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Recently Tasted California Chardonnay



“The success of California Chardonnay runs so deep that the wine
is often taken for granted.”

James Laube



There are many variations of California Chardonnay, largely in the hands of the winemaker, including stainless steel fermented, barrel fermented and concrete egg fermented, natural yeast fermented, proprietary yeast fermented, aging on the lees with or without stirring, use of traditional 60 gallon Burgundy oak barrels or larger 84 gallon puncheons and so on. There are styles to suit everyone’s preferences. That said, the two most popular styles are the ripe, buttery, tropical-fruited wines with moderate acidity, and the more hi-strung, lean and acid-driven wines.



It is easy to find very good California Chardonnay, but more challenging to find it in the style that you prefer. I hope that the descriptions of the following Chardonnays tasted recently can lead you one that brings you pleasure.

2015 Anaba Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

13.5% alc., pH 3.46, TA 0.61, 728 cases, $36. Sourced from J McK Estate Vineyard, Denmark Vineyard and Dutton Ranch vineyards. Harvest Brix 23.8º. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented, 80% malolactic fermentation, and aged 17 months on the lees in French oak barrels, 20% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Aromas of lemon oil, lime, grapefruit and pear lead off. Clean, crisp and refreshing featuring flavors of citrus, golden apple and pear with hints of caramel, honey, vanilla and salinity. The finish has enough acidic verve but is shallow and falls off quickly. Score: 88

2015 Anaba Dutton Ranch Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

13.9% alc., pH 3.36, TA 0.71, 255 cases, $42. Wente clone. Harvest Brix 23.3º. Sourced from Dutton Mills Station and Shop Block vineyards in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented, 50% malolactic fermentation, and aged 17 months on the lees in French oak barrels, 30% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Shy, but pleasant aromas of lemon curd, green apple, and sawdust. Reserved flavors of lemon, grapefruit and kiwi are uplifted by energetic acidity. More sophisticated than ostentatious, with a steely cut on the finish. An adroit food wine. Score: 90

2015 Anaba J McK Estate Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay

14.1% alc., pH 3.70, TA 0.54, 174 cases, $42. Wente clone. Harvest Brix 24.0º. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented, 85% malolactic fermentation, and aged 17 months on the lees in French oak barrels, 40% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Nicely perfumed with scents of lemon creme, banana, baking spices and pie crust. Delicately flavored but very satisfying, offering tastes of citrus, caramelized apple, honey and toasty oak. The acidity is more restrained in this wine and it will appeal to those who prefer fruit and oak at the forefront. Score: 92

2015 Chateau St. Jean Single Vineyard Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.2%, pH 3.67, TA 0.63, alc., $35. Harvest Brix 24.3º. Clones 5 and 15. Barrel fermented, complete malolactic fermentation, aged 15 months in French oak barrels, 45% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. The aromatic profile appeals, offering scents of lemon, pineapple, butter, flint and toasty oak. Richly styled with lemon, yellow peach and pineapple flavors as well as spice. There is enough acidity to balance the robust fruit sap and the fruit-driven finish shows length. This is a wine for fans who like a Chardonnay awash in fruit along with boisterous oak engagement. Score: 92

2015 Chateau St. Jean Single Vineyard Cold Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.5% alc., $35. Release March 2017. Barrel fermented, aged 9 months in small French oak barrels, 15% new. !00% malolactic fermentation. · Light golden yellow color in the glass. Fresh aromas of lemon, melon and a steely, metallic tone. Bright flavors of lemon-lime and pear matched with a brisk acid spice and minimal oak input. More discreetly fruity and austere in demeanor. Score: 90

2015 Chateau St. Jean Single Vineyard Robert Young Vineyard Alexander Valley Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.59, TA 0.63, $35. Vineyard is planted to the Robert Young clone, a selection derived from original plantings of the Wente clone and certified in 1989. Barrel fermented and aged on the lees 15 months in French oak barrels, 17% new, then given extended bottle age before release. · Moderately light golden yellow color in the glass. Sexy nose of lemon oil, pineapple and pear perfume. Discreetly rich in character, with tantalizing flavors of lemon, baked pear, spice and toast. A thread of oak holds court through the finish that shows a bit of alcoholic heat. Score: 92

2016 Chateau St. Jean Single Vineyard Belle Terre Vineyard Alexander Valley Chardonnay

14.4% alc., $N/A (not released). The winery has made wine from this vineyard since the 1970s. · Moderate light golden yellow color in the glass. Aromas of lemon, pear and riverbed. Really nice harmony in a flavorful style with dancing acidity. Citrus, honey and nutmeg are the main tastes with oak way in the background. Very inviting, with a brightness and purity that elevates this wine that also sports a quenching and haunting finish. Score: 94

