Modern California Chardonnay is some of the best in the world. It’s fresh, balanced, often elegant and nothing like the too-ripe, oaky, buttery wines of the past. But the best single vineyard Chardonnays can be expensive (>$50), and the inexpensive (<$15) supermarket blends are often tutti-frutti and dilute. Is there anything in-between? Fortunately, we discovered several while doing the tastings for our report on California Chardonnay: Terroir and Winemaking in Sonoma. Tasting notes on the 20 best values in Sonoma Chardonnay are given below.
Single vineyard Chardonnays are expensive because they’re made from low yielding and high-in-demand, special vineyards. They’re not cheap, but they are inexpensive relative to White Burgundies. However, several top Northern California wineries make vineyard blends that are nearly as good as the single vineyard wines but at much lower prices. We’ve listed our favorites from Sonoma County below. These are wines priced between $12 and $40 per bottle; most have suggested retail prices around $30, which means they can be purchased at the local wine store for less.
Amici 2019 Olema Chardonnay Sonoma County ($15) 90 Lightly aromatic of very fresh citrus and orchard fruit. A nicely balanced wine with lemony acidity and notes of pear and and quince and hints of baking spice. The mouth feel is unusually sensual and creamy for a wine of this price. Finishes clean with light spicy notes. 13.8% alc.
Banshee 2019 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($23) 91 A well made vineyard blend, the Banshee Chardonnay is more oak-influenced that most wines in this price range. It begins with buttery almond notes and continues with a creamy, balanced palate with a toasty tropical edge. A well-made and very flavorful wine. Sourced from diverse vineyards in western Sonoma County; fermented in stainless steel and oak and then matured in about 50% new French oak. 14.3% alc. Foley Family Wines took a majority stake in Banshee in 2008.
Davis Bynum 2018 Chardonnay River West Vineyard Russian River Valley (Middle Reach) ($25) 93 Showing a very fresh and lightly toasted nose, this is an unbelievably good value in single vineyard Sonoma Chardonnay. It offers a crisp attack of orchard fruit, lemon citrus, and beeswax, nicely balanced and integrated with a firm, flavorful finish and a lingering sense of minerality. Clones 15, 17, 76 and 809 harvested at 24.2 Brix on Sept 6-21 from the River West Vineyard on Westside Road in the northern end of Russian River Valley; fermented with ambient yeast and full malo and matured 14 months with monthly battonage in 23% new French and Hungarian oak. TA 6.4 g/L, pH 3.19, 14.5% alc. 13,115 cs
Dutton Goldfield 2019 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($39) 93 The Dutton Ranch Chardonnay, a blend of several old vine vineyards, reveals a precise tropical/citrus bouquet accented by light toasty oak. The firm, silky palate shows excellent depth of rich fruit–ripe lemon, creamy cherimoya, barely ripe mango–with accents of hazelnuts and honeycomb, finishing bright and focused thanks to fine, balancing acidity. Sourced from old vine, old clone vineyards in Green Valley, separately vinified and barrel fermented using both ambient and inoculated yeast with full malo and aged 10 months in 40% new French oak (Seguin Moreau and Fouquet) with twice monthly lees stirring. The blend is made in early spring with continued oak aging until bottling at the end of summer. The 2019 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay benefited from a long cool growing season with picking not beginning until Sept 21 and ending about Oct 15.
Failla 2019 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($34) 91 Light yellow straw. Showing ripe citrus, yellow apple, and wet stones on the nose, this Sonoma Coast blend offers a medium weight, firm palate of restrained but ripe fruit with light savory notes and a hint of honeyed oak. The grapes come 60% from Olivet Ranch and the remainder from single vineyard bottlings in Sonoma County. Fermented in 10% new French oak, 25% foudre, 5% amphora, 10% stainless steel, and 25% neutral puncheon (5% skin fermented); 25% aged in concrete egg. At 13%, one of the lowest alcohol Sonoma Chardonnays in our extensive tasting. 2500 cs.
