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WineSearcher.com on redisovering California Chardonnay

California Chardonnay: From Butterball to Balance

Winemaker Gavin Chanin, from Chanin Wine Company in Santa Maria on the Central Coast, calls chardonnay the ultimate terroir grape. “It shows the site’s personality really well.”

Indeed, few grapes lend themselves to expressing their site. This non-aromatic variety also provides a relatively neutral canvas for winemakers to stamp their signatures. Chardonnay comes in a wide range of styles, from the green-tinged, racy wines of Chablis to the rich, powerful grands crus of Corton and Chassagne. There are fruit-filled oaky Australian chardonnays and the new wave of lean, unoaked, non malo-ed examples emerging from the Yarra Valley. Even California’s straw-colored, mineral chardonnays display a radically different approach to the variety, accentuating its chameleon character.

In contrast to the old-school butterballs, Sandhi’s chardonnay, from the maritime-influenced Santa Rita Hills, aims to capture the wet-stone earthiness of its gravel-based vineyard source. “We add nothing,” Parr says. “We let the grape speak for itself, with only a touch of new oak.”

It’s an oft-heard expression from winemakers. However, Parr and Chanin represent the new wave of premium California chardonnay producers attempting to convey a sense of place without a chunk of wood masking the fruit. Their non-interventionist approach emphasizes purity, balance and structure. They prefer wild yeast fermentation in oak barrels and, in some instances, also stainless steel. There’s no lees stirring, and they hold back on the new French oak.”