California Chardonnay
 

Best California Chardonnay

 

The Fifty Best California Chardonnay Tasting of 2021

 

The Tasting:
The Fifty Best held a “blind” tasting of 21 California Chardonnay wines with 11 members of our wine judging panel. The order of service was established beforehand by lottery. Strict tasting rules were applied. Each of the wines were poured into fresh glasses from new sealed bottles and served well chilled. Only crusty peasant bread were available to cleanse the palate.

The judges wrote down their impressions of each wine on score sheets. The scoring was based on a 5-point system, with 5 as the highest. Double-Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze medals are awarded according to a set range of final point scores received from the judges. Medals are provided based entirely on merit and only to products judged worthy of such award.

The tasting notes that follow are summaries of the judges’ opinions, with all replicated commentary eliminated. Prices indicated do not include tax. Clicking on the brands' names will link to their websites.

DOUBLE-GOLD MEDAL WINNERS

Celani Estate Chardonnay 2019
(Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley)   $50

For this wine, whole clusters of Chardonnay (100%) were fermented in either new French oak or self-stirring, egg-shaped concrete fermenters.

Aroma: Green apple, white peach, orange zest, lemon, lemon peel, citrus, butterscotch, basil, jalapeño, mineral, wet stone, smoky, big oak, bright.

Palate: Apple, white peach, rambutan, lime, lemon, lemon blossom, apple blossom, vegetal, spice, light oak, stone-like minerality, acidity, Burgundian style, delicate, bright, creamy, rich.

Finish: Lemon, lemon peel, citrus, tropical fruit, butter, buttery crust, light wood, smoky, minerals, nice tartness, crisp, smooth, creamy, rich.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Celani Estate Chardonnay



Cazadero Chardonnay 2018
Parmeter King Ridge Vineyard

(Fort Ross-Seaview, Sonoma County)  $39

For this wine, hand-picked Chardonnay grapes harvested in the early morning were fermented with native wild yeast and barrel-aged for 12 months in a combination of new and used French oak.

Aroma: Green apple, tart blueberry, pineapple, citrus, duck sauce, toffee, cream, buttered popcorn, buttery, oaky, smoky, pine, mint, mossy, minerality.

Palate: Fresh apricot, pineapple, orange marmalade, delicate citrus, mint, minerals, wet rocks, nice earthiness, salty, raw walnuts, vanilla, butter, big oak, Burgundian style, rich, fresh, alive.

Finish: Apricot, apple cider, citrus notes, lightly floral, bruléed figs, caramel, vanilla, oaky, smoky, tannins, perfectly balanced, refreshing.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Cazadero Chardonnay Parmeter King Ridge Vineyard



GOLD MEDAL WINNERS

Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2019
(Napa Valley)  $40

Grapes used to make this wine hailed from loamy soil in the Carneros region in southern Napa Valley, just north of San Pablo Bay. Harvest was at night with fermentation in French oak barrels and aging on its lees (wasted yeast) for 8 months before bottling.

Aroma: Apple, green apple, pear, white peach, gooseberry, pineapple, banana, lemon, lemon zest, citrus, lemon blossom, honeysuckle, honey, butter, creamy, oak, bright.

Palate: Crisp green apple, mango slices, lemon/lime, lemon rind, lemon verbena, bright citrus, olives, vanilla, cream, butter, buttered toast, balanced oak, subtle malo, Burgundian, balanced, zesty.

Finish: Clean crisp apple, green apple, pineapple, stewed pears, citrusy, hazelnut, musty, smoky, lean oak, woody, good balance, nice complexity, pleasant.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay



Maritana Chardonnay 2018 La Riviere
(Russian River Valley, Sonoma County)  $55

This wine is a blend of Chardonnay grapes harvested from 3 vineyards that were fermented in once-used French oak (90%) or new French oak (10%) and then aged on its lees (wasted yeast).

Aroma: Pomelo, orange peel, lychee, ripe gooseberry, banana peel, lemon tart, lemon blossom, vanilla bean, creamy, wood, oak.

Palate: Peach, pineapple, guava, grapefruit, tropical fruit, mushroom, vanilla, cream soda, cream, butter, bold oak, burnt toast, well balanced, glides over a fruit hill.

