Feature Coverage

California Cool

From the Aug 31, 2020, issue

Two excellent vintages await lovers of California Chardonnay, with the highest-rated bottlings reflecting the stylistic evolution that has driven winemaking over the past decade. The move to produce more structured, elegant and pure-tasting wines has been particularly evident in the state’s leading cellars, and the two vintages currently on tap, 2017 and 2018, showcase this new style at its best.

In 2017, California fully emerged from a multiyear drought with a deluge of rain in the winter months. A pivotal event was the intense Labor Day heat wave that cut yields slightly and sped up the harvest. In the hands of skilled winemakers, this produced rich and opulent Chardonnays; the wine country wildfires in early October were not a factor because the white wine harvest was over by the time they hit. The 2018 vintage was nearly ideal, with mostly moderate temperatures and an extended harvest that resulted in concentrated flavors backed by crunchy acidity.

Since my last report (“California’s Chardonnay Heartland,” July 31, 2019), I have reviewed nearly 500 wines in blind tastings at our Napa office, half of them earning scores of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator‘s 100-point scale. The 2017s lead in sheer quantity, representing the bulk of what’s available right now, while many top 2018s are just coming into the market. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

The highest-rated wine overall is Kistler’s rich and creamy Russian River Valley Laguna Ridge Vineyard 2017 (97 points, $200/magnum only), loaded with ripe white fruit flavors and savory accents. Nine other wines in this report earned scores in the classic range of 95-plus, all of them single-vineyard bottlings like the Kistler. These efforts reflect the sharp focus of winemakers who seek to gain the most profound flavors and textures from specific sites.

The lineup of producers in this elite class includes well-known names such as Arista, Aubert, Paul Hobbs and Peter Michael. Except for Hudson Vineyards, on the Napa side of Carneros, all of them are based in Sonoma County, which points to the region’s dominance in producing the best Chardonnay in the state.

Besides the Laguna Ridge bottling, Kistler also scored with two other classic-rated efforts in 2017: its Russian River Valley Vine Hill Vineyard (96, $90) and Sonoma Coast Durrell Vineyard (95, $80). The 2017s were the last to be influenced by founder Steve Kistler, who made them alongside winemaker Jason Kesner, now in charge of all production at this celebrated estate. Kesner first came aboard in 2008, when Kistler sold a majority stake in the winery to a group of investors headed by vintner Bill Price.

“We finished harvest 2017 just as the heat peaked, basically cramming 12-plus days of harvest and processing work into seven,” Kesner says. “That was the biggest challenge of the year for us, but we tackled it. We were able to capture great natural acids across the board and, given the naturally low crops of the year, great concentration, too.”

Indeed, this powerful natural acidity is a hallmark of Kistler wines, giving them a freshness and purity of flavor as well as the stuffing to age. For Kesner, that acidity (measured as a function of a wine’s pH—the lower it is, the higher the perceived acidity) is especially prevalent in the Vine Hill and Laguna Ridge bottlings.

Vine Hill is located around the winery itself, which is near the town of Sebastopol. Kesner says the site is rich with the Goldridge Formation, a sandy loam–based soil that is typical of many of the top terroirs in Sonoma. “This Chardonnay best represents the tension we like to see between the concentration and the acidity in our bottlings from the region surrounding the winery,” Kesner says. “Vine Hill has the finest-grained sand of any of them, and it typically is near the lowest pH of any of our fruit.”

Laguna Ridge is located just north of Vine Hill. “It’s in fact our lowest pH fruit, but given it’s a slightly warmer site, it gains a compelling sense of ripeness each year that poses a nice juxtaposition to the acids,” Kesner explains. “The slightly less sandy soils, [though] still very sandy, offer a fuller expression of the fruit tones in the fruit itself.” He adds that the wine is bottled in magnum to encourage long-term cellaring.

