The Last Great California Chardonnays

Wines so lean and elegant they could be Burgundies.

In 1976, a pair of upstart American wines, the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon and the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, beat out some of the biggest names from Bordeaux and Burgundy in a tasting that came to be known as the Judgment of Paris. This glass-shattering moment in wine history is the subject of a new movie called Bottle Shock, which puts the Montelena chardonnay at the center of the story. The film opened to mixed reviews; I haven’t seen it, so I am in no position to moonlight as Gene Shalit. But I am delighted the Montelena is getting a Hollywood close-up, not only because of what the wine achieved in Paris 32 years ago, but because of the style of California chardonnay that it represents. Montelena has always produced a lithe, elegant, very Burgundian chardonnay, which is why it managed to win over (read: fool) the group of French wine eminences who participated in the 1976 showdown. This type of chardonnay fell out of fashion beginning in the 1980s, supplanted by richer, heavier, oakier renditions. But Montelena and a handful of other venerable California wineries defied the trend and have continued making chardonnays that emphasize finesse over power. To my mind, these remain the best American chardonnays around and consistently demonstrate the heights California winemaking can achieve.

Chardonnay, of course, is virtually synonymous with California winemaking. With nearly 100,000 acres planted, it is the state’s most widely cultivated wine grape and currently accounts for one of every four bottles of California wine consumed in the United States. But it wasn’t always thus. A half-century ago, chardonnay was hardly found in California. There was little consumer demand for it, and vintners generally shunned it in favor of more prolific varieties that could better withstand the warm climate. Several estates that were established in the 1940s and ‘50s—Mayacamas, Stony Hill, Mount Eden, Hanzell, Ridge—saw potential in chardonnay and set out to craft premium wines from it. They are considered visionaries now; back then, however, they were seen as cloud chasers, and where they led, few others were inclined to follow. As recently as 1970, there were just more than 3,000 acres of chardonnay in California.

It was during the 1970s that consumer interest in chardonnay began to blossom and the California wine industry started devoting more space to it. In 1972, Jim Barrett, an oenophilic attorney from Southern California, bought Chateau Montelena, which hadn’t produced wine commercially since Prohibition, with the intention of turning out cabernets to rival the best of Bordeaux. Barrett and his winemaker, Mike Grgich, decided to make chardonnay simply as a way of generating some income while they waited for their newly planted cabernet vines to bear sufficient fruit. Their first chardonnay vintage was 1972, which made the victory in Paris of the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay all the more improbable and impressive. But interviewed after the Paris tasting by Time’s George Taber, who covered the event (and three years ago published a very engaging book about it, Judgment of Paris), Barrett said that the success of a California chardonnay came as no surprise to him: “We’ve known for a long time that we could put our white Burgundies against anybody’s in the world and not take a backseat.”

California didn’t actually make white Burgundies, of course—only Burgundy makes white Burgundies (which are composed of chardonnay). But Barrett’s comment spoke to a larger truth: For most of those early chardonnay producers, the goal was to craft wines in the Burgundian mold. One means to that end was to use French oak barrels to age the wines. James Zellerbach, Hanzell’s original owner, was the pioneering figure on this front; he imported small barrels of Limousin oak, purchased from one of the top coopers in Burgundy, for his chardonnays. Employed judiciously, oak aging imparts greater complexity to wines, and although Zellerbach’s neighbors were apparently dubious, the results he achieved were so impressive that the practice quickly caught on. The 1973 Montelena spent eight months maturing in French barrels before being bottled.

Burgundy remained the inspiration even after the Judgment of Paris, and as chardonnay’s toehold in California turned into a foothold, many newer producers, determined to faithfully adhere to the Burgundian playbook, began putting their wines through malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is a process that converts tart malic acid (at this point, it is customary to say, “Think green apple,” so I’ll say it: Think green apple) into softer, more palate-friendly lactic acid. It is a necessary step in Burgundy, where the northerly climate can leave the grapes with too much acidic bite. California, though, has the opposite problem: Because the weather is so warm, the grapes are often short on acidity.

