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 combination of climate, elevation and soil type…produces Chardonnay fruit with high natural acidity.”
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.
Approved as an AVA in December 2017, the Petaluma Gap is centered around the town of Petaluma, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. The appellation also incorporates a portion of neighboring Marin County.
It’s defined by substantial cooling winds that funnel with force through a 15-mile opening (gap) in the coastal mountain range that otherwise shelters much of Sonoma County from the ferocious ocean.
Ana Keller, estate director of Keller Estate, one of the few wineries in the actual gap, likes to say that many regions in Sonoma County have fog, but Petaluma Gap owns the wind.
The AVA is home to about 4,000 acres of grapes, which are dominated by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Long populated more by growers than wineries, its fruit goes to an impressive selection of producers throughout the region, including Black Kite Cellars, Blue Farm Wines, Kosta Browne Winery and Ramey Wine Cellars.
“The weather is very cool, which helps preserve acidity, but I think the soil holds the key.” —Gavin Chanin
“During the growing season, the cold air from the Pacific Ocean rushes in through the Gap around 3 pm every day,” says Rickey Trombetta Stancliff, the owner of Trombetta Family Wines and president of Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance. She fought tirelessly for the area to become an official appellation.
“The winds have been measured at a fairly constant eight miles an hour. What this does is slow the plant down by closing the stomas on the leaves, thus the ripening takes a longer time. The grape skins are thicker and the bunches and berries smaller, resulting in more concentration of flavors and a bit more tannin,” she says.
Gavin Chanin, winemaker for Lutum Wines, sources Chardonnay from Gap’s Crown Vineyard. One of the best-known sites in the appellation, it slopes in elevation from 300 to 800 feet and is famous for its Pinot Noir.
“I am partial to the small amount of Chardonnay planted there,” says Chanin. “The weather is very cool, which helps preserve acidity, but I think the soil holds the key. There is very heavy clay mixed with tons of rock. This is somewhat unique for the sites I work with. I think the mixture of clay and rock gives you richness from the clay and minerality and freshness from the rock deposits.”
Like many cool spots in California, Chanin says that if you wait long enough, it’s possible to make a ripe wine that’s devoid of acid. That means it’s key to harvest before the grapes start to dry out, at an optimal ripeness that would result in 12.5% to 13.5% potential alcohol.
“I never add acid, so all that freshness is natural,” says Chanin. “The wine also [goes] through 100% malolactic fermentation, so again, picking at the perfect time cannot be stressed enough. This is the hardest and most important aspect to get right during harvest.”
Bottles to Try
Black Kite 2015 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $58, 95 points. Beautifully oaky and unctuously voluptuous, this is from a tremendously farmed site in the throes of the Petaluma Gap. Richly layered in tones of butterscotch and brioche, its length and breadth are punctuated by sharp teases of wild fennel and nutmeg.
Blue Farm 2014 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $55, 94 points. Bright and refreshing acidity is the star of this lovely, windswept wine, powerful yet integrated in tannin and oak. The racy, feral notes of anise, apple blossom and nutmeg are complemented by a teasingly voluptuous spirit that never overwhelms.
Pellet Estate 2014 Sunchase Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $68, 94 points. This is another stunner from Pellet Estate, from a high-elevation vineyard influenced by fog and wind. A wet stone note and crisp, lemony acidity suggest freshness, neither detracting from the body or texture.
Lutum 2015 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $50, 93 points. A shy, floral nose subtly emanates from the glass in this lightly built, elegant expression sourced from the spectacular vineyard in the Petaluma Gap. Anise, sea salt and preserved lemon flavors form its foundation; subtle oak and tense acidity provide support.
Trombetta 2015 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $60, 93 points. Richly oaked and voluptuous in aroma, this bold, balanced vineyard-designate shows hints of brioche and toffee, complemented by clouds of sultry Pink Lady apple and pear compote. Its supporting acidity steals the show, never allowing the concentration to speak too loudly.
West Sonoma Coast
The West Sonoma Coast, also referred to as The True Sonoma Coast, is not yet an official appellation. Instead, it’s a grouping of like wines from producers that seek to differentiate their bottlings from the more unwieldy 750-square-mile Sonoma Coast appellation.
