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A return to roots for Californian Chardonnay

Mention California and Chardonnay in the same sentence, and many wine lovers will run a mile. Yet there is a leaner, more restrained rendering of the grape that originated in Napa and never went away. And, says Jim Clarke, it’s making a comeback…

Words by Jim Clarke

Photography by Alexander Rubin

Mayacamas California Chardonnay
The Collection

Over the past three decades, wine drinkers have come to expect Napa – and California more broadly – to offer up rich, opulent Chardonnays. Pioneered by the likes of John Kongsgaard and taken mainstream by the likes of Rombauer, it is a style so clichéd that it has inspired protest movements. ABC, or ‘Anything but Chardonnay’, was a wine purist’s battle cry long before Paul Giamatti cursed out Merlot in Sideways.

But this cloying, buttery rendering is not the only Chardonnay choice; indeed, it wasn’t even the first choice. Napa Valley’s first plantings of the now ubiquitous variety date from the 1940s, when Fred McCrea and Jack Taylor planted the grape at their respective properties, Stony Hill and Mayacamas. Stony Hill was the first new winery in Napa after Prohibition, and it was dedicated solely to white wine. According to McCrea’s granddaughter Sarah, it would have been solely Chardonnay if the wine faculty at UC Davis hadn’t encouraged McCrea to hedge his bets by planting Riesling and Gewurztraminer as well.

Sarah says her grandparents loved white Burgundy, but at the time there was little information available about Burgundian winemaking, so they followed what were then more or less standard Napa practices. That meant relatively early picking, fermentation in old oak barrels, no malolactic fermentation, and no lees stirring. This approach yielded a wine that was austere in its youth but had incredible aging potential – the very opposite of the image of Napa Chardonnay today.

Californian Chardonnay: Winemaker Jaimee Motley with Stony Hill Vineyard wines
Jaimee Motley, winemaker at Stony Hill, says the wines have always had 'this elegance, this restraint. You could call it a leaner style'

Fred McCrea’s winemaking approach at Stony Hill continued virtually unchanged in the hands of Michael Chelini, winemaker at the property for more than 40 years, from 1977. The style endured for decades – against the prevailing fashions of the 1990s – before attracting the attention of suitors. The family sold Stony Hill to Long Meadow Ranch in 2019, but it quickly passed into the hands of agriculture mogul Gaylon Lawrence Jr, whose Lawrence Wine Estates had entered the California wine scene in a big way by purchasing Heitz Cellars in 2018. He then targeted other classic names in the area, including Burgess, Brendel and, at the end of 2020, Stony Hill (at the time of going to press, in November 2022, Lawrence had signed a deal to acquire Bordeaux second growth Château Lascombes).

‘You have to understand that, as far as the Napa Valley is concerned, you’re capable of making pretty well-balanced wines everywhere,’ says Carlton McCoy Jr, managing partner of Lawrence Wine Estates. ‘To make a Chardonnay that’s extremely oaky and high alcohol is nothing to do with terroir. It’s a choice.’

ABC, or ‘Anything but Chardonnay’, was a wine purist’s battle cry long before Paul Giamatti cursed out Merlot in Sideways

While McCrea’s winemaking approach derived from common Napa practices of the 1940s, McCoy has reached outside of Napa by bringing in Jaimee Motley as winemaker. ‘Jaimee didn’t come with a preconceived notion of the recipe winemaking that exists all over the Napa Valley, and that’s why I hired her,’ says McCoy. Motley had been working with less common grape varieties such as Mondeuse and Chenin Blanc in distant areas like Calaveras County and Carmel Valley, but she developed her interest in wine while working at Bay Area restaurants such as wine geeks’ favourite (and Burgundian-leaning) RN74, where she had the opportunity to taste lots of older California wines; Stony Hill was an early favourite.

stony hill winemakers
Carlton McCoy brought in Jaimee Motley as winemaker at Stony Hill specifically because she 'didn’t come with a preconceived notion of the recipe winemaking that exists all over Napa'

‘Stony Hill wines as a whole have this elegance, this restraint,’ says Motley. ‘You could call it a leaner style. It really resonates with the wines I like to drink, the vineyards I like to work with, and the wines I like to make – so it was a natural fit for me.’ The fact that Lawrence Wine Estates was developing a track record for treating historical properties with both passion and respect made the decision easier as well. Nonetheless, change is afoot. ‘There is overlap, and I honour and respect what they’ve done in many ways, but I’m not following any previous recipe,’ Motley says. ‘It’s more that spirit and the longevity in the bottle. We’re taking the wines into an even leaner, more restrained spectrum.’ In the cellar, that means larger barrels – in particular, 500-litre barrels from the Austrian cooperage Stockinger, and a lot more concrete vessels as well, to lessen the oak influence.

