The changing styles of California Chardonnay

California Chardonnay has swung from lush to skinny and back again in the past two decades, and finally the pendulum has come to rest

Words by Elaine Chukan Brown


Chardonnay’s reputation has morphed repeatedly in recent decades. It’s been as subject to fashion as clothing choices on the high street, swinging between bold and ripe styles in the early 2000s to the lean and racy wines of the past decade. With such swiftly changing style trends, many began to believe the variety couldn’t be taken seriously. But more recently, winemakers have begun to find a happy middle ground, balancing mouthwatering flavour with respect for what the vineyard gives them. This polarity of Chardonnay styles is an evolution that has taken place not only in California but in New Zealand and Australia, and wherever the variety is found in the New World. But its journey has not been smooth.

In California, Chardonnay became white wine royalty in the 1980s; drinkers couldn’t get enough of the state’s bright, ripe fruit flavours. But as its popularity grew, so did its style, with wines by the end of the 1990s and early 2000s becoming not only riper but also richer, almost always with a signature buttery and oak-spice flavour. ‘Bigger flavours were the taste of the day,’ says Andy Smith, viticulturist and wine­maker at DuMOL in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. ‘In the late 1990s and early 2000s, chefs were cooking with lots of pork fat and richness. The wines reflected that.’

As the wines became larger, so did the backlash: the Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) movement formed, and two California vintners, Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr, decided they’d had enough. In 2011, the pair created a counter-movement promoting a different option for California wine. In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) lasted only five years and had just 36 members at its close, but in that short time it gave rise to more controversy and discussion than an event its size seemed to merit. The impact of the annual IPOB programme in California – and its counterpart events all over the world – was greater than the sum of its parts.

We are making lighter wines with aromatic perfume

Originally concentrating on Pinot Noir, IPOB famously showcased wines of restraint, offerings that broke the California stereotype. Then they added Chardonnay to the roster, ultimately influencing the conversation on style for California wines more broadly. Wines from producers all over the state, and across all varieties, began to change. Despite its early focus on Pinot Noir, IPOB arguably had an even stronger influence on Chardonnay. For its critics, the impact of IPOB was an exercise in worry. Has its legacy left us with skinny wines, pulsing with acidity and freshness but lacking in flavour?

For a time, it seemed the naysayers were right. Some of the wines at the group’s annual tasting seemed more intent on preserving acidity than serving up flavour. Even its own co‑founder Parr, a sommelier turned winemaker in Santa Barbara County, admits the limits of restraint. By picking before the grapes were fully ripe, Parr found himself making wines that had mouth-clenching acidity but were thin on flavour. ‘We thought at the time it was correct,’ he says. But without the weight in the wine that comes from riper fruit, the balance of freshness and generosity was out of sync.

Nevertheless, the popularity of IPOB moved the needle. The richest California wines began to shift, never losing their opulence but gaining freshness. At the same time, the IPOB revolutionaries also seemed to find better balance, not only delivering acidity but also rediscovering pleasure, their wines regaining enough size to carry nuance and savour. Parr, for example, learned a valuable lesson in 2015, a season when low yields made it difficult to pick grapes fast enough to stay ahead of their ripening (less fruit on the vine means quicker ripening) and capture the perfect balance of acidity and flavour. The faster the fruit gets ripe, the richer its flavours and the lower its natural freshness and acidity. ‘We picked what we thought was too late, thought it was too ripe, but the wines are perfect,’ says Parr. The experience changed his view of balance, and the style has evolved as a result. ‘It will be interesting to see in 10 to 15 years which [vintages] are most successful,’ says Sashi Moorman, Parr’s partner in Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte.

Chardonnay grapes

But explorations of style are not confined only to the members of IPOB. At White Rock Vineyards in Napa Valley, winemaker Christopher Vandendriessche admits to shifting his winemaking over time. While his parents founded the winery in the mid-1970s, Vandendriessche has been the winemaker since 1999. ‘The 1999 and 2000 vintages were very rich, even heavy. They were harder to drink.’ What the wines were missing was freshness. But Vandendriessche recognises the importance of also respecting the legacy of a place. ‘Because we are a family business, I like to do very, very slow changes over time,’ he says. He gradually made the family’s Chardonnay less lush and opulent, with a deft balance of rich flavour and ample freshness.

The changes at White Rock resemble changes made at other California wineries. ‘We were young guys in the 1990s,’ says DuMOL’s Smith. ‘Many of us started making rich wines. Now, we are making lighter wines with aromatic perfume. Everything is different.’ That shift has not come at the expense of flavor at DuMOL. Instead, it comes with an appreciation of California richness and textural presence, while increasing mouth­watering freshness in the wines. It also means allowing the fruit to shine with less new oak. ‘We’ve pulled back the wines as the farming has improved, too,’ Smith adds. In other words, the choices he’s made in his winemaking – like how ripe to make the wines or how much richness to add by using new oak – have also depended on how he’s farmed the vineyard. ‘You can’t just say, “I am going to pick at lower potential alcohols’ [to make lighter wines].” You have to take a few years getting in tune with the farming, the soil health and the vine balance.’

As the wines became larger, so did the backlash

California Chardonnay has never had a broader range of styles, and it’s reappearing on restaurant wine lists, which have tended not to list more than one Chardonnay. ‘It now seems to be relevant among high-end wine consumers,’ Hirsch says. The idea of ABC has never seemed so irrelevant – and the greatest exponents of the grape never more relevant. Names like Stony Hill, Hanzell, Au Bon Climat and Mount Eden: ‘Through all these trends, those wineries were still making these steely, crunchy, refreshing Chardonnays with flavour,’ Parr says. ‘They deserve huge respect. They’ve been making admirable wines for over 30 years.’ Their endurance through the wild changes of taste and fashion have ensured their place in the winemaking pantheon. They have also helped us remember how to take Chardonnay seriously.