Finish: Baked pineapple, apple tart, ginger, white grapefruit, lemon rind, citrus zest, herbs, big oak, creamy, soft, smooth, perfect landing, perfect.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Maritana Chardonnay La Riviere



Hindsight Chardonnay 2019
(Calistoga, Napa Valley)  $24

This wine was made from grapes sourced in Carneros that were fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on its lees (wasted yeast) in French oak barrels for 10 months before botling.

Aroma: Bosc pear, ripe pear, sweet apple, honeydew, melon, peach, fresh apricot, stone fruit, vanilla, butter, spice, cut grass, mineral, earthy, slight smoke, oak.

Palate: White peach, stone fruit, smooth pineapple, pear, apple, lemon, tart citrus, floral, earth, light wood, minerality, acidity, lightly effervescent, true balance, silky.

Finish: Pear, apple, lemon, candied ginger, herbs, minty, stone, minerality, oak, touch of cream, perfectly balanced, clean, fresh, bright, lively, refreshing, lovely.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Hindsight Chardonnay



Peltier Chardonnay 2017 Winemaker Select
(Lodi)  $21

Fermentation of grapes for this wine was conducted in stainless steel tanks followed by aging in new French oak for 4 months before bottling.

Aroma: Peach, pear, stone fruit, pineapple, ripe mango, plush tropical fruit, lemon peel, citrus, honey, Bisquick, buttered popcorn, wet stone, minerals, steely, cedar, oak, beckoning.

Palate: Apricot nectar, banana, lemon, vanilla blossoms, balanced vanilla, caramelized sugar, butterscotch, creamy, buttery, oak, nutty, underlying earthiness, grassy, light minerals, nice tartness.

Finish: Pineapple, apple, tart lemon, citrus, herbal, vanilla, creamy vanilla, oak, well balanced, smooth, fresh.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Peltier Chardonnay 2017 Winemaker Select



Pellet Estate Chardonnay 2017 Sunchase Vineyard
(Petaluma Gap, Sonoma County)  $60

Grapes (100% Chardonnay, Clone 95) for this wine were harvested and pressed as whole clusters and fermented in French oak barrels, and also aged in French oak barrels (30% new) for 18 months before bottling.

Aroma: Pear, fresh pear juice, peach, pineapple, white grape, apple, sour apple, lemon, citrus, purple flowers, honey, vanilla, creamy, cedar, toasty oak, fresh, elegant.

Palate: Pineapple, peach nectar, apple, mango, green apple, lovely lemon, citrus peel, citrus, mint, vanilla, minerality, oak, balanced, smooth, tropical paradise.

Finish: Citrusy, tangerine, lemon, hints of grapefruit, dill, vanilla, cedar, oak, complex, soft, crisp, great.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Pellet Estate Chardonnay Sunchase Vineyard



Frey Biodynamic Chardonnay 2019
(Mendocino)  $20

This wine was made biodynamically from organic grapes, with fermentation in stainless steel tanks without the use of GMO yeast or additional sulfites.

Aroma: Granny Smith apple, apple sauce, pear, rich papaya, apricot, white grape, elderberry, lemon, citrus, cider-like, vanilla, river rocks, minerals.

Palate: Apple, baked apple, white peach, pear, light citrus, elderflower, mint, walnut, creamy vanilla, light wood, light toast, smoke, good acidity, tart, effervescent, soft, bright.

Finish: Apple, pear, stone fruit, orange Creamsicle, creamy, lemon, minty, floral, clean, delicate, tart, tangy.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Frey Biodynamic Chardonnay



Smashberry Chardonnay 2019
(Paso Robles)  $15
BEST VALUE

This wine was made from a blend of Chardonnay (95%) and Viognier (5%) grapes that were fermented in stainless steel tanks.

Aroma: Peach, pear, pineapple slices, tropical fruit, red apple, lemon zest, spun sugar, pastry cream, light cream, lemon-basil, mint, mineral, oak, delicate.

Palate: Pineapple, peach, white peach, red apple, apple skin, tangerine, bergamot lemon, lime, creamy, buttery, vanilla, tannin, buttered oak, woody, velvety, smooth.