2015 Chateau St. Jean Le Seul Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.6% alc., pH 3.36, TA 0.64, $75. Sourced from Gap’s Crown Vineyard. Harvest Brix 25.7º. Dijon clones 548 and 124. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented on the lees in small French oak barrels for 17 months, 69% new. · Moderately light golden yellow color in the glass. Soaring aromas of lemon curd, brown butter, ripe pear, toast and roasted nuts. Amazing attack of lemon, pear, white peach, pineapple, spice and creme brÙlée flavors that are bolstered by complimentary oak. There is a hint of fleur de sel. The slightest tannin peaks out and the energetic acidity energizes the fruit. A serious effort that has the pedal to the metal with the alcohol adding fortitude to the wine. Even better when sampled the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Score: 94

2015 Chateau St. Jean Reserve Sonoma County Chardonnay

14.4% alc., $N/A (not released). Winemaker Margo Van Staaveren’s signature is on the heavy, embossed bottle. 54% Robert Young, 26% Cold Creek, 12% Durell and 8% Belle Terre vineyards. Each lot fermented separately. Aged on the lees for 18 months in French oak barrels. A barrel selection for the final blend. · Moderate golden yellow. A classy wine by all definition that is highly nuanced and intriguing. Aromas and flavors of lemon oil, lemon meringue, spice, ripe pear and banana with a dash of oak. Enough fruit to satisfy, but gracious acid (read “mineralitydriven”) is the soul of this wine. The lemon creme finish has uncommon staying power. Still terrific when tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. The winemaker’s best effort and it shows. Score: 96

2014 Dolin Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

13.8% alc., pH 3.48, TA 0.62, 232 cases, $39. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented with 100% malolactic fermentation. Aged 15 months on the lees with twice monthly stirring in French oak barrels, 33% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Light golden yellow color in the glass. Engaging aromas of grilled lemon, pineapple, spice, vanilla and flint lead to a flavor palate of lemon, pineapple, yellow apple and spice. Creamy in the mouth, with good fortitude, righteous acidity and a gratifying lemon-infused finish. Enjoy this classy wine on its own or with shellfish. Score: 93

2014 Dolin Rincon Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley Chardonnay

13.9% alc., pH 3.57, TA 0.62, 140 cases, $39. Vineyard established in 1982 in Salinas clay loam soil. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented and underwent 100% malolactic fermentation. Aged 15 months on the lees with twice monthly stirring in French oak barrels, 33% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately dark golden yellow color in the glass. The fruit-forward nose features aromas of lemon, pineapple, mango and caramelized apple. Richly-fruited with a boisterous charge of ripe citrus and apple flavors on a viscous frame. A thread of toast and roasted nuts plies the background. Quite enjoyable, although I wished for more acidic verve. Score: 90

2015 Dolin Malibu Newton Canyon Chardonnay

14.3% alc., pH 3.42, TA 0.57, 220 cases, $39. Vineyard situated at 1,400 feet elevation above the fog line. Planted in 1993. Whole cluster pressed, 100% malolactic fermentation, aged 16 months in French oak barrels, 33% new. Left on the lees and stirred twice monthly while in barrel. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately golden yellow color in the glass. The saline-infused nose shows appealing restraint with added aromas of citrus, green apple and candy corn. Bright and crisp, with a lemon-lime core, accommodating oak, and some finishing citrus bounty. Score: 90

2016 J. Lohr October Night Arroyo Seco Monterey Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.53, TA 0.66, RS 0.36 g/100ml, 1,456 cases, $25. The uniqueness of this wine is derived from the “Musque clone” or Dijon 809 (60%) that produces a noticeable floral component. Harvest Brix 24.8º, harvested on a single October nigh. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented an average of 13 days, full malolactic fermentation, aging on the lees with weekly stirring for 10 months in French oak barrels, 50% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Plenty of white blossom floral perfume along with citrus fruits and piney oak on the nose. Ripe-fruited profile with flavors of lemon and pineapple backed by oak notes of toast and blonde caramel. The floral perfume also engages the palate. An unconventional wine that will appeal to those receptive to individuality. Score: 89

2016 J. Lohr Arroyo Vista Arroyo Seco Monterey Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.42, TA 0.70, RS .45 g/100ml, 7,325 cases, $25. Primarily Dijon clone 76. Whole cluster pressed, proprietary yeast fermentation, inoculated full malolactic fermentation, aging in French oak barrels with weekly stirring, 49% new. · Moderately light golden yellow color in the glass. Inviting aromas of lemon curd, golden apple, white peach, spice and nutty oak. Slightly creamy on the palate, with engaging flavors of lemon, grapefruit, poached golden apple and caramelized oak. Seductive mouthfeel and impressive balance with a good cut of acidity on the uplifting finish. Score: 90