Ferrari-Carano 2018 Tré Terre Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($32) 91 Crisply aromatic with herbal and mineral notes complemented by ripe pear notes. Clean on the attack with very good balance and light orchard fruit flavors. Finishes with good focus and lingering mineral notes. Excellent wine for the price. TA 6.1 g/L, pH 3.4, 14.1% alc. Each lot for this wine is hand harvested, whole-cluster pressed, then barrel fermented with native and cultured yeast. The wine completes 89% malolactic fermentation and is sur lee aged and stirred weekly for 5 months. The final blend was assembled in June 2018, and the wine is aged again in neutral oak until bottling, for a total of almost 15 months of barrel aging. All vineyard lots are treated separately until blending.
Fort Ross Vineyards 2019 Sea Slopes Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($30) 91 Chablis-like in its stony, citrus character, Sea Slopes is an excellent Chardonnay for the price. It offers dusty minerals with hints of citrus and fresh apple on the nose and a well-balanced, full palate with racy, lemony acidity and a stony, dry finish. Sourced from West Sonoma Coast vineyards; hand sorted, gently pressed, and fermented with full malo; aged 4 months in stainless steel and 5% new French oak. 13.5% alc.
Gary Farrell 2018 Chardonnay Russian River Selection Russian River Valley ($35) 92 Lively bouquet of lemon oil with nuances of just-picked orchard fruit. Clean and fresh on the attack with a refined richness on the palate. There’s good concentration and length with nice lemony acidity and a lingering stone-like minerality. A blend of fruit from several Russian River vineyards, including some of the most highly regarded (e.g., Rochioli, which contributes ripe tropical fruit), co-fermented and aged 8 months in 30% new French oak. 13.3% alc. An excellent example of a Russian River blend.
La Follette 2018 Chardonnay Sangiacomo Green Acres Vineyard Carneros (Sonoma) ($38) 92 Pretty and effusive bouquet of ripe apple, vanilla bean, and nectarine. Dry with firm acidity and medium plus density. A richly flavored wine with an herbal accent and a richly extracted, long finish. Very good value for the price. Sourced from the Old Wente block and Block 94 (Catarina Field Selection) planted in 1994 on Zamora alluvial clay loam at 30′ elevation. 13.9% alc
Matanzas Creek 2019 Chardonnay Sonoma County ($30) 92 This Sonoma County blend of mostly Alexander and Bennett Valley grapes is relatively reserved aromatically, showing lemon-like citrus with a honeysuckle accent. The palate is broad and balanced with light stone fruit complemented by earthy/savory notes, finishing dry and crisp with good length. An outstanding value in premium Sonoma Chardonnay. Sourced predominantly from the Alexander Valley and Bennett Valleys, fermented in new and used oak barrels (a small percentage was fermented in stainless steel) with native yeast followed by malo and elevage on the lees in barrel. 13.7% alc.
Montagne Russe 2018 Chardonnay Farina Vineyard Sonoma Mountain ($35) 91 Restrained aromas of baking spice and ripe citrus. Nice silky mouth feel with reticent tropical fruit and touches of lemon and a saline edge. Firm acidity and a long aftertaste. Made from the Wente clone planted at the 600′ high Farina Vineyard matured in 25% new French oak for 15 months. 14.1% alc. 75 cs
Neyers 2018 Chardonnay Carneros (Sonoma) ($30) 92 This is a very good wine and one of the best values in Carneros Chardonnay. It’s fresh and crisp on the nose with hints of apple, citrus and a floral note. It’s soft on entry and offers a layered, medium weight, nicely balanced palate of citrus, cling peach, and hints of toasted oak. A blend of fruit from Carneros vineyards, including Sangiacomo’s Home Vineyard. 14.1% alc
Obsidian 2019 Poseidon Estate Chardonnay Carneros Napa Valley ($34) 90 A clean, uncomplicated wine showing fresh orchard fruit aromas and flavors complemented by well-integrated, subtle hints of oak. Delicious, easy drinking. UCD 4 whole cluster pressed in small batches and then fermented part in tank and part in large format Kadar Hungarian oak. Only the barrel fermented portion when through malo. Matured 16 months in 20% new Kadar barrels of a mix of toast levels. 14.2% alc, pH 3.8, TA 5.2 g/L Alex Beloz is the winemaker.
