Steve Kistler founded his eponymous, Sonoma winery in 1978 and produced his first vintage in 1979. Although he was not the first Californian to make single vineyard Chardonnays, his carefully crafted wines from meticulously farmed (and seldom irrigated) vineyards fermented in small oak barrels paved the way for today’s caravan of Sonoma Chardonnays. Kistler’s Chardonnays quickly found favor with Robert Parker, who wrote in the Wine Advocate, “If the Kistler Winery could be magically transported to the middle of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, it would quickly gain a reputation as glorious as any producer of Burgundy grand crus.” Kistler’s wines became the most sought-after Chardonnays in America. Even today, when many winemakers have adopted Kistler’s winemaking philosophy, Kistler Chardonnays are highly allocated and mostly sold through a mailing list.
In 2008 Kistler sold his majority stake in the winery to Bill Price, who also owns Three Sticks Winery and the Durell Vineyard, and in 2017 Jason Kesner assumed the role of winemaker at Kistler Vineyards. In 2014, Kistler Vineyards opened its very first tasting facility at its Trenton Roadhouse property.
Kistler Chardonnays are predominantly made from one Chardonnay selection derived from the original Hyde Wente cuttings. In the early 1980s, Larry Hyde provided 11 different Wente selections. After more than a decade of experimentation, Kistler selected the one that worked the best in the sense of having low pH even when sugars are relatively high and having a complex character. Today, Kistler calls itself a single clone winery.
Since 2008, the wines are all made with ambient yeasts and fermented and aged in French oak for up to 18 months before bottling. The wines rest on the fine lees without stirring. Since the musts often have low pH and Kistler wants to have full malo in order to neither fine nor filter the finished wines, malo is via cultured bacteria. Oak aging is done in an average 38% new French oak, down from 45-50% in the past. The same cooperage is used on all the wines, François Freres 3-year aged staves of medium plus toast. The wines are bottled unfiltered and unfined, about 11 months after harvest.
The Chardonnays originally made by Kistler were famous not only for their high quality but also for their well-oaked richness and elegance. Over time, Kistler Vineyards toned down the richness and oak from about 45-50% new barrels to today’s average 38% new. They instead look for elegance, freshness and energy. Our review of the 2018 vintage Kistler wines, made by Jason Kesner, confirm they have accomplished that, although they are still some of the richest Chardonnays made in Sonoma County.
We did this Kistler Chardonnay portfolio review as part of our tastings for the upcoming report on California Chardonnay: Terroir and Winemaking in Sonoma. Since these wines are made using the same techniques, even including the same Chardonnay selection and the same cooperage, the differences between them illustrate how the variety of terroir in Sonoma County is reflected in Chardonnay wines. The wines were tasted blind.
Kistler 2019 Chardonnay Les Noisetiers Sonoma Coast (Russian River Valley) ($70) 93 Medium golden straw. Showing an expressive bouquet of citrus pith and lees-inflected aromas of lemon-tangerine and honeycomb. Fleshy palate of medium plus density of glycerin rich flavors of pear and peach supported by subtle hazelnut/vanilla oak accents. The combination of gras and structure echoes a cru Chassagne Montrachet. A blend of grapes from three vineyard parcels in western Sonoma County–Vine Hill, Dutton Ranch, and Trenton Roadhouse–fermented in barrel and aged on the lees for 11 months in 25% new French oak. 14.3% alc.
Kistler 2019 Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain ($90) 95 The 2019 Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay blend has a stony, mineral, less overtly fruit driven nose with scents of green pear, fresh herbs, and melon with hints of oak spice and butterscotch. There’s good viscosity, a rich backbone, and superb balance followed by a sleek finish of stony lemon. A rich, refined, seamless and complete Sonoma Chardonnay! The grapes mostly come from Kistler’s McCrea Vineyard. 14.6% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Durell Vineyard Sonoma Valley ($90) 95 Platinum gold color. The Durell Vineyard is one of the richest and ripest of the Kistler Chardonnays. A sumptuous and lively bouquet reveals marmalade citrus, hazelnut, with tropical fruit and toasty spice notes. Round, supple and elegant in the mouth with fine density and solid extract. Exceptionally persistent and creamy finish with lingering ripe pear, lemon, and spiced apple notes. More powerful if less balanced than the nearby Stone Flat Vineyard. 14.6% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley (Green Valley) ($90) 95 The Kistler Dutton Ranch reveals smoky minerals with hints of golden delicious, honeyed peach, orange citrus blossom and oak spice on the nose. Sensuous mouth feel with oak-inflected, rich fruit flavors with fine, firm acids and a long, complex, rich finish. 14.8% alc. Sourced from the Shop Block, originally planted in 1967, near the Dutton Ranch offices on Graton Road. About a third of the vines were planted in the late 1990’s.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard Carneros (Napa Valley) ($90) 95 Yellow gold color. Scents of hazelnut, honeysuckle, pear, toasted oak on the nose. Firm and multi-dimensional in the mouth with good freshness and nuances of stone fruit on a beautifully textured palate. Similar flavor profile to the Kistler Hyde, but not quite the same level of refinement. Long, very rich finish. 14.7% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard Carneros (Napa Valley) ($90) 96 Platinum green gold. Hints of lees and hazelnut on the nose. Finely honed, elegant palate with firm acidity and light wood tannins framing lightly honeyed pear with citrus and roasted nut undertones. Long, refined, pure finish with a hint of warmth. Impeccable, Puligny style. 14.6% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Kistler Estate Vineyard Sonoma Valley ($100) 96 Sumptuous oak-inflected nose of honeysuckle, pear, stone fruit, and crème brûlée. Extremely fresh in the mouth with excellent intensity of rich fruit, more Meyer lemon than tropical, complemented by toasty oak. Mouthfilling and creamy with a firm texture and impressively long finish. Showing beautiful refinement, it’s less overtly ripe than Kistler’s Russian River Valley wines. This 14 acre vineyard is the original Kistler planting located on steep hillsides (up to 50%) in a small bowl on the western edge of the Mayacamas at 1800’ elevation. The low yielding vines are 45 years old and dry farmed on St George rootstock. When Kistler was founded in 1979, this was the home of their small winery. It was originally planted to the Martin Ray clone from the Mt Eden Vineyards in Santa Cruz. Two more acres of Chardonnay were added in 1995. 14.7% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Kistler Vineyard Cuvée Cathleen Sonoma Valley ($120) 97 A reticent but highly perfumed and complex nose showing honeysuckle, citron, mixed nuts, and orchard fruit. Very dense, layered, and creamy on a high toned, fresh palate. Almost Chenin-like with rich ripe pear and lemon flavors and fine acidity. Unctuous finish, almost like a dessert wine. This wine is sourced from a special block with soils of broken shale and red volcanic ash within the Kistler Estate Vineyard. 14.8% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Laguna Ridge Vineyard Russian River Valley ($200/magnum) 96 Not overtly fruit driven on the nose, showing sandstone and granular sediments along with subtle notes of yellow apple, cling peach and lemon verbena. Oak inflected with a powerful structure. Harmonious and finely woven with rich, honeyed flavors of ripe peach and nectarine finishing with fine lees-inflected mineral and citrus peel notes. Needs some time. 14.6% alc
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay McCrea Vineyard Athearn Estate Sonoma Mountain ($90) 97 An ethereal, intricate, fragrant bouquet is followed by an expressive, multi-dimensional palate of honeyed pear, hazelnuts, Meyer lemon peel and savory elements. Superb depth and grip that persists on a super long finish. The combination of complexity, depth, and refinement make this possibly the best Chardonnay we’ve tasted from the 2018 vintage. Located at 800’ on the east facing slopes of Sonoma Mountain, McCrea is mostly composed of Sonoma volcanics and limestone, but the Athearn block has a unique line of silica white soil running through it which gives it a more distinctive character. 14.7% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Stone Flat Vineyard Sonoma Valley ($90) 95 Light yellow-green straw color. Fine bouquet of stony lemon citrus, pear and cooking spice. Very fresh and focused with firm acidity on a medium-full bodied, fruit driven palate with excellent balance and purity and a long spicy finish. The Stone Flat Vineyard is located near the Durell Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley AVA. 14.7% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Trenton Roadhouse Vineyard Russian River Valley (Laguna Ridge) ($90) 95 Medium dark platinum gold. Coaxing aromas of mandarin orange, stone fruit and a hint of tropical fruit that carry over to and are amplified on the palate with the addition of baked apple, citrus peel, and cooking spice. Nice creamy texture on a very intense and distinctive wine with sophisticated signs of well integrated oak. A south-facing hilltop slope of Goldridge soils located near the corner of Trenton and Mark West Roads, Kistler’s new hospitality center, the Trenton Roadhouse, is also located at this site. Give this wine some time in bottle; patience will be rewarded. 14.8% alc.
Kistler 2018 Chardonnay Vine Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley (Laguna Ridge) ($90) 96 Pale lemon-green luminous straw. Focused, light lees accented bouquet of pear, peach, citrus-hazelnut and cooking spice. Bright fruit on a silky/creamy palate with a rich mid-palate texture and lemony acidity that lends the wine a racier style. Very long, mineral-inflected, near saline finish with fine depth of fruit and balanced oak. From the home vineyard located just north of Graton planted to the Kistler Hyde Wente selection planted on AxR-1 rootstock in 1986. 14.4% alc.