Among the redwood forests and golden hillsides surrounding vineyards along Sonoma’s coastal range are sites that produce a new style of California Chardonnay, one driven by freshness and acidity. These are wines that may bedevil those who love to hate on California Chardonnay for their often bold and occasionally over-opulent character.
If Cabernet is king, then Chardonnay is queen—and she’s in command in California. In 2017, it remained the state’s most crushed variety, accounting for 14.5% of the total volume of California grapes pressed. And it comes in a broad range of styles, prices and levels of sweetness to appeal to a wide variety of palates.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Instead, the focus is on wines of freshness and precision from distinct coastal locations in Sonoma that allow grapes to both ripen and retain their natural acidity. These coastal areas best express this style, yielding wines with complexities of earthy mineral and brine that are strikingly set against a ripe-fruit backdrop.
Behind this acid-driven movement are growers and winemakers who treat Chardonnay with the same respect given to Pinot Noir grown in these areas for many years. They harvest while sugars are relatively low and acidity is high, and they exhibit a renewed focus on the importance of site.
To those who say no to Chardonnay from the Golden State, prepare to be amazed. These three coastal areas are the ones to seek.
Established in 2012, the 27,500-acre Fort Ross-Seaview appellation was the first successful carving-out of the larger 517,000-acre Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA). It’s a remote, wooded and mountainous region known for extreme farming, low yields and, when Northern California isn’t mired in drought, wet winters.
Above the fog, on a solid elevation line set at 920 feet, and situated north of Jenner, the appellation overlooks the once-Russian outpost of Fort Ross. It’s centered along Meyers Grade Road, which juts off the serpentine curves of Highway One. Vineyards make up a tiny percentage for the total land, around 550 acres.
Elevations can rise to 1,800 feet. That height is key, as it allows grapes sunlight and warmth. There’s wild variability in slope, aspect and soils.
The appellation’s most prominent brands include Flowers Vineyard & Winery,Hirsch Vineyards, Marcassin, Martinelli Winery & Vineyards, Peter Michael Winery and Wayfarer. Many small producers buy grapes from the appellation.
Winemaker Jamie Kutch, of Kutch Wines, sources Chardonnay from George and Nikki Bohan. The fourth-generation Fort Ross-Seaview farmers look after 1,100 acres just three miles from the ocean at 1,400 feet above sea level.
“There’s an opportunity in Chardonnay to provide the consumer with a different flavor expression of the grape, and there’s a great acceptance of the style,” says Kutch. “There’s a sub-niche group searching for acid-driven Chard.”
Kutch produces wines with a focus on acidity, freshness and lean fruit characteristics. One of his sources, Bohan Vineyard, which is dry-farmed, has some of the oldest plantings on the coast, dating back to the early 1970s.
“Bohan is much warmer than people think, being above the fog,” he says. “It’s a ridge in [from the Pacific Ocean] and gets plenty of sun during the growing season. This means I can pick the fruit early when there’s still acidity and get phenolic ripeness, when the berries are very full and healthy.”
Mike Sullivan, co-owner/winemaker of Benovia Winery, makes Three Sisters Chardonnay from a Fort Ross-Seaview site at 1,000 feet. The vineyard gets more hours of sunlight during peak growing season than those in Russian River Valley, where Benovia is based.
“I started working with the Chardonnay from Fort Ross-Seaview back in the late 1990s, and I love Chardonnays from this AVA,” says Sullivan. “The combination of climate, elevation and soil type—there’s lots of shale at Three Sisters—is distinctive in Sonoma County. It produces Chardonnay fruit with high natural acidity, vibrant flavors and thick skins. They age very slowly.”
Bottles to Try
Wayfarer 2014 Wayfarer Vineyard Chardonnay (Fort Ross-Seaview); $80, 98 points. This is yet another stunning wine from this site, guided by the capable hands of Winemaker and Viticulturalist Bibiana González Rave, who has coaxed from it beguiling layers of complex concentration and sublime notions of tang and salt. The only white from a sea of Pinot Noir grown here, it speaks to what the extreme Sonoma Coast can bring to the variety—a celebration of lemon zest, crisp apple and brioche, delicately wrapped in minerality. Editors’ Choice.
Benovia 2015 Three Sisters Chardonnay (Fort Ross-Seaview); $48, 95 points. With a persistence of lightly-toasted oak, this youthful wine offers intense luxury. A gritty, stony texture complements its delicious aspects of lemon rind and anise. Green apple, ocean spray and an underlying streak of dried herb provide additional complexity and length.
Fort Ross 2013 Mother of Pearl Chardonnay (Fort Ross-Seaview); $60, 94 points. Cloudy as dark hay and still evolving, this memorable wine is deliciously toned in lime zest, salty brine and a supporting note of clarified butter. Intense on the palate at first, it relaxes to let its sublime, innate acidity speak as a twist of hazelnut delights on the finish.
Kutch 2016 Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $42, 94 points. This focused wine has a beautiful nose of integrated, pungent oak that presents as caramel apple—a quiet richness that complements its delicate layering of Meyer lemon and salty wet stone. The acidity is both fresh and complex, supportive and subtle.
Flowers 2014 Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $85, 93 points. This medium-weight wine shows a crispness of style and provenance. Caramelized oak is softened and made fruity by the taste of apple skin and pear. Stony mineral is given additional freshness by layers of lemon peel and orange zest, finishing focused and clean.
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