2015 Ladera Pillow Road Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.0% alc., 525 cases, $50. Ladera is known for making mountain-grown Napa Valley wines but in 2006 they acquired a vineyard just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean with vines planted in Goldridge sandy loam soils. An adjacent parcel was acquired and planted in 2008 to 7 acres of Pinot Noir and 2 acres of Chardonnay (Wente and Mt. Eden 809). Formerly the wines were bottled under the Pillow Road Vineyard name but beginning in 2015, a switch to Ladera was chosen. Gentle whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented followed by partial malolactic fermentation. Aged on the lees in 60% new French oak barrels for 15 months. · Moderately light golden yellow color in the glass. Love able aromas of lemon curd, honeycomb, butterscotch and toasty brioche. Discretely rich in the mouth featuring an array of flavors including lemon, lime, green apple, pineapple and a dash of complimentary oak. Slightly viscous and highly satisfying in a fruit-laden style that has enough acid backbone to be refreshing. Full of California sunshine and well done in this style. Score: 93

2015 Ram’s Gate Estate Carneros Chardonnay

14.4% alc., pH 3.60, TA 0.60, 415 cases, $76. 4.2-acre hillside vineyard exposed to cooling winds from San Pablo Bay and marked diurnal variation throughout growing season. Named the Estate Faultline Vineyard, it is tended by vineyard manager Ned Hill. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Complex nose sporting aromas of lemon curd, pineapple, honeycomb, guava and char. Lusciously appointed with ostentatious pineapple flavor. Soft and creamy in the mouth with enough supportive acidity to lift up. Very California in tropical fruit character but very Hawaii in its pineapple theme. Score: 92

2015 Ram’s Gate Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.30, TA 0.61, 643 cases, $74. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Wowzer! Stately aromas of lemon-lime, flint, spice and marzipan, opening over time in a seductive progression. Captivating vibrancy with impeccable barrel integration and overall harmony. Bracing flavors of lemon-lime and golden apple play off subtle accents of butter and vanilla. Slightly creamy in texture, with a sustaining finish of uncommon length. Easy to find superlatives for this beauty. Score: 95

2015 Ram’s Gate El Diablo Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay

3.24, TA 0.58, 325 cases, $68. Vineyard planted in 2006 by Ulises Valdez who manages the site. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. The nose is blessed with hi-tone aromas of apple, ripe pear, lemongrass and buttered toast. Highly flavorful in a rich style, with flavors of lemon, pineapple and ripe apple that grab onto the palate and persist through the finish. Toasty, charred oak plies the background. Good vibrancy and lift on the finish. Score: 93

2015 Rhys Alpine Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay

13.0% alc., $79. Fall 2017 offering. 1.75- acre vineyard situated at 1230 to 1400 feet elevation and planted to Hyde, Wente and dijon clones. Soil is 12”-24” of topsoil over chalky, soft shale. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Leading off are aromas of lemon oil, poached golden apple, and marzipan. Appealing richness of flavor in an acid-driven style featuring flavors of citrus and green apple. Vibrant, with a acid-fueled minerality that carries through the soprano finish that offers good length. A little too citric and high-strung for my personal taste but an excellent wine. Score: 92

2015 Sea Smoke Sea Smoke Estate Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay

15.0% alc., pH 3.37, TA 0.60, $60. Released October 2017. As vines have matured, the winemaker has chosen to use less new oak and lighter toast levels in this wine. Also, more 600-liter demi-muids are being used. Whole cluster pressed, fermented in stainless steel after inoculation, then racked to barrels and inoculated for malolactic fermentation. Aged in French oak barrels on the lees with periodic stirring for 16 months, 26% new. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. The nose is steely and edgy with added fruit flavors of frozen lemon, cut Honeycrisp apple and pineapple. Richly endowed with vivid citrus flavors accented with tastes of apple and subtle blonde caramel. Beautifully crafted with redeeming acidity and a finish awash in citrus goodness. Like an Olympic Winter Games snowboarder: full of content and still lands on its feet. Score: 94

2015 Stony Hill Vineyard Spring Mountain District Napa Valley Chardonnay

13.0% alc., $48. I cut my Chardonnay teeth many years ago on Stony Hill and still cherish the wine today. This familyowned winery dates back over 65 years and their Chardonnay remains one of the most age worthy wines produced in the USA. The old vines are dry farmed. No malolactic fermentation, aged in neutral French oak barrels. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Intoxicating perfume of lemon, pineapple and other tropical fruits and a hint of welcome oak. Very polished and seamless on the palate with a discrete amount of citrus, pear, applesauce, apricot spice, vanilla and almond paste flavors embellished with a desirable mineralogy note. The finish is slightly tart and citrus driven, cleansing the palate and urging a second sip. A California treasure that is unique in its own way and fits like a glove. Score: 94

2015 WesMar Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.9% alc., pH 3.36, $39. Wente clone. Barrel fermented, 100% malolactic fermentation, aged in French oak barrels, 25% 1-year-old and 75% neutral. · Moderately light golden yellow color in the glass. Aromas of cut apple, lemon zest, pineapple, pear and a kiss of oak. The flavors echo the aromas in a rich and ripe, Russian River Valley sun-infused-fruit style. Slightly creamy in texture with the slightest tannin and some finishing length. The oak and alcohol are well integrated. My only nit would be that the wine seems to lack a bit of desirable acid verve even at this pH. Score: 90


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