In contrast to the steely nature of the Kistlers are the voluptuous versions from Mark Aubert. He also produced three classic-rated wines this year, all from 2018. At the top is the Sonoma Coast Powder House (96, $95), with smoky richness to its concentrated white fruit flavors. This is only the second vintage for the wine, which comes from a 9-acre vineyard that was once an apple orchard. Aubert developed the site into a vineyard after purchasing it in 2008. Located in the Russian River Valley, Powder House lies near the sources for Aubert’s other top-rated bottlings, the Sonoma Coast Lauren (95, $115) and Sonoma Coast CIX (95, $100).

Powder House also has Goldridge soils, according to Aubert, who says they promote soilborne aromatics and minerality. The vines are densely planted at 2,000 per acre. “What’s great about it is that it’s an amphitheater and it has a westerly aspect, so it gets nice afternoon sun. We knew it was a wonderful place. But it takes time.”

The 2018 harvest lasted six weeks, which is longer than normal, allowing for full flavor development. “All our ’18s have what the French call gras [fat, or richness] and a wonderful texture of sugar,” Aubert says. “We hung our hat on that. The ’18 vintage had great growing conditions. We couldn’t have asked for better. Hot in August, but then in September only six days over 90. And no fires.”

Besides sharing Goldridge-based soils, the Kistler and Aubert sites are both in the Russian River Valley watershed, though Aubert labels his wines with the Sonoma Coast appellation, which overlaps with his vineyard sources. The climate here is also key to quality, with cool morning fog moderating the strong California sun during the summer and allowing for even ripening throughout the growing season.

Arista also made an impressive Russian River bottling from a vineyard that dates to 1980: the svelte and contoured Banfield Vineyard 2017 (95, $80), showing pure-tasting white fruit flavors layered with toasty accents. Winemaker Matt Courtney credits the steep hillsides that flank the site with funneling cool air to the vines as well as protecting them from the strong rays of the afternoon sun, thus allowing for an extended hang time for ripening and the development of flavors.

“The coolness of the site combined with the steady consistency brought about by vine age allows for brightness and freshness to be preserved in the wine alongside the more opulent notes of caramelized sugar and grilled orchard fruits,” Courtney says. “I think all of the great Chardonnays of the world have this characteristic. They are somehow both incredibly complex and layered, yet lifted, energetic and vibrant at the same time.”

Other highly rated examples come from pioneering Chardonnay vintner David Ramey, who began to spread the word about classic Burgundian techniques in the 1980s, helping to raise the quality of the grape in California. He continues to pursue his restrained style with the taut Russian River Valley Woolsey Road Vineyard 2017 (94, $70), offering focused apple, pear and melon flavors.

Outside the Russian River Valley, Paul Hobbs harnessed the environment of Sonoma Mountain for the creamy Cuvée Agustina Richard Dinner Vineyard 2018 (95, $130). From Nick Morlet at Peter Michael comes the vibrant Cuvée Indigène 2017 (95, $170), sourced from the winery’s mountainous estate vineyards in Knights Valley. (This past March, Morlet turned over winemaking duties to Robert Fiore, previously at Continuum.)

The Carneros district, straddling the southern tier of Napa and Sonoma, just north of the cool waters of San Pablo Bay, continues to up the ante with Chardonnay. The region’s best versions are based on storied vineyard sites such as Hudson and Hyde.

The Hyde Vineyard, first planted in 1979 by Larry Hyde, has long been a fount of great Chardonnay. The current roster of outstanding releases from the site, which includes bottlings from Aubert, DuMol and Kistler, is topped by the HdV Hyde Vineyard 2017 (94, $74), with ripe citrus accents to the fresh white fruit flavors. HdV is a joint venture between Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy’s renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Lee Hudson began developing his vineyard in 1981, and it has long been tapped by top vintners. Kistler, Aubert, Failla and Patz & Hall are among the leading recipients. Hudson recently opened his own winery at the ranch to further pursue his winemaking dreams, and his Little Bit 2017 (95, $85) is big and rich. The wine’s high quality notwithstanding, its very existence represents a minor miracle: Though made at White Rock winery in Napa’s Soda Canyon, which was destroyed in the 2017 conflagration, the fermenting juice was resting safely in underground caves when the fire hit.

