Sonoma Chardonnay: A Baker’s Dozen

The best Sonoma Chardonnays mingle sunshine with freshness to produce wines ripe for pouring and pairing.

Sonoma Chardonnays

Spring is nearly upon us, so I’ve been tasting Chardonnay in earnest. Well, and in California, too.

Below are thirteen Chardonnays from Sonoma appellations—Russian River Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley, and just plain Sonoma County. These are varietal wines, 100 percent Chardonnay, but they’re blended in some sense, too, a distillation of warm California sunshine with cooler breezes from the state’s undulating, marine-influenced terroir. They’re sometimes opulent, sometimes steely, and a little bit herbal-salty, but the thread that binds them is acidity (and expert winemaking). They ask you to pour them with food.

Sonoma Chardonnay is for people who think they don’t like California Chardonnay. Enjoy.

2012 Paul Hobbs Winery Chardonnay Russian River Valley
14.2% abv | $47 (sample)
Whole-cluster pressed, barrel-fermented with ambient yeast, aged 11 months in 46 percent new French oak, biweekly bâtonnage, full malolactic, unfined and unfiltered.

Aromas of lime and salty Bay laurel lead to a palate ripe with melon and lemon-scented cream. The body is rich and ripe with a suggestion of brown butter and nut, but the wine lifts open at the end with the freshness of a spring day.

2012 Paul Hobbs Winery Chardonnay “Richard Dinner Vineyard” Sonoma Mountains
14.1% abv | $75 (sample)
Whole-cluster pressed, barrel-fermented with ambient yeast, aged 11 months in 60 percent new French oak, biweekly bâtonnage, unfined and unfiltered. 

The Dinner Vineyard vines are Wente Clone, very low yielding, planted in 1994 in gravel with volcanic tuft. They produce a dense but focused wine with a succulent, satiny texture. Notes of citrus and ginger cream mingle with laurel and lemon, and there’s a gorgeous flame of acidity at the finish. The wine was fabulous with day boat scallops with parsnip purée, celery root salad, and green apple sabayon, marrying happily with the dish’s sweet, briny, earthy tang.

2013 Crossbarn by Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Sonoma Coast
14.1% abv | $25 (sample)
Whole-cluster pressed, fermented in tank and neutral oak with native and selected yeasts, full malolactic, unfined.

Paul Hobbs’s second label pays tribute to a barn on his family’s 150-year-old farm in upstate New York. This Chardonnay is lightly floral, with a fragrance of pale spring flowers and daffodil. The body is ripe with green citrus, green tea, melon, and stony minerality. It’s light-hearted and lovely.

2012 Three Sticks Chardonnay “Durell Vineyard” Sonoma Valley
14.8% abv | $50 (sample)
Barrel-aged in 53 percent new French oak, full malolactic.

Grown in two blocks in Durell Vineyard: Old Wente 1, which is cold and low-yielding; and Rocky Flat, with deeply fissured rock planted to Dijon 76. Aromas of buttered nut, honeydew, and preserved lemons lead to a body redolent of laurel and citrus. The wine is creamy with a slight nutmeg character, but what dominates is its silky acidity and a refreshingly snappy, almost-bitter finish.

2012 Three Sticks Chardonnay “Origin, Durell Vineyard” Sonoma Valley
14.6% abv | $48 (sample)
Fermented in concrete egg, aged 14 months in stainless steel barrels; malolactic was suppressed. 

This Chardonnay derives from two blocks of the Durell Vineyard: Old Wente 5, with a northwest aspect for abundant afternoon sunshine; and V9, which is windy, with rocky soil that absorbs the day’s heat and radiates it throughout the evening for slow, even ripening. This wine—like its fruit—strikes a brilliant balance between concentration and mineral finesse. Silky and opulent on the palate, it offers luscious pineapple and yellow apple skin, balanced by countervailing freshness and minerality and a lilting Bay laurel finish. Seamless, beautifully articulated, and sunshine-glorious.

2012 Three Sticks Chardonnay “One Sky” Sonoma Mountain
14.8% abv | $50 (sample)
Aged in 50 percent new French oak for 14 months, full malolactic. 

One Sky Vineyard is planted to the Old Wente clone at elevations from 900 to 1,100 feet, and its iron-rich volcanic soils top strata of calcareous rock. It produces a voluptuous and satiny wine with a scent of buttered nuts, nutmeg, and lemon cream. Touches of salted pineapple and citrus ornament the palate, which finishes with a breath of laurel and something like sea air. Still, this is a big wine, powerful and concentrated. Pace yourself.

2013 J Vineyards and Winery Chardonnay Russian River Valley
14.3% abv | $28 (sample)
Aged nine months in 22 percent new French oak, sur-lie aged, full malolactic. 

The fruit derives from the estate River Road and Bow Tie vineyards. Pineapple, Meyer lemon, and a whiff of laurel keynote the aromatics. The body is creamy and ample and suggests lemon custard topped with ripe apricots with a sprinkling of nutmeg. Spritely acidity and the faintest hint of cypress balance the wine’s creaminess and weight. The finish is like yellow silk.

2011 Martinelli Chardonnay “Three Sisters Vineyard, Sea Ridge Meadow” Sonoma Coast
13.7% abv | $63 (sample)
Barrel-fermented with ambient yeast, aged in 65 percent new French oak for 10 months. 

Three Sisters is a 10-acre vineyard that sits above the fog line just inland from Fort Ross. It was planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the mid 1990s by sisters Carolyn, Charlotte, and Donna Martinelli. The land was formerly sheep pasture, and this heritage is reflected in the names of the vineyard’s two blocks, “Meadow” and “Lambing Barn Ridge.”  The wine from here is clear pale gold with green highlights. Its perfume of creamy lemon and salted green melon leads to a clean and bracing palate with pronounced wet rock minerality. It’s a lean, taut, nervy wine, great for cuisine.

2011 Martinelli Chardonnay “Bella Vigna” Sonoma County
14.4% abv | $40 (sample)
Barrel-fermented with ambient yeast, aged in 55 percent new French oak for 10 months. 

This is a silky, mouth-filling Chardonnay that reads first as cream, then as minerals and wet stone. There’s a finishing crack of sour melon and salted nut. It paired beautifully with salmon in a shallot beurre blanc.

2013 Patz & Hall Chardonnay “Dutton Ranch” Russian River Valley
14.2% abv | $44 (sample)
Whole-cluster pressed, fermented with ambient yeast, aged in 38 percent new French oak, full malolactic. 

A big, smiling, buttery Chardonnay, with lily of the valley and paperwhite aromatics top-noting pineapple cooked in caramel. It has good acidity and a finishing mineral snap, but overall this is a huge wine, abundant with tropical fruits and roasted hazelnuts steeped in brown butter and lemon. It is bit de trop and landed here by a whisker, but it’s admirably crafted and will please those who prefer a more opulent Chardonnay.

2013 Patz & Hall Chardonnay Sonoma Coast
14.2% abv | $38 (sample)
Fermented with ambