The Golden Age for Liquid Gold: Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

IMG_1332.jpg

Over the course of the last year, I’ve tasted an amazing array of Chardonnays that are produced in California and Oregon. In hindsight, I’d have to say that it’s really quite spectacular when you consider the qualitative leap that has occurred in the production of domestic (USA!) Chardonnay.

Earlier in the year, I had the chance to visit the historic Hanzell Winery in Sonoma. This property is an icon when it comes to producing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. With so much history under their belt, I wasn’t surprised at the excellence they are producing.

On a recent two-day jaunt through Santa Barbara wine country the team and I visited several producers who we believe are among the most exciting in Southern California. Our tastings confirmed that the wines from these producers are in fact drop-dead gorgeous.

Most of us remember the buttery, over-oaked Chardonnays of the 90s. But that style has fallen out of vogue to such a degree that I rarely come across them anymore. An entirely new generation of winemakers have redefined the style.

Thanks to movements like “In Pursuit of Balance” the pendulum swung mightily to the other side of the spectrum, favoring high-acid, cool-climate Chardonnay’s that rarely underwent malolactic fermentation, and saw little or no new oak. But the “pursuit” might have gone a little too far. A few of those vintages left me wondering, “where’s the fruit?”

But the pendulum continues to correct and now we’re seeing a wave of amazingly delicious Chardonnays that capture all that lovely apple-and-pear flavors, with a light hint of oak as a spice, all supported by a spine of lively acidity.

Our trip began with a visit to Liquid Farm. This is one of the most exciting projects dedicated to the production of high-quality Chardonnay. Owner Jeff Nelson, along with winemaker James Sparks, create wines built to a style. They range from the elegant 2017 “White Hill” Chardonnay ($39.99) to the luscious 2016 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay ($44.99) to their simply magnificent 2015 “Bien Bien” Chardonnay ($54.99). All three represent a completely different approach to Chardonnay. Each wine is as unique as its inspiration. What once was a fledgling upstart is now one of the icons of the area.

We also had the chance to spend an afternoon with the team at Bien Nacido Vineyards. Though the Bien Nacido vineyard is generally considered one of the grand crus of the Central Coast, it’s only been over the last several years they’ve finally started bottling their own wine from their best parcels. Their 2017 Bien Nacido “W Block” Chardonnay as well as their 2017 “Solomon Hills” Chardonnay can stand up against the best of the best. Our entire team was stunned with the complexity and quality of these wines.  

The next day we had the pleasure of sitting down with Dick Doré, founder of Foxen Vineyards and Winery, and his daughter Kaitlin Hite. Together we sampled extensively though the Foxen wine list. Their history goes back to 1985 so it would come as no surprise just how impressive the wines are. The 2016 Bien Nacido “UU Block” ($29.99) is as polished and perfumed as they come. I think it represents amazing quality and value.

Finally, we finished our tour with a visit to Tyler Winery in Lompoc. Many consider Justin “Tyler” Willet to be one of the most exciting and dynamic winemakers in southern California.  The wines favor delicacy and balance, where structure and nuance are favored above all else. As they put it, “they try to be modern in their thinking and classic in their approach.” The 2017 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($29.99) is a thing of beauty. Sourced from several important vineyards, it only sees about 10% new French oak. The 2016 “La Rinconada” Sta Rita Hills Chardonnay ($59.99) is sourced from a vineyard planted by Richard Sanford in 1997, just west of the famed Sanford & Benedict vineyard. It represents the best of what is happening in California wine.  

As a group, we ruminated over just how impressed we are with the range of styles being made. Figuring the best vineyards sites, the right clones, developing vine age, and finally knowing how to coax the most out of the fruit once it’s in the winery…well, that’s how the magic happens.  

For any doubters, I say that California wine has arrived in a major way. I hope I never again hear a winemaker refer to their wine as Burgundian. It’s a completely unnecessary analogy and actually rather meaningless. As far as I’m concerned, the wines are, in a word, profoundly and proudly “Californian.”

- Kaj Stromer