Artesa also scored highly with its Los Carneros Block 92 Estate Vineyard 2017 (93, $60), refined with vibrant acidity and white fruit and melon flavors. Artesa offers a case study in the recent evolution of Carneros wineries. Originally founded in 1991 by Spanish bubbly giant Codorníu to make sparkling wines, it has now switched almost exclusively to still wines, led by Chardonnay.

Ana Diogo-Draper, winemaker since 2015, used a mix of stainless-steel tanks and barrel-fermentation techniques to promote freshness in her wines, a trend common in many cellars. “I really feel there’s been a big stylistic change in California, especially in the last four to five years,” she says. “Every year I tone back a little more in the cellar—less intrusive, less new oak and more terroir.”

Beyond Sonoma and Napa, another hot spot for quality is Santa Barbara, primarily in two districts: Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. The top-scorer from the region comes from Brewer-Clifton, whose sleek and focused Sta. Rita Hills 3D 2017 (94, $65) features flavors of ripe citrus and pastry. Winemaker Greg Brewer fermented the juice in 15- to 20-year-old neutral barrels and aged it on the lees for about 17 months without racking or stirring, with the aim of promoting a fleshy texture while preserving fruit and spice components.

Although most of the top bottlings are single-vineyard releases with fairly small productions and sometimes lofty prices, there are plenty of well-priced alternatives that provide a good entry point for Chardonnay. Many of these represent estate bottlings of various vineyards or appellations, and they are usually made in robust quantities.

The ranks of the most highly rated in this category include the Lewis Napa Valley 2018 (93, $55), Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills 2017 (92 $40), Hartford Court Russian River Valley 2018 (92, $30), Ramey Fort Ross-Seaview 2017 (92, $42), Bouchaine Napa Valley Carneros 2016 (91, $32) and Dehlinger Russian River Valley Un-Filtered 2017 (91, $42). For an impressive value that should be widely available, it’s hard to beat Cambria’s Santa Maria Valley Katherine’s Vineyard 2018 (92, $22), a lithe white showing plenty of buttery accents. Both Cambria and Brewer-Clifton are part of the Jackson Family group, Sonoma’s biggest vineyard owner.

Looking ahead, 2019 was another fairly cool vintage that promises to produce precise and linear wines. The winter was cold and rainy late in the season, followed by an abnormally wet May that could have been disastrous had it not been for a delayed flowering. The summer was cool, even more so than in 2018.

“We had a healthy but mild growing season after that, with very few overtly hot days, but not a lot of fog either,” says Kistler’s Kesner. “We had some warmer evenings leading up to and during harvest for us in 2019. As a result we saw pH shifts occur on a slightly advanced schedule compared to the ’18s,” making for a faster harvest.

As recent vintages show, California Chardonnay is in a remarkable state of development, with winemakers spreading their wings to create powerful and authentic wines. The future of this fast-changing category looks bright.

Senior editor Kim Marcus is Wine Spectator‘s lead taster on California Chardonnay.


Nearly 500 wines were reviewed for this report. A free alphabetical list is available. WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews for all wines tasted using the online Wine Ratings Search.