Pellegrini 2019 Skin Fermented Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($35) 91 Showing riper notes of fresh and dried stone fruit with spicy herbal notes. Very soft on the attack and plush on the palate, again with some herbal and mineral notes. Skin fermentation reduces the acidity but adds skin flavors; shows some resemblance to the skin fermented whites of Italy’s Collio region. Dry farmed, Old Wente from the Bazzano Vineyard located north of River Rd near Fulton; harvested Sept 24 and destemmed directly to T-bins where fermentation on the skins commenced immediately with 3 punchdowns per day initially; after 14 days racked to barrel for full malo and maturation in 31% new French oak for 18 months. TA 5.75 g/L, pH 3.76, 13.6 % alc.
Red Car 2018 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast (West Sonoma Coast) ($35) 91 Light yellow straw. Subtly aromatic of citrus and orchard fruit with light herbal accents. The palate is precise and stony with good concentration; while fresh pear and essence of citrus show, this isn’t a fruity Chardonnay. Lovely dense finish with lingering mineral-accented pear notes. A blend of Old Wente selection from Zephyr Farms (80%), Red Car Estate (13%), and Morhardt Ridge (7%) with an average Brix of 22.9; matured in 13% new French oak for 10 months. pH 3.33, TA 6.8 g/L, 13.8% alc. 730 cs.
Rodney Strong 2018 Chalk Hill Chardonnay Chalk Hill AVA ($22) 92 Medium gold. This is an amazing Sonoma Chardonnay for the price. There’s plenty of fresh, ripe yellow stone fruit with hints of lemon curd and honeysuckle. It has the requisite creamy texture and good acidity and freshness. And the finish has a pleasant grip to it. Sourced from the winery’s estate vineyards of volcanic ash soils and fermented (22% with ambient yeast), 97% malo and aged 11 months in 20% new French oak. TA 6.5 g/L, pH 3.27, alc 13.5%.
Rombauer 2019 Chardonnay Carneros (Napa Valley) ($38) 92 Medium yellow straw. This is a well-oaked, showy wine with quite ripe flavors, a popularly styled California Chardonnay. Aromas of hazelnut and brioche accented by citrus show on the nose. The more restrained palate is complex, creamy, ripe and richly flavored with a full mid-palate and a light oak influence. Grapes come from estate, Sangiacomo and other vineyards in Carneros. Harvesting took place from Sept 9-Oct 16 at an average 23.7° Brix. Whole cluster pressed, cold settled overnight, fermented and matured 9 months in 1/3 new French and American oak with biweekly battonage and full malo. 14.5% alc.
Sonoma-Cutrer 2019 Russian River Ranches Chardonnay Sonoma Coast (Russian River Valley) ($28) 91 Subtly fragrant with a lemon oil note, the Russian River Ranches Chardonnay is well balanced with fresh acidity. On the palate, it’s clean and focused with a rich, long finish. A well made wine and much better than one would expect at this price. Sourced from old (planted in the 1970s) Russian River Valley vineyards including Les Pierres; fermented in 15% stainless steel and 85% oak with full malo and 100% matured 9 months in 16% new and 19% one-year used oak. TA 5.8 g/L, pH 3.40, 13.8% alc
St. Francis 2019 Chardonnay Sonoma County ($12) 90 A crisp, clean nose evokes wet river stones and citrus zest. The crisp character continues on the palate where this inexpensive Chardonnay shows modest but clean flavors with good balance and freshness. A very nice drinking wine, and great value, too! St. Francis founder Joe Martin planted 22 acres of Chardonnay at St. Francis vineyard in Sonoma Valley in 1971 and opened his winery in 1979; he sold to the Kopf family, owners of Kobrand, in 1988. Today the winery farms 380 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley. Katie Madigan and Chris Louton are the winemakers. St. Francis is part of the Kopf family’s American Vintners Group that includes several prestigious wineries including Maison Louis Jadot.
Stonestreet 2017 Chardonnay Estate Vineyards Alexander Valley ($40) 92 A blend of fruit from Stonestreet’s estate mountain vineyards, this Chardonnay reveals scents of chamomile tea, smoky oak and high toned tropical fruit. The palate is round and softly textured with appealing, firm phenolics and good mid-palate weight. Finishes dry with lingering lemon and tropical notes. Clones Hyde-Wente, UCD 4, and Peter Michael from Mayacamas vineyards blocks at 400-1800′ elevation. Barrel fermented with ambient yeast, full malo with monthly lees stirring and aged 11 months in 33% new French oak. TA 5.1 g/L, pH 3.61, 14.1% alc. 3693 cs