Vintage California | The Best of the Best in California Chardonnay

The Best of the Best in California Chardonnay

When many people think of California wine, they think of California chardonnay, and for good reason. With 90,000 acres planted to chardonnay in California, the grape surpasses every other variety in the state.

Hundreds of winemakers produce chardonnays in Northern California, and they range from highly commercialized grocery store varieties to low-production boutique producers, and, of course, the famous cult chardonnays that wine drinkers dream of getting their hands on. These coveted wines and their legendary winemakers are part of a new wave of California chardonnay.

Chardonnay has gone through a few stylistic iterations since the wine’s popularity picked up speed in the 1970s, thanks to the Judgment of Paris, which pitted California chardonnay against its Burgundian counterparts. In the span of a few decades, California chardonnay has gone from oaky butter bombs, to rich powerhouses, and now to a decidedly more balanced interpretation of this versatile grape.

Among the pack of new wave California chardonnay producers, four winemakers consistently standout: Kistler, Marcassin, Kongsgaard, and Aubert. But, what makes these four California chardonnays so special? How did these winemakers arrive at their techniques?

Let’s dig a little deeper to find out.

Kistler

If you know California chardonnay, you know Kistler chardonnay.

Steve Kistler founded Kistler Vineyards in 1978 with a simple idea, that “compelling wines of site should be made in California”. Kistler Vineyards is famous for using a single clone of chardonnay, described on the Kistler website as a California heritage clone, that has been tweaked and refined over the last thirty years.

To achieve what was at the time an ambitious goal, Kistler planted this single chardonnay clone across 15 vineyards, from Carneros, to the Sonoma Coast, and Russian River Valley. The idea behind this method is that it provides Kistler the opportunity to truly explore single vineyard chardonnays with an expression that is unique to each vineyard’s soil and microclimate.

With this Burgundian-approach to chardonnay, Steve Kistler made Kistler Vineyards into one of California’s first cult wineries. Steve’s elegant style of winemaking, combined with limited availability, made Kistler chardonnay into a true “must have” wine. For many years, Kistler chardonnay was only available at certain restaurants, or to customers who had been loyal to the brand for years.

"Kistler set a standard of quality with its powerful, oaky, voluptuous wines. Using grapes from small lots in prime vineyards in Sonoma and the Carneros, it was among a handful of California wineries that pioneered the use of Burgundian techniques, like fermenting in small oak barrels."

According to New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov
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In the last decade, Kistler’s style of Chardonnay has evolved from the opulent chardonnay of the 1980s and 90s, to become a more restrained, elegant chardonnay that’s aligned with what’s referred to as New Wave California chardonnay: lean, mineral-driven wines balanced with a rich creamy quality.

No matter the style of Kistler chardonnay, it remains one of the most high-sought after chardonnays in California.

Marcassin

Marcassin, which means “young wild boar”, in French, is a small boutique winery in Sonoma County famous for their exceptional, Burgundian-style chardonnays. Marcassin was created by Helen Turley and her husband John Wetlaufer, and is considered the pinnacle of California chardonnay. If the Turley name sounds familiar, that’s because her brother, Larry Turley, created Turley Wine Cellars, another highly respected California winery.

Turley and Wetlaufer gained recognition in the wine world by acting as consultants to more than a few prominent winemakers, before starting Marcassin.

The Marcassin estate is small by design, and covers just 20 acres. From that 20 acres Turley produces only 100 barrels, (2500 cases) annually, making it one of the most coveted Chardonnays in California.

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Wines are aged for five years and undergo no fining, filtering, or cold stabilization. Turley is meticulous when it comes to her winemaking process and philosophy. To achieve a chardonnay of this quality, she believes in cultivating meticulously farmed vineyards, limited yields, long hang times, and natural yeast.

Kongsgaard

John Kongsgaard is a 5th generation Napan, so you could say he knows a thing or two about Northern California wine country. With a family so steeped in Northern California, it seems only natural that John would be drawn to the rich culture of California winemaking.

When it comes to a winemaking education, to say that John has an impressive resume is an understatement. Kongsgaard apprenticed at Stony Hill Vineyard, alongside Fred McCrea, who is famous for intentionally planting the first Chardonnay grapes in Napa Valley.

During his time at Stony Hill, Kongsgaard realized that high quality chardonnay could and should be fermented in barrels, because it was to the wine’s benefit. This is significant because, at the time, many winemakers distrusted the use of wood in the fermenting.

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"The influence of Mondavi’s use of stainless-steel fermentation tanks is impossible to overestimate. It led to the proliferation of such practices throughout California. In Napa Valley it also created a profound shift in perspective. Notable producers from the 1970s and into the 1980s often displayed a sort of paranoia against fermentation in wooden vessels. So fully used to stainless steel, many at the time saw the practice of using wood as unsafe and unclean." Elaine Chukan Brown, Executive Editor US of JancisRobinson.com.

But it wasn’t until John began working at Newton Vineyard that the inspiration and trajectory of his winemaking philosophy would become clear. In fact, it was at Newton, where John started the winery’s unfiltered Chardonnay program, a practice he would later take to his namesake wines.

During his time at Newton, Kongsgaard was sent to France to meet with some of the country’s most esteemed winemakers. And, it was during one of these trips that he learned about extended barrel aging, which would become another hallmark of Kongsgaard chardonnays.

Kongsgaard started his own label in 1996 and has seen success ever since. At the heart of his wine program is a ten acre plot that his family has owned and farmed since the 1920s. This low yield plot produces just a ton of grapes a season, but the quality of these grapes imbues Kongsgaard chardonnays with qualities that have been called both beautiful and powerful.

Aubert

Mark Aubert, owner and winemaker of Aubert Wines, was once described by Food and Wine Magazine as, “the hottest chardonnay producer in California”.

With a years-long wait, the Aubert chardonnay wine allocation list is one of the hardest to get on in all the world of cult wine. And, it’s no wonder, these chardonnays regularly achieve scores in the high 90s from acclaimed wine critic Robert Parker.

Interestingly, Mark’s path to becoming one of the most respected chardonnay producers in California is very intertwined with that of the aforementioned Helen Turley of Marcassin wines. It was Helen Turley who mentored Mark early in his career when she hired him to be her assistant winemaker at Peter Michael.

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As fate would have it, Turley abruptly left Peter Michael and Mark was then put in charge. It was Helen Turley, more than anyone, who inspired Mark’s appreciation for Burgundian winemaking techniques - methods he continues to apply to Aubert wines today.

After years of perfecting his style at other vineyards, in 1999 Mark began making his own wines with what was then a little known vineyard known as The Ritchie Vineyard. It’s worth noting that today Aubert’s Ritchie Vineyard chardonnay remains one of its most popular bottles - and Mark Aubert’s star in the galaxy of favorite California chardonnay producers continues to shine.

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