At its best, Chardonnay is sublime and sophisticated, with classical elements of freshness and structure, the fruit, oak and acidity all in balance. In Napa and Sonoma, Chardonnay is having a heyday, with many winemakers devoted to mastering it. These are just a few.
Ryan Prichard, Three Sticks Wines
A Champion of Site Expression
Three Sticks was founded in 2002 by Bill Price, a few years after he purchased the famous Durell Vineyard in Sonoma Valley. Price also owns the Gap’s Crown, Walala, Alana, One Sky and William James Vineyards in Sonoma, all important components of the Three Sticks lineup of Chardonnays.
Winemaker Ryan Prichard was brought on to the Three Sticks team by local legend and Director of Winemaking Bob Cabral; the two had previously worked together at Williams Selyem. Prichard grew up in Northern California and fell in love with wine while at Cornell University, furthering his winemaking studies at the University of California, Davis. He is drawn to the tension and verve of Chardonnay.
“The acidity is so important and sometimes overlooked,” he says. “California has such nice sunshine and the ability to get things ripe, but it’s about finding that balance between texture and the energy provided by the acidity.”
The Chardonnay grapes Prichard gets from across Sonoma County allow him to make very different expressions.
“People talk about it being a winemaker’s wine and that’s true, but to make truly great Chardonnay, you can’t build it—it comes from the vineyard,” says Prichard.
To make Durell Chardonnay, the wine goes through 100% malolactic fermentation and is aged 15 months in French oak, 27% of it new. Prichard also makes Durell Origin, a Chardonnay fermented in concrete amphora and egg that undergoes no malo or oak aging.
Gap’s Crown Chardonnay is a completely different take again. The site, so well known for Pinot Noir, is an overlooked gem for Chardonnay.
“It’s a different version of California Chardonnay, planted to Dijon clones, a cool-climate site, more minerality-focused, steely, slatey and elegant,” says Prichard.
At this vineyard, the grapes are picked at night and then whole-cluster pressed into the tank without sulfur additions, as Prichard feels the biggest enemy for Chardonnay is oxidation. The wine goes from tank to barrel with no yeast additions, allowing native or spontaneous yeast to work its magic instead.
Nicole Marchesi, Far Niente
Focused on Freshness and Texture
Napa Valley’s Far Niente has made Chardonnay without malolactic fermentation since 1979, opting instead to preserve as much natural acidity, texture and potential to age as possible from its grapes.
Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that happens either during or after the wine’s primary fermentation, when the sugar in the grapes is being turned into alcohol. During malolactic fermentation, naturally occurring malic acid is transformed into lactic acid.
“Because Napa can be so warm, acids can drop out really quickly,” says Nicole Marchesi, winemaker at Far Niente. “We do no [malolactic] in order to retain freshness and acidity and so that the wine will age and pair well. For our sites, it’s really important to maintain good freshness.”
The majority of Far Niente’s grapes are grown in Coombsville, a relatively cool region in the southern part of the valley with well-drained gravelly loam and volcanic ash soils. The vines are planted to the Charlemagne clone of Chardonnay, propagated by cuttings brought from Burgundy decades ago.
“Because Napa can be so warm, acids can drop out really quickly. We do no [malolactic] in order to retain freshness and acidity and so that the wine will age and pair well.” —Nicole Marchesi, winemaker at Far Niente
In 2021, Far Niente bought a property in Carneros that previously belonged to Clos du Val, with 60 acres of Chardonnay and Merlot and 133 additional acres of plantable vineyard land. Far Niente plans to plant 73 acres more, mostly to Chardonnay.
“Chardonnay grapes can be hard to find; so many people in the Napa Valley are pulling out whites,” says Marchesi. “We’re committed to making Chardonnay for a long time.”
A graduate of University of California, Davis, Marchesi came to Far Niente as an enologist in 2005 and in 2009 became only its fourth head winemaker since 1979.
“The fun thing about Chardonnay is its versatility and malleability; there are so many points along the decision-making tree from which clones you plant and where you plant and how you define your style,” she says. “The first impact is when you pick and, in the winery, how you get juice out of the grapes.”
Tom Rochioli, J. Rochioli Vineyard and Winery
Continuing Generational Greatness
Joe Rochioli, Jr. was born in 1934 near Fenton Acres, a 125-acre property in the Russian River Valley where his family soon moved. More than anything, he is known for planting Pinot Noir here in 1968, followed soon after by Chardonnay.
His son, Tom Rochioli, began winemaking with Rochioli grapes in 1985.
Today, as owner and winemaker of J. Rochioli Vineyard and Winery, Tom makes a handful of Chardonnays, all from specific blocks of the estate, including a tête de cuvée single-vineyard blend. He whole-cluster presses the grapes directly into barrel and barrel ferments in all French oak with a cultured Burgundian yeast. He coaxes texture out of the wine through low yields and light pressing, and starts malolactic fermentation midferment to better absorb the diacetyl, the component that can contribute buttery notes.
The property is blessed with older vines planted to such heritage clones as Hanzell, Mount Eden, Calera and Old Wente.
“We have flavorful grapes with natural acidity and low pH,” he says. “We get freshness with richness.”
David Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars
Perfecting California Chardonnay
Sonoma County-based David Ramey is a master of many wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. But he has long been especially admired for Chardonnay, earning two 100-point scores from Wine Enthusiast for his 2018 Hyde and Rochioli Chardonnays, among other accolades.
Ramey and wife Carla launched their own winery in 1996. When making Chardonnay, he avoids skin contact and the use of oxidized juice but does employ malolactic fermentation, whole-cluster pressing and aging in barrel sur lie (on the lees). Ramey is also a huge proponent of Diam closures, with aging always top of mind when making Chardonnay.