Although some of the first serious chardonnays in California benefited from malolactic fementation, the process became a standard feature of chardonnay production in California in the 1980s, frequently yielding thick, creamy, amorphous wines that also displayed a pronounced buttery note (a byproduct of this secondary fermentation). It didn’t help that a lot of vintners were harvesting overripe fruit that was notably deficient in acidity. At the same time, the use of oak turned increasingly indiscriminate, to the point where the wood tended to overwhelm the wine. Thus the irony: Classic Burgundian methods ended up taking California chardonnay in a distinctly un-Burgundian direction. And this was true across all price points—from discount bottlings to high-end ones. Sweet, fat, and oaky emerged as the signature California style.

It is an undeniably popular one, a point underscored by the fact that the amount of California chardonnay sold annually has quintupled since 1990 and currently stands at nearly 50 million cases per year. But none of them are in my cellar. I find the wines clumsy and cloying; even the most skillfully executed ones taste like melted popsicles to me. They are exhausting to drink and pretty much impossible to pair with food (they are often described as cocktail wines, and that’s precisely what they are—except I wouldn’t want to drink them for cocktails, either). Nor am I a solitary refusenik; there are lots of grape nuts who now live by the acronym ABC (as in, Anything But Chardonnay). It is periodically suggested that consumers and vintners alike are growing weary of butterball chardonnays. Some undoubtedly are, but I don’t see any indication that these confections are yet going the way of bell bottoms.

Fortunately, the Hanzells, the Stony Hills, the Montelenas and a few others never went over to the tutti-frutti side. They kept the oak influence in check, and with the exceptions of Ridge and Mount Eden, both of which produce chardonnays from cool, high-altitude vineyards that provide plenty of natural acidity, they eschewed malolactic fermentation. (Hanzell does a partial one; around 30 percent of the final blend undergoes the process.) In the half-century or so since most of them laid down roots, these producers have gone from being avant-garde to old guard, but they still make what I and many others think are California’s finest chardonnays—graceful, refreshing wines that offer a strong sense of place but also, paradoxically, evince a real Burgundian sensibility. Better yet, most of them are very affordable for the quality they offer. Now that one of their number has reached the big screen, demand and prices may well spike (indeed, Bottle Shock has evidently triggered a run on the 2006 Montelena chardonnay). But if they do, it will only mean that the judgment of the market has finally caught up with the Judgment of Paris. 

Even the most Cali-phobic wine buffs will be impressed by these chardonnays. The 2006 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay ($42) does its 1973 forebear proud. Marked by lime, pear, honeysuckle, and mineral scents, it is a crisp, zesty wine, but one that also packs the same subtle underlying richness that one finds in top-flight white Burgundies. Note: Adding irony to cinematography, the Barretts recently agreed to sell Montelena to the owner of Château Cos d’Estournel, a Bordeaux second growth. The 2006 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Chardonnay ($70) is sensational, too. (It will be released in September 2009; the 2004 Monte Bello chardonnay is the currently available vintage.) Tangerine, honeysuckle, and mineral aromas burst out of the glass, along with Meursault-like notes of oatmeal and roasted nuts. (Meursault is one of the leading white Burgundy appellations.)

The 2005 Mount Eden Estate chardonnay ($48) serves up a big whiff of pineapple, along with flowers, lanolin, minerals, and a lick of vanilla. It is a rich, dense chardonnay that is unmistakably Californian, but there is plenty of acidity to balance out the fruit and keep the wine from sprouting love handles. The terrific 2006 Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay ($35) displays a real cool-climate character, with pronounced green apple, tart peach, and lemon notes and a steely acid-and-mineral backbone. The 2005 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay ($65) is another winner. It is a little reticent at first, but aeration brings out an excellent bouquet punctuated by honey, pear, and citrus aromas. The Hanzell shows lots of ripe fruit and has a rich, creamy texture, but there is also an admirable restraint and sense of proportion to the wine. The 2006 Stony Hill Vineyard Chardonnay ($36) has an attractive bouquet redolent of green apples, honeysuckle, and—catnip for me—marzipan. Here, too, exuberant fruit is parried by bright acidity, making for a thoroughly enjoyable chardonnay.