savory underpinnings.
Mayacamas 2018 Chardonnay, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley
This fresh, mountain Chard from Mayacamas was made in a combination of small barrels (only a small percentage of them new), large puncheons and stainless steel. Focused pear aromas are decorated with white blossom notes and wet-stone minerality; on the palate, puckery citrus and an edge of salinity join the pear flavors, with a textural structure from bright acidity.
Migration 2018 Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley
One of a collection of single-vineyard Chardonnays from Migration, this Santa Barbara County beauty opens with lovely citrus blossom aromas; the palate is loaded with fresh apple and bright lemon, with a vein of wet-stone character and great energy lending structure.