When Chardonnay was planted in the Santa Maria Valley and Monterey County in the 1960s, the vines were primarily aimed at satisfying the demands of the burgeoning Napa Valley scene. But in the decades since, Central Coast winemakers have raised their own white wine game, and that quality-focused mission shows no signs of slowing down.
Given the history and relatively cool climate throughout the Central Coast, Chardonnay continues to lead the pack. That once-classic, “Cali Chard” butterbomb style of yesteryear is hard to find these days. Instead, while there may be welcome hints of roasted nuts, custard and caramel, most Chardonnays ride the acid side of the scale, alive with citrusy freshness. The best ones throw in savory sea salt and chalky textures, giving white Burgundies a run for their money.
But it’s not just Chardonnay. Top-tier Sauvignon Blanc abounds, whether in the decadent Bordeaux or zesty Loire Valley styles. That’s especially true in Santa Barbara County, where Brander, Margerum and Grassini Family wineries are exploring a range of expressions.
Traditional white-Rhône varieties continue to improve as well. Grenache Blanc shows the most promise across the region; Viognier is trending toward restraint rather than ripeness. Meanwhile, the folks at Tablas Creek and Qupé are making Roussanne and Marsanne sing.
Throw in a handful of awesome Gewürztraminers and Rieslings, and there’s never been a better time to bet on white wines from the Central Coast.
Elsewhere in this issue’s Buying Guide, we also review hundreds of wines from Oregon and Washington, as well as selections from around the world, including Australia, Chile, Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and more. And, as always, be sure to check out our complete database, with thousands more reviews.
Kendall-Jackson 2015 Grand Reserve Chardonnay (Monterey-Santa Barbara); $22, 90 points. The Jackson family has mastered making Chardonnay in large quantities at fair price points, and this bottling fits that theme perfectly. Soft white peach, sea salt, brown butter and guava aromas lead into a palate that’s tightly wound with apricot, pan-seared apple and salty smoke flavors. Editors’ Choice.
Treana 2015 Chardonnay (Central Coast); $24, 90 points. Rich with gooey marshmallow, crème brûlée and cotton candy aromas, this is an unabashed classic California Chardonnay from Austin Hope. Unctuous marzipan and sea salt caramel flavors make for a creamy mouthfeel, and yet firm acidity leaves the midpalate feeling clean, allowing butterscotch tones to linger on the finish.
Saint K 2016 Luna Matta Vineyard Grenache Blanc (Paso Robles); $28, 90 points. This bottling offers key lime, golden apple, preserved lemon and honeysuckle touches on the nose, proving quite delicate despite its yellow, oxidative-seeming color in the glass. Buoyant acidity kicks off the palate, which is smooth with candied lemon peel and yellow peach flavors.
Koehler 2016 Grenache Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley); $25, 88 points. Light in color, this is a very aromatic take on the grape, with powerful jasmine, plumeria and guava aromas as well as just-sliced pear flesh. The palate is also ripe with tropical coconut and guava touches, cut with fresh and zesty acidity.
Grassini 2016 Sauvignon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $28, 91 points. Fresh and stony on the nose, this bottling from one of the region’s leading properties shows crisp lime and grapefruit pith aromas. The palate is edged with tart yellow grapefruit yet also offers warmer tones of nectarine-like fruit. Refreshing acidity and chalky grip carry deep into the finish.
Lucas & Lewellen 2016 Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Barbara County); $18, 89 points. Almost crystal clear in the glass, this bottling is loaded with passionfruit, lime candy and white flower aromas, proving quite fresh and inviting. The flavors start a tad sour, recalling squeezed lime, but then open into tropical notes like honeydew and passionfruit. A perfect party-starting apéritif, with both style and substance. Best Buy.
Joyce 2016 Alluvial Fan Riesling (Monterey County); $25, 90 points. This crisp and lightly floral bottling shows Asian pear, yellow apple rind and white rose petal on the nose, revealing hints of petrol and wet stone as it opens. The palate is tight, sharp, and racy, with chalky limestone, lime peel and apple skin flavors.
Waxwing 2016 Tondre Grapefield Riesling (Santa Lucia Highlands); $23, 88 points. This wine’s aromas are slightly reserved at first, recalling yellow pear and chalk. The flavors are also restrained on the zippy palate, with Asian pear and honeysuckle hints. But what it lacks in expressivity it makes up for in crispness and textural grip.