Napa and Sonoma, Santa Cruz and Monterey, and Santa Barbara are all regions within California known for exceptional Chardonnay production. While the terroir of each region varies, the proximity to the Pacific Ocean and emphasis on cooling influences to create acidity and balance is consistent. That said, several distinct styles of Chardonnay are produced throughout the state.
Because Chardonnay is a fairly neutral grape on its own, it is particularly adept at showing flavors caused by different winemaking techniques -- it soaks up oak notes of vanilla and spice and adapts well to malolactic fermentation (MLF), the process that creates buttery dairy flavors in wine. Some Chardonnays are aged with extended lees contact, which creates biscuity, dough-like aromas and flavors, and a creamy texture.
Chardonnay is also sensitive to climate -- in warmer regions where the grapes can get very ripe, it displays tropical notes such as mango and pineapple. Moderate climates bring forth juicy stone fruit (i.e. peach) and melon flavors, and cooler areas produce Chardonnay with green fruit (green apple) and citrus notes.
Styles of California Chardonnay range from the ‘old-school’ deep golden ripe, oaky, buttery, full-bodied wine to the more modern ‘naked’ style, which is often much paler in color and aged in stainless steel with little to no added flavors from MLF -- and everything in between.
The 12 wines highlighted below (casually arranged from north to south) show the span of Chardonnay styles produced in different regions of California; these wines range from value-priced to super-premium but all are of high quality, consistently scoring well with both consumers and critics.
The Best Chardonnay To Buy Now
- Peter Michael Point Rouge Chardonnay. The back vintages available show how ageable well-crafted Chardonnay can truly be, as it develops flavors of dried fruits, nuts, and mushrooms. This wine repeatedly receives 100-point scores from multiple sources and is worth seeking out, despite the $300 price tag.
- Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay. This wine is a glimpse of history in a glass -- Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay won the infamous Judgement of Paris in 1976, an event that helped put California wines on the map. Today, the wine continues to see acclaim. Using grapes from throughout the Napa Valley, the wine does see oak, but MLF is blocked, creating a refreshing, balanced wine with an abundance of fruit flavor. For $58 (the 2018 vintage), experience classic Napa Chardonnay with a modern touch.
- Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay. It would only make sense to follow up Chateau Montelena with Grgich Hills; Mike Grgich was the winemaker at Montelena in the 1970s who crafted the winning Chardonnay. With that success, he went on to establish his own brand, and it remains consistently well received. The 2018 vintage is estate-grown in Napa Valley and retails for $38.
- Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres Chardonnay. The Sonoma Coast AVA is a sub-AVA of the larger Sonoma region, and the strong Pacific influences set it apart. This comes through in some of the more inhibited fruit in this wine; it also displays a light mineral note. The 2017 vintage retails for $45.
- Kistler Cuvée Cathleen Kistler Vineyard Chardonnay. This wine comes from a specific block within Kistler’s estate vineyard in the Sonoma Mountains. The altitude of the mountains, along with the cool Pacific ocean breezes that channel through them, helps the wine retain acidity while the grapes get fully ripe. The result is a classic yet complex wine that can withstand cellar aging. The 2017 vintage is available for around $300 -- one of the priciest on the list, but an exceptional wine for a special occasion.
- Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay. The final Sonoma wine on the list, this wine is from the Russian River Valley sub-AVA -- a region globally recognized for quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Kosta Browne produces award-winning wines year after year, and this is one of the most consistently highest-rated wines on this list. The 2019 vintage is $85 -- certainly higher than some Chardonnays, but worth seeking out for the quality and varietal expression found in this bottle.
- Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay. Wente is a brand easily found at the local shop, but few realize the important part the winery played in the establishment of Chardonnay in California. The winery is based in Livermore Valley, part of the greater San Francisco Bay AVA. In the early 1900s, the Wente family imported Chardonnay vines from France and planted them; over time the plantings grew and propagated -- and now about 80% of all Chardonnay vines in California can be traced back to Wente. Grapes for this particular wine hail from Arroyo Seco in Monterey, where cool coastal influences help keep the wine balanced. Ripe tropical fruit and baking spices are hallmarks of this value-priced staple (the 2019 vintage is available for less than $20).
- Talley Rosemary's Vineyard Chardonnay. Talley is a boutique, family-owned winery focusing on sustainable farming and winemaking in the Central Coast. More restrained use of new oak (28%) allows the fruit to shine. The acidity here is abundant and will allow the wine to age in the bottle for many years to come. The highly-rated 2018 is around $55.
- DAOU Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay. More widely known for its up-and-coming red wines, Paso Robles may seem too warm for quality white wine production. However, a carefully selected site such as DAOU’s Willow Creek District (where the grapes in this wine are grown), which sits at about 1000ft elevation, can produce some stunners. The ripeness comes through here while a deft hand with new French oak adds additional layers of flavor. The 2019 vintage is currently $39.99.
- Sandhi Central Coast Chardonnay. Sandhi is a partnership between Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman, two California industry giants. All of their projects focus on Burgundian grapes, and that expertise comes through on the approachably-priced Sandhi wines (the 2019 vintage of this wine runs around $24). Additionally, the partners only source grapes farmed sustainably without chemicals, making this price point particularly attractive.
- Tyler Winery Sanford and Benedict Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grapes used for this wine are from vines that are over 50 years old, creating great concentration and depth of flavor. Furthermore, the site is very susceptible to coastal influences; the resulting wine has great acidity and saline and mineral notes alongside the fresh fruit and biscuit characteristics. The wine currently retails for $69.99 for the 2017 vintage.
- Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. A grocery store staple, this wine consistently scores in the 90s with numerous critics. At around $14 a bottle, it is also an affordable crowd-pleaser, and the consumer always knows exactly what to expect from each bottle. The ‘California’ labeling indicates that grapes from across the state went into this bottling, rather than from a specific appellation (such as Napa or Sonoma). This kind of blending allows the winemaker to use grapes at various ripeness and acidity levels to create an overall more complex wine.
So how do you find the best California Chardonnay to buy? That depends on the type of Chardonnay drinker you are.
California Chardonnay is a bit like American Politics: extreme in its bipartisanship, “ripe and heavily oaked” on one end and “crisp and unoaked” on the other, and while the wines at either end of the spectrum get the most attention often it makes more sense to be somewhere in-between.
With Chardonnay, it is important to know your preferences but also to embrace the myriad styles it produces, as well as to know how to navigate and understand the huge price differences between brands.
Some Of The Best California Chardonnay From Past Years
Here are some of our prior selections for the California Chardonnay. The best quality chards have great aging potential. If you are lucky enough to find some of these recommended bottles, check to see what the recommend aging dates are. If they are still getting better, buy some!
Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2015
While many people think of Sonoma for Chardonnay and Napa for Cabernet, Napa does, in fact, produce outstanding Chardonnay—including one of the best in the state from John Kongsgaard. A 5th generation Napan, John studied under famed French winemaker Michel Rolland. This old-world influence makes its way into this still decidedly California Chardonnay. Creamy and rich, John Kongsgaard was among the first to produce an unfiltered Chardonnay in California. The result is opulence, texture, and balance—more crème fraiche than butter.
Peter Michael Cuvée Indigène Chardonnay 2015
In 1982 Sir Peter Michael purchased land in Knight’s Valley, CA, and from there hired a succession of some of the best winemakers in the business; starting with Helen Turley to make their first wine, a Chardonnay, and a year later to introduce the Cuvée Indigène. While nowadays all the Peter Michael wines are fermented using native yeast, back when they began this Cuvée was unique in that regard. Today it remains a barrel selection of some of the best Chardonnay produced at the winery.
Ramey Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2014
No discussion of best California Chardonnay to buy would be complete unless you included David Ramey: highly respected—and highly opinionated—winemaker in California. While old-world sensibilities are seen in these wines, they are still unmistakably Californian; Ramey Chardonnays always have a richness in texture, coming partly from full malolactic fermentation and bottling without filtration, and a power on the nose that does not hide the succulent butterscotch aromas. The Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay balances this with a flinty minerality that adds a glorious complexity.
Winc The Independent Chardonnay 2017
This bright, unoaked Chardonnay comes from one of our go-to wineries. The folks at WINC partnered with natural winemaker Chris Condos to produce a cool climate Chard. You will enjoy the mix of refreshing acidity and the luxurious mouthfeel imparted by the malolactic fermentation. This wine features the aromas of peach and wet stone. On the palate, expect peach, pear, and honey along with some minerality.
The wine is produced with organic grapes from Erica's Vineyard in the Carneros district of Sonoma. This area is known for its moderate temperatures that produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. This is an excellent California Chardonnay to buy now.
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Peay Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2016
A small, family-owned winery focusing on the terroir of the Sonoma Coast, Peay specializes in uber-cool-climate Chardonnay. A combination of Old Wente and Dijon clones, all of their Chardonnays have a vibrant, acid-driven character that sets them apart from the buttery style many are used to. The wines are oaked but the oak is well-integrated; the result is a complex California Chardonnay that does not lack in texture but still maintains an elegance on the palate.
Lioco Estero Chardonnay, Russian River, 2016
Lioco were once known for making a fully unoaked chardonnay; now their philosophy is to judiciously include only neutral oak fermentation in their bottlings. The vineyards are all dry-farmed, adding a richness that comes from the grapes themselves. Still, the wine is a mineral-driven and lightly aromatic style Chardonnay. Another great California Chardonnay to buy for any occasion.
Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2015
Further south from Napa and Sonoma, the Sta. Rita Hills have a unique climate lending to the funneling of cool air off of the Pacific Ocean—making the region perfect for Chardonnay production. One of the most lauded wineries in the area, Brewer-Clifton makes a restrained style Chardonnay—malolactic fermentation, which creates the buttery feel in many chardonnays, occurs only naturally, ensuring a bright and well-balanced style.
La Follette Boudreaux Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2016
La Follette works with vignerons, exploring single-vineyard terroir primarily with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This example comes from a late-ripening cool-climate site surrounded by sheep pastures and olive trees. The vineyard is planted with a rare Montrachet clone and produces an exotic California Chardonnay worth buying: aromas of kaffir lime and fig mingle with a clean minerality.