Finish: Green apple, gooseberry, tangerine, apple skin, rich apple blossom, green grass, touch of oregano, vanilla, creamy, oak, smoke, flint dry, tart, refreshing.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Smashberry Chardonnay



Sun & Rain Organic Chardonnay 2019
(Mendocino)  $15
BEST VALUE

This wine was made from organic grapes, with fermentation in stainless steel tanks without the use of GMO yeast or additional sulfites.

Aroma: Red Delicious apple, green apple, citrus, honey, vanilla, maple, toffee, buttered popcorn, almond, walnut, hazelnut, toast, oak, rich earth, wood.

Palate: Pear, apple, mandarin orange, grapefruit, lemon, lemon pith, citrus, honey, buttery, buttery crust, vanilla, mint, green olives, mineral, lightly effervescent, delicate.

Finish: Papaya, guava, floral, vanilla, cream, buttery, oaky, smoke, balanced throughout, soft, smooth, creamy, silky.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Sun & Rain Organic Chardonnay



Lorenzi Estate Chardonnay 2018 Dijon Clone 76
(Temecula Valley)  $60

Chardonnay grapes for this wine were hand-harvested and sorted with fermentation in French oak using native yeast which was followed by 26 months of aging, also in French oak, and bottling without fining or filtering.

Aroma: Apricot, ripe banana, orange, citrus, honey, lemon cookies, brown butter, vanilla bean, vanilla, gardenia, toast, hay, barnyard, dry oak, rich.

Palate: Pear, orange, tart rind, coconut, ginger, lemon curd, honey, vanilla cream, vanilla, birthday cake, brown butter, sawdust, fortified oak chips oak, balanced, soft, crisp.

Finish: Apple, apple skin, lemon cake, honey, vanilla, oak, woody, good smoke, heavy malo, well balanced, classic, elegant, great.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Lorenzi Estate Chardonnay Dijon Clone 76



Keller Estate Oro de Plata Chardonnay 2019
(Petaluma Gap, Sonoma County)  $35

This wine was made by fermenting the grapes in stainless steel and then aging the wine in neutral oak.

Aroma: Pear, pineapple, cantaloupe, melon, banana, lemon, tropical fruits, coconut, vanilla, honey, praline, butter, spring blossoms, cocoa, toasted oak, rich, Burgundian.

Palate: Pear, peach, ripe mango, kiwi, watermelon, pineapple, lemon, fresh lemon juice, lime, citrus, mint, woody, smoky, structured, has body.

Finish: Tart pineapple, pineapple cake, melon, lemon, lime, citrus peel, peppery, well balanced, sweet/tart, fresh, crisp, zesty, smooth, delicate.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Keller Estate Oro de Plata Chardonnay



SILVER MEDAL WINNERS

Jordan Chardonnay 2018
(Russian River Valley, Sonoma County)  $32

For this wine, Chardonnay grapes harvested between mid-September and mid-October from an estate vineyard were fermented in new French oak barrels (54%) or stainless steel, and aged in new French oak for 5 ½ months prior to bottling.

Aroma: Sweet crisp apple, pear, lychee, melon, lemon, citrus, baked pineapple, butter, vanilla, mineral, earthy, lemon tree, oak, pickled oak, woody.

Palate: Red apple, ripe apple, pineapple, gooseberry, caperberry, grapefruit, lemon, lemon meringue, Sour Patch Kids candy, ginger, butter, oak, tang of tropical fruit, nice tartness, pleasant, elegant.

Finish: Green apple, lime, lemon peel, tart citrus, wet stone, well balanced, creamy, soft, supple.


Silver Medal
Silver medal



Jordan Chardonnay



McManis Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2019
(River Junction AVA)  $12

This wine was made from 100% estate Chardonnay that was cold-fermented in stainless steel and aged for 4-6 months in French oak before bottling.

Aroma: White peach, apricot, mango, banana, pineapple, lime, orange peel, blossom, vanilla, vanilla cream pie, walnut, ginger, dill, wet rocks, earthy, apple trees, oak, acidic, creamy, soft.