In 2012, the Rameys secured a vineyard of their own, Westside Farms, a historic site along Westside Road in the Russian River Valley. Working with longtime viticulture consultant Daniel Roberts, Ramey has worked to reduce water use, transition to cane pruning and adopt permanent cover crops. Looking ahead, the Rameys’ two children, Alan and Claire, are both being formally trained in winemaking.
Dan Fishman, Donum Estate
Embracing the Estate Ethos
Though Donum Estate was established in Carneros in 2001, it didn’t have its own estate winery until 2019, a game-changing event that contributed to the increasing quality of its wines.
For a long time, the winery’s lead protagonist has been Pinot Noir. That is about to change with the exceptional Chardonnays being produced from its Carneros estates, vineyards in the Russian River Valley and soon, the hills above the coastal town of Bodega, planted in 2020 and 2021.
“I’m approaching Chardonnay with the same philosophy as Pinot Noir,” says Dan Fishman, vice president of winegrowing and winemaker at Donum Estate. “We’re only doing a new bottling if it’s warranted. Chardonnay is an interesting challenge; it can sometimes be a little more challenging in terms of farming.”
“We’re looking for a leaner style and higher acid, and focus on what we can do to maximize flavor [from each vineyard]. You can’t add that in the winemaking. ” —Dan Fishman, vice president of winegrowing and winemaker at Donum Estate
Fishman and his team are only now getting into some of the new blocks and clones of Chardonnay on their properties. They try to be as hands-off as possible in the vineyard, opting for organic and biodynamic farming practices, and in the cellar.
“We’re looking for a leaner style and higher acid, and focus on what we can do to maximize flavor [from each vineyard],” he says. “You can’t add that in the winemaking.”
Fishman minimizes oxygen exposure and uses native-yeast fermentation. He admits he has to get creative in managing problems as they occur while remaining true to a philosophy of less intervention.
“Chardonnay is harder to understand than red wines in terms of structure and flavor,” he says. “You can have a 12% alcohol Chardonnay that tastes rich and a 15% alcohol Chardonnay that seems linear. To understand it is fascinating, but I haven’t figured it all out.”
Donum released four Chardonnays from the 2019 vintage, including The Heron, which is fermented and aged in concrete amphora and transferred to stainless steel rather than oak barrel. In 2021, a Ferguson Vineyard Chardonnay was added; one from the Bodega Vineyard is expected in 2024.
Graham Weerts, Stonestreet Estate Vineyards and Winery
Crafting Wines of Distinction
Stonestreet was founded by Jess Stonestreet Jackson and Barbara Banke in 1995 to focus on high elevation Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from the Mayacamas Mountain Range above Alexander Valley.
The Alexander Mountain Estate is indeed extreme. Up to 2,800 feet in elevation and stretched across 5,100 acres, it is now run by Jackson and Banke’s son, Christopher, and his wife, Ariel.
“Chardonnay has always been my number one love because of how stimulating it is from a winegrowing perspective,” says Weerts. “There are grapes that talk about themselves and others that talk about soil. Chardonnay talks about soil and that makes it a conduit for understanding terroir.”
After working a harvest at Vérité Winery in Sonoma County, cofounded by Jackson with Pierre Seillan, he became the winemaker at Stonestreet in 2004. Weerts also serves as senior vice president of vineyard operations for Jackson Family Wines.
“There are grapes that talk about themselves and others that talk about soil. Chardonnay talks about soil and that makes it a conduit for understanding terroir.” —Graham Weerts, Stonestreet Estate Vineyards and Winery
Stonestreet’s Chardonnay focus is on several distinct wines, an estate selection made from a range of vineyards situated at 400–1,800 feet in elevation, and six single-vineyard wines all barrel-fermented and -aged that undergo full malolactic fermentation. The wines are 100% native-yeast fermented and spend typically 10 months in French oak, around 50% or less of it new.
The wines seamlessly combine power and elegance, with balanced acidity and weight, and structure that suggests plenty of time for aging.
“One of the things that draws me to Chardonnay is its evolution over time,” says Weerts. “Some of my earliest experiences with Chardonnay were while working with Mike Dobrovic at Mulderbosch. He introduced me to some of the world’s most sublime Chardonnay sites and opened the door to discovering how the wines stood the test of time in the bottle.”
Weerts and the Jacksons have also launched Capensis, a wine brand dedicated to high-quality Chardonnay expressions from the Western Cape of South Africa.
Stéphane Vivier, Vivier Wines
Finding Precision in California Terroir
Born and raised in Burgundy, in 2002, Stéphane Vivier became the winemaker for Hyde de Villaine, a Chardonnay-producing partnership between Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in France and grapegrower Larry Hyde of California.
In 2009, he founded his own brand, Vivier. He began with Pinot Noir and then added Chardonnay to the portfolio with the 2018 vintage. In 2020, he made a Gap’s Crown Chardonnay; in 2021, he made the first from Hyde Vineyards since his Hyde de Villaine days.
Vivier makes wines of place, precision and focus, with the ability to taste great upon release but also age. He looks for vineyards that show minerality, salinity and acidity, with stony, rocky character, finding much of that within the Petaluma Gap appellation, where elevation, cooling winds and rocky soils abound.
“The air conditioning factor of the Petaluma Gap slows ripening, especially the last two weeks before picking,” he says. “You get more complexity and layers; you have more time to sample and make pick decisions. Finding phenolic texture in slow-ripening vineyards is easier.”
Ten More Napa/Sonoma Chardonnay Producers We Love
• Benovia Winery
• Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery
• Hanzell Vineyards
• Lynmar Estate Winery
• Mayacamas Vineyards
• Joseph Phelps Vineyards
• Stony Hill Vineyard
• Williams Selyem
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!