‘I’d put our wines up against any great wine in the world. They’re classically structured, and most importantly, the wines can age,’ says McCoy, who argues that wines priced like classic European wines should age like them, too.

Mayacamas vineyard in Napa County is a Californian Chardonnay pioneer
Mayacamas Vineyards are one of Napa's Chardonnay pioneers. Today, their winemakers are seeking to emulate the style of their predecessors

A similar approach has been implemented by the Schottenstein family, the new owners at historic winery Mayacamas. The previous owner, Bob Travers, who purchased Mayacamas from the Taylor family in 1968, was a protégé of Joe Heitz, and Heitz had learned his winemaking skills from none other than Fred McCrea at Stony Hill. The property enjoyed a long period of unchanging stewardship before Jay Schottenstein and Charles Banks bought it in 2013. (Banks was subsequently convicted for fraud, and Jay Schottenstein bought him out.)

Like Motley, winemaker Braiden Albrecht has been looking at the previous owner’s approach. ‘In the cellar itself, we’ve tried to keep the core of the winemaking in place. Our concrete fermenters are basically in-ground tanks, and we use a lot of old vessels and large-format wood. But we needed to outfit those with glycol for better temperature control and improve some of the systems. A lot of it was taking what was here, making small improvements and giving them the maintenance that was needed. We’ve tweaked things a bit, but we’re still trying to make the wines in the exact same style that Bob was.’

Braiden Albrecht winemaker at Mayacamas Vineyards California
Braiden Albrecht, winemaker at Mayacamas Vineyards says, 'We've tweaked things a bit, but we're still trying to make the wines in the exact same style that Bob Travers was in the 1970s'

Albrecht says their experience and history is attracting the attention of younger winemakers. ‘Colleagues want to see what they can take back and incorporate into their own programmes in some way. People will ask us for advice – “How do you clean and maintain old casks?” and that sort of thing – which wasn’t happening 10 years ago.’ Older, larger casks like those at Mayacamas have only a small flavour impact on the wine; their effect is more textural. Without small new-oak barrels and malolactic fermentation, many of the stereotypes of California Chardonnay – weight, butteriness, vanilla aromas – drop away, and the wines get back to the unadorned contribution of the Chardonnay grapes themselves. And increasingly, it seems this is what today’s winemakers are looking for.

Over the past three decades, wine drinkers have come to expect Napa – and California more broadly – to offer up rich, opulent Chardonnays

Chardonnay lends itself to being a balanced wine in and of itself,’ says Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines, ‘because you have acidity and richness together. There’s enough flesh to balance the acidity, and acidity to balance the flesh.’ Allowing that balance to shine in this unembellished form places Napa Chardonnay back into the fold of classical winemaking. A fan of Mayacamas and Stony Hill, Matthiasson is inspired by that broader tradition. ‘If you look at classic wineries of the world, for white wines you’ll see certain similarities,’ Matthiasson says. ‘And one of those similarities is that there’s a refreshing amount of acidity and a moderate alcohol level.

Steve Matthiasson Napa Valley winemaker
Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines says, 'Just because there are so many examples of richer wines, it doesn't mean that's what our terroir dictates'

Despite McCoy’s assertion that balanced Chardonnays can be made anywhere in Napa, some places lend themselves to it more than others. At White Rock, ‘the bottom of our little valley gets fog in the summer and collects cold air,’ winemaker Christopher Vandendriessche says. ‘That bottom third of the property is really only suited to white wine.’ And while most of that is in a focused style, he does indulge in a small amount of more stereotypically plump Chardonnay. ‘About 50% of the people who visit the winery prefer the crisp style, and 50% the richer style,’ adding that the crisp version often proves a pleasant surprise for some who had written off Chardonnay in the past.

Sitting pretty: Matthiasson 2021 Napa Valley Chardonnay Linda Vista

Albrecht agrees that wine drinkers are recognising that Napa isn’t as easily pigeonholed as they once imagined. ‘There seems to be a shift towards embracing the diversity of the valley,’ he says, a change he attributes to a higher level of education and the ease with which wine drinkers can find information about Napa’s different producers, AVAs and wines. For Matthiasson, it’s vital for consumers to understand the range Napa has to offer. ‘It’s so important for people to understand that, just because we have so many well-known examples of richer wines from here, it doesn’t mean that’s what our terroir dictates.