Palate: Delicate peach, mango slices, papaya, pineapple, lychee, kiwi, Meyer lemon, citrus fruits, coconut, butter, vanilla, pastry, toast, breakfast, peach blossom, floral, flint, barnyard, cigar, smoky, rich tannins, slight oak, light tang, tart, rich.

Finish: Subtle pear, papaya, pineapple, banana, subtle pear, lemon verbena, bright citrus, honey, creamy, vanilla, Bisquick, yeast, saline, oak, slightly woody, tart, tangy, stays lively.


Silver Medal
Silver medal



McManis Family Vineyards Chardonnay



Ballard Lane Chardonnay 2018
(Santa Ynez Valley, Central Coast)  $12

This wine was made from 100% Chardonnay grapes that were fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in French oak (25% new) for 6-8 months before bottling.

Aroma: Golden apple, ripe pear, ripe pineapple, lemon, lemon juice, bright ginger, buttery, creamy, vanilla, toast, rye toast, hay, bright.

Palate: Green pear, watermelon, lightly lemony, vanilla cream, buttery, creamy, balanced oak, stony, flinty, mineral, balanced acidity, malo, piquant.

Finish: Bosc pear, green apple, stone fruit, lemon, citrus, ginger, spring florals, edible flowers, oaky, stone, minerality, tart, slightly acidic, balanced, bright.


Silver Medal
Silver medal



Ballard Lane Chardonnay



Fetzer Chardonnay 2019
(Mendocino)  $15

To make this wine, Chardonnay grapes were fermented primarily in stainless steel tanks with a portion fermented in a combination of French and American oak.

Aroma: Apple, sour apple, pear, nectarine, lemon, lemon peel, hints of pineapple, banana cream, buttery, vanilla, chamomile, rose, dill, steel, flint, salty sea breezes musty, light oak.

Palate: Peach, apricot, mango, pineapple, lychee, green apple, citrusy lemon, nectarine skin, apple pie, vanilla, vanilla ice cream, butter, bread dough, waxy, stone, sawed wood, balanced oak, balanced acidity, tart, rich.

Finish: Lemon verbena, lingering citrus, pineapple, apple butter, vanilla, chamomile, oak, flint, high acidity, well balanced, nice balance, rich, creamy.


Silver Medal
Silver medal



Fetzer Chardonnay



BRONZE MEDAL WINNERS

Frey Organic Chardonnay 2019
(Various California)  $14

This wine was made from organic grapes, with fermentation in stainless steel tanks without the use of GMO yeast or additional sulfites.

Aroma: Anjou pear, apple, apricot, orchard fruit, orange, lemon, fresh citrus, duck sauce, honeysuckle, flowers, butter, grassy, wet rocks.

Palate: Lovely grapefruit, pear, apple, sour apple, lemon, citrus, dried fruit, Juicy Fruit gum, potpourri, nicely floral, grass, bitter dandelion, green olives, slight oak, flint, stony, creamy, refreshing.

Finish: Pineapple, banana, Juicy Fruit gum, lingering floral notes, minty, light almond, slight tobacco, mineral, acidity, tart, very crisp.


Bronze Medal
Bronze medal



Frey Organic Chardonnay



Pacific Redwood Organic Chardonnay 2019
(Various California)  $12

This wine was made from certified organic grapes with fermentation in stainless steel tanks using organic yeast and no addition of sufites.

Aroma: Green apple, pear, stone fruits, banana, lemon peel, citrus, honeysuckle, brioche, butter cookies, white cake, creamy, crème brulée, butterscotch, almond, subtle oak.

Palate: Honeydew melon, pear compote, bright guava, fig, lemon, vanilla cream, butterscotch, hazelnut, walnut, clove, wood, mineral, stainless steel, light effervescence, crisp.

Finish: Lingering citrus, apple, bread dough, toast, jalapeño, saline, stone-like, minerality, smoke, oak, well balanced.


Bronze Medal
Bronze medal



Pacific Redwood Organic Chardonnay



Butternut Chardonnay 2018
(Various California)  $15

This wine was made from Chardonnay grapes grown in a number of California regions including Napa, Sonoma and Monterey, that were cool fermented and then aged in French oak for 7 months before bottling.