The region zeroes in on the far western coastline of Sonoma County. It ranges from near Gualala, just north of Annapolis and close to the Mendocino border, down along Highway One through Fort Ross-Seaview and Jenner, where the Russian River ends. It includes the slightly inland coastal-influenced towns of Occidental and Freestone, and it tends to be lower in elevation than Fort Ross-Seaview.
The bulk of the vineyards sit between five and 12 miles from the ocean, along a band of coastal ridges, mostly above the fog. A cool, dry and long growing season marked by a maritime climate is the norm. It allows grapes to develop intense flavor and retain acidity without having to accumulate high sugars.
“The purity of the fruit lets the nuance of minerality show through, and to get amazing fruit, you have to have certain acids.” —Heidi Bridenhagen
Tension in the wines is a recurrent theme, and they’re often earthy, spicy and well balanced.
That’s long been the case at Seascape Vineyard, a remote site farmed by Hartford Family Winery. Set on a panoramic ridgetop west of Occidental, it faces the Pacific and Bodega Bay. At about 1,000 feet in elevation and quite exposed, it’s near another well-known site, Coastlands Vineyard.
“The weight and viscosity you get, mixed with the level of acidity, is mind-blowing,” says President Don Hartford of the Chardonnay that his winemaker, Jeff Stewart, produces from the site.
Hartford Family Winery also farms the Far Coast Vineyard located just south of Annapolis, a 900- to 1,200-foot-high site about four miles in from the ocean.
That’s close to where Heidi Bridenhagen, winemaker for MacRostie Winery & Vineyards, sources Chardonnay from Goldrock Ridge Vineyard, a remote site purchased by vintner Paul Hobbs in 2016. The plot is a few miles from the ocean within a cool inversion layer, and its Goldridge sandy loam soils are rich with the debris of oysters and seashells.
Bridenhagen describes her style of Chardonnay as having a strong acid backbone with clean, fruit-forward flavors. She wants her Chardonnay to provide nerve, ethereal aromatics and bracing acidity.
“In California, we’re racing the sun,” says Bridenhagen. “We try to find sites where we can use the ocean as a cooling influence. The conditions give us more mineral-driven wines with great acid that doesn’t need to be manipulated. The sugars are low and the acids are high, so you get balanced Chardonnay right off the vine.”
She describes the area’s fruit as tight and crisp, more green melon rind and white peach than juicy apple. There’s a briny quality that lends texture and flavor, which offers complexity and depth.
“The purity of the fruit lets the nuance of minerality show through, and to get amazing fruit aromatics, you have to have certain acids, and you’re never going to get that same complexity from adding it back,” she says.
Bottles to Try
Hartford Court 2015 Seascape Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $70, 95 points. Exposed to the coast, this crisp white is racy with flavors of salty pretzel and apple skin. It offers impressive weight and viscosity interwoven with juicy acidity, allowing it to stay fresh and focused in the glass. Freshly squeezed lemon shows on the nose and palate, with a touch of brine and supportive oak.
Ramey 2015 Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $42, 95 points. This combines grapes from the Martinelli family’s Charles Ranch Vineyard in Fort Ross-Seaview with grapes from Platt Vineyard, a site long sourced by Ramey overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Freestone, the producer’s coolest-climate site. It melds exotic ginger with apple skin, melon rind and bright focused acidity that remains fresh, succulent and lingering. Editors’ Choice.
Joseph Phelps 2016 Freestone Vineyards Estate Grown Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $60, 94 points. Year after year, this wine from a spectacularly cool-climate site impresses and intrigues. A crisp green-apple note is followed by high-toned acidity etched in Meyer lemon and wild lime flavors. The fresh, fruity core is well balanced and melds with a grip of oak on the finish, adding ample body and weight.
Bohème 2014 English Hill Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $45, 92 points. Juicy and generous on the palate, this coastal wine is grown from Wente-clone grapes influenced greatly by their cool, foggy environment, showing a tightness of tension and acidity on the palate. Lemon peel and caramelized oak provide elegance and richness in equal measure.
MacRostie 2015 Goldrock Ridge Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $46, 91 points. This is from an extreme coastal site high above the town of Annapolis, a study in ocean-driven minerality and lift. A small production, it offers lengthy acidity and moderately toasty oak beneath a well of white peach, lemon and briny sea stone.