Chardonnay Russian River Valley Laguna Ridge Vineyard 2017

Score: 97 | $200 / 1.5L

WS Review: Rich and powerful, with an unctuous creaminess to the ripe apple and pear flavors, showing notes of dried tropical fruits, backed by fresh acidity. Ends with concentrated minerality and buttery nuances.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Powder House 2018

Score: 96 | $95

WS Review: Voluptuous and unctuous, with intensely pure flavors of baked pear, apple pastry and melon confit that are powerfully structured. Sage cream and butter accents show midpalate, with a long, rich finish.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley Vine Hill Vineyard 2017

Score: 96 | $90

WS Review: Complex, with crunchy acidity to the concentrated citrus and McIntosh apple flavors. Intense minerality is followed by a pure and powerful finish that lingers with dried savory herb and toasty hints.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley Banfield Vineyard 2017

Score: 95 | $80

WS Review: Contoured, with a svelte structure to the pure-tasting flavors of Fuji apple, Bosc pear, peach tart and quince, layered with toasty accents. The finish lingers with light buttery details and rich spiciness.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Lauren 2018

Score: 95 | $115

WS Review: Refined, with vibrant acidity backing the precise white fruit and spice flavors. Pure midpalate, showing minerally nuances. The finish lingers with lithe, savory richness.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast CIX 2018

Score: 95 | $100

WS Review: Features a steely structure, with concentrated flavors of freshly cut apple, brioche and Asian pear, supported by crunchy acidity. The long finish echoes with subtle sea salt and chamomile accents.


Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros Little Bit 2017

Score: 95 | $85

WS Review: Big and rich, with glistening acidity backing the expressive white fruit flavors that glide across the palate. Well-knit, with a creamy essence midpalate and a pure-tasting finish that echoes with minerality.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Durell Vineyard 2017

Score: 95 | $80

WS Review: The effusively rich and spicy apple, pear and ripe melon flavors show amazing clarity, loaded with plush spiciness. Notes of dried mango and pineapple emerge midpalate, with a long, lush and buttery finish.


Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain Cuvée Agustina Richard Dinner Vineyard 2018

Score: 95 | $130

WS Review: Voluptuously creamy, with a lilting spiciness to the pure-tasting ripe white fruit, melon and quince paste flavors, backed by vibrant acidity. The juicy finish lingers with brioche and dried mango and pineapple.


Chardonnay Knights Valley Cuvée Indigène 2017

Score: 95 | $170

WS Review: Vibrant and pure-tasting, with notes of dried sage to the mineral-driven Fuji apple, Asian pear and white currant flavors. Flinty accents lead to the focused finish, powered by fresh acidity.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley Laceroni Vineyard 2017

Score: 94 | $70

WS Review: Rich, with apple, tropical fruit and peach pastry flavors, supported by buoyant acidity. Very spicy midpalate, followed by buttery nuances.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Cuvée Anne Rose 2016

Score: 94 | $100

WS Review: Complex and lusciously spiced, with a deep well of ripe apple and pear tart flavors, balanced by hints of gooseberry and quince.


Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills 3D 2017

Score: 94 | $65

WS Review: Sleek, with powerful minerality to the pure-tasting flavors of pear tart, apple pastry and peach, showing rich lemon curd accents.


Chardonnay Fort Ross-Seaview Fort Ross Vineyard 2017

Score: 94 | $44

WS Review: Powerful and rich, with intense, juicy apple and butter flavors, flanked by butterscotch notes. Savory accents linger on the spicy finish.


Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2017

Score: 94 | $74

WS Review: Powerfully structured, with citrus accents to the fresh white fruit and spice flavors, supported by ample acidity. Shows savory richness.


Chardonnay Knights Valley La Carrière 2018

Score: 94 | $100

WS Review: Sleek and powerful, with crunchy acidity backing the white fruit and berry flavors, followed by toasty and buttery accents on the finish.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley Woolsey Road Vineyard 2017

Score: 94 | $70

WS Review: Taut, with green apple, Asian pear and honeydew melon flavors, backed by vibrant acidity and ending with minerally richness.


Chardonnay Fort Ross-Seaview Wayfarer Vineyard 2018

Score: 94 | $80

WS Review: Big and rich, with hints of toasted coconut to the ripe apple, pear and melon flavors that glide on the palate, accented by smoky richness.


Chardonnay Napa Valley Los Carneros Block 92 Estate Vineyard 2017

Score: 93 | $50

WS Review: A refined style, with vibrant acidity backing the apple, pear and ripe melon flavors, showing light buttery accents on the spicy finish.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast UV Vineyard 2016

Score: 93 | $65

WS Review: This tensile version features richly spiced flavors of freshly cut green apple, wet stone and citrus preserves, supported by firm acidity.


Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2017

Score: 93 | $65

WS Review: Plush and spicy, with a creamy texture to the blend of ripe white fruit and citrus flavors, revealing rich toasty and buttery details.


Chardonnay Rutherford 2017

Score: 93 | $60

WS Review: Creamy and rich-tasting, with luscious baked apple, ripe pear and peach pastry flavors that are well-structured, backed by fresh acidity.


Chardonnay Coombsville Haynes Vineyard 2017

Score: 93 | $58

WS Review: Creamy and open-textured, with a firm structure supporting the voluptuous apple pastry, coconut and mango flavors.


Chardonnay Fort Ross-Seaview Estate Vineyard 2017

Score: 93 | $48

WS Review: This creamy version offers layers of rich pear, apple, mango, vanilla and spice notes, leading to pastry details on the long finish.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2017

Score: 93 | $60

WS Review: Buttery, yet balanced by a lithe freshness and filled with apple pastry, pear tart and quince paste flavors, loaded with spicy richness.


Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros 2018

Score: 93 | $65

WS Review: Big and rich, with a plush texture, this features pear tart, apple pastry and dried apricot flavors, with savory snap to the finish.


Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Estates Collection Camelot Highlands 2018

Score: 93 | $45

WS Review: A suave and toasty style, offering spiced flavors of apple pastry, pear tart and brioche, with crunchy acidity and a minerally finish.


Chardonnay Napa Valley 2018

Score: 93 | $55

WS Review: Well-knit and powerfully structured, showing unctuous flavors of pear, apple pastry and dried mango, with toasty notes and a creamy finish.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Spring Hill 2017

Score: 93 | $60

WS Review: A lilting vibrancy accents the refined flavors of apple and pear tart, with fresh acidity. Ends with lemon curd and gooseberry notes.


Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills Peake Ranch Vineyard 2017

Score: 93 | $50

WS Review: Big and rich, featuring unctuous flavors of apple pastry, pear tart and glazed apricot, backed by fresh acidity and a long finish.


Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands Sierra Mar Vineyard 2018

Score: 93 | $50

WS Review: Stylish, with concentrated ripe white fruit flavors, accented by lemon drop notes. Buttered toast and flan details show on the creamy finish.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2017

Score: 92 | $30

WS Review: Minerally richness accents the green apple, citrus and gooseberry flavors, with zesty acidity. The savory finish shows hints of anise.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2018

Score: 92 | $30

WS Review: Luscious and rich, with creamy white fruit flavors flanked by buttery accents. Spicy plushness lingers into the finish, with honeyed notes.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley Saralee’s Vineyard 2017

Score: 92 | $45

WS Review: An elegant and focused style, with lithe minerality enriching the apple, pear tart and dried apricot flavors, showing hints of crème brûlée.


Chardonnay Carneros Cold Creek 2017

Score: 92 | $30

WS Review: This version glistens with intense creaminess to the tropical fruit, pear tart and lemon curd flavors, focused and powerful.


Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands 2018

Score: 92 | $45

WS Review: Richly spiced, with notes of flan to the flavors of apple pastry and pear tart, backed by crunchy acidity and ending with dried savory accents.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2017

Score: 92 | $35

WS Review: Focused flavors of dried apricot, ripe apple and citrus are framed by firm acidity in this broad, powerful style, with light buttery notes.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2017

Score: 92 | $42

WS Review: Very custardy at the outset, with green apple and lemon-lime flavors, backed by intense acidity. Savory nuances show on the crisp finish.


Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard 2017

Score: 92 | $40

WS Review: This big version is filled with smoky accents to the focused flavors of white berry, Fuji apple and Asian pear, with savory notes.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2018

Score: 92 | $38

WS Review: There’s an enveloping creaminess to the pure-tasting ripe white fruit flavors, with rich acidity. Focused and minerally on the finish.


Chardonnay Carneros Envoy 2018

Score: 92 | $40

WS Review: Rich and creamy in texture, with ripe white fruit and spice flavors, showing accents of dried mango and pineapple on the finish.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley Valdez Vineyards 2017

Score: 92 | $35

WS Review: Packed with creamy richness, this offers concentrated ripe pear, baked apple and butterscotch flavors that are plush and rich-tasting.



Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Katherine’s Vineyard 2018

Score: 92 | $22

WS Review: Lithe and powerful, offering a vibrant core of apple and peach pastry.


Chardonnay Los Carneros 2017

Score: 91 | $20

WS Review: Focused, with tropical accents to the apple, pear and apricot flavors.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2018

Score: 90 | $22

WS Review: Airy flavors of cream, apple and ripe pear are plush and engaging.


Chardonnay Chalk Hill 2017

Score: 90 | $22

WS Review: Well-spiced, with notes of lemon curd, apple tart and glazed pear.


Chardonnay Napa Valley Heartcraft 2018

Score: 89 | $20

WS Review: Buttery, with plush, creamy apple pastry and dried mango flavors.


Chardonnay Paso Robles Charles Woodson’s 2018

Score: 89 | $20

WS Review: Snappy and fresh-tasting, with lemongrass and dried basil notes to the freshly cut green apple and ripe citrus flavors. Broad and minerally.


Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2018

Score: 89 | $23

WS Review: A lithe resinous aspect accents the Gala apple and lemon curd flavors.


Chardonnay Arroyo Seco Riverstone 2018

Score: 89 | $14

WS Review: Features green apple, pear and white peach flavors, with fresh acidity.


Chardonnay Dry Creek Valley Unoaked Signature Selection 2018

Score: 89 | $17

WS Review: Offers pear tart and red peach flavors that show notes of honeysuckle.


Chardonnay Santa Margarita Ranch 2018

Score: 88 | $19

WS Review: This features a crisp structure, with green peach and apple flavors.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2018

Score: 88 | $18

WS Review: Concentrated apple and Bosc pear flavors are crisp and refreshing.


Chardonnay Mendocino County Unoaked Francine’s Selection 2018

Score: 88 | $15

WS Review: Fruity, with well-knit flavors of red peach, ripe pear and Fuji apple.


Chardonnay Central Coast 2018

Score: 87 | $13

WS Review: Juicy, with minerally hints to the dried pear and baked apple flavors.


Chardonnay Arroyo Seco 2017

Score: 87 | $12

WS Review: Marshmallow and cream puff notes accent the ripe white fruit flavors.


Chardonnay Mendocino 2018

Score: 87 | $15

WS Review: Offers buttery and ripe white fruit flavors that show hints of richness.


Chardonnay Monterey-Sonoma Counties 2018

Score: 87 | $12

WS Review: Fruity, with melon and apple flavors filled with spice, cream and honey.


Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2017

Score: 87 | $13

WS Review: Toasty notes accent the ripe apple, melon and red peach flavors.


Chardonnay California Family Reserve 2018

Score: 87 | $9

WS Review: Vivid poached pear flavors are supple in this well-spiced version.


Chardonnay California Vintner’s Collection 2017

Score: 87 | $12

WS Review: Freshly cut apple and green pear flavors are flanked by spicy notes.


Chardonnay California 2018

Score: 86 | $13

WS Review: Crunchy gooseberry and green apple flavors show notes of wild herbs.


Chardonnay California 2017

Score: 86 | $18 /3L

WS Review: Juicy, with pear tart and dried apple flavors. Sold as a 3-liter box.


Chardonnay California 2017

Score: 85 | $10

WS Review: Medium-bodied, with baked apple, ripe pear and hazelnut flavors.

California Cool