Aroma: Apricot, papaya, lemon, citrus, confectioners’ sugar, butter, vanilla, cream soda, hazelnut, nuttiness, pepper, jalapeño, saddle leather, light wood, minerals.

Palate: Vanilla, creamy, nougat, butterscotch, coconut praline, hazelnut, nutty, lemony, lemon rind, grass, green pepper, earth, smoky, wet stone, mineral, tart, lean.

Finish: Vanilla, creamy coconut, toasted walnut, hazelnut, soft ginger, smoke, saline, mineral, tart, smooth.


Bronze Medal
Bronze medal



Butternut Chardonnay



Kwaya Organic Chardonnay 2019
(Various California)  $16

This wine was made from organic grapes, with fermentation in stainless steel tanks without the use of GMO yeast or additional sulfites.

Aroma: Cara Cara orange, orange rind, orange marmalade, peach, white plum, guava, raspberry, lemony, tutti-frutti, Juicy Fruit gum, vanilla, cream, butterscotch, baked tart, éclair shells, hibiscus tea, jasmine, oak.

Palate: Ripe pineapple, white peach, white plum, sweet berries, cantaloupe, Valencia orange peel, orangeade, lemon, lemon zest, honeysuckle, lovely jasmine, floral, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, whipped cream, oak, acidic.

Finish: Apple, grapefruit, lemon, orange oil, rich pudding, floral, peppermint, slight effervescence, frizzante, sparkling, bright, lush.


Bronze Medal
Bronze medal



Kwaya Organic Chardonnay



Keller Estate Precioso Chardonnay 2018
(Petaluma Gap, Sonoma County)  $75

To make this wine, grapes harvested at night were gently pressed and racked to French oak barrels where they went though primary and secondary (malo-lactic) fermentation, following which the wine was aged in French oak (48% new).

Aroma: Pear, dill, grass, coriander, bread, brioche, toast, vanilla, buttery oak, cedar, malo.

Palate: Pear, jackfruit, mango, banana, fig, watermelon, lemon, Meyer lemon, lemon curd, citrus, citrus blossom, crème brulée, light butter, oak, woody, smoke, barnyard, wet earth.

Finish: Caramel, nougat, candy apple, pie crust, light butter, grapefruit, clove, cardamom, smoky, woods, oaky, nice balance, tart, rich, old school chardonnay.


Bronze Medal
Bronze medal



Keller Estate Precioso Chardonnay

 

 


 

The Evolving Styles of California Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the top-selling wine in the U.S., and the 5th most widely planted grape variety in the world. But back in the early 1950s, James Zellerbach, a paper magnate and American ambassador to Italy, produced a Chardonnay at his Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma Valley that had been aged in small French oak barrels. Connoisseurs understood the importance of a wine that was made in the traditional Burgundian method, but Hanzell’s Chardonnay was appreciated by only a select few. Chardonnay plantings in California grew throughout the 1960s, with 18 times more acreage in 1972 than in 1959. However, most wine drinkers still preferred their misleadingly labeled “Chablis” and “Sauternes.”

All that changed after the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay took First Place in a blind tasting that included both American and French wines, and was widely hailed in the media. Chardonnay became a superstar. Virtually every winemaker in California wanted to make one. So in went Chardonnay vines, often replacing less the popular varieties. French oak barrels arrived into American ports by the boatload, ordered by winemakers who felt that if new French oak was good enough for white Burgundy, it was good enough for them.

In wine, balance is everything, and eventually a style for chardonnay evolved that seems natural and unforced. To oak or not to oak? In the end, it’s all a matter of taste. Consumers decide for themselves which style of Chardonnay they like: unoaked, heavily oaked or something in between. And that’s the beauty of California: no rules, few regulations, a wide range of terroirs and vintners willing to explore the possibilities while keeping a close eye on the market.

What to look for in California Chardonnays? Richness, depth and a refreshing sense of acidity. An emphasis on orchard and tropical fruits, with tart citrus, creamy and mineral flavors. Chardonnay is an easy wine for food pairings because of its wide variety of styles, textures, levels of sweetness and natural acidity. All types of seafood, chicken, veal, pork are good pairings with Chardonnay. It's also perfect with a wide variety of hard, soft and creamy cheeses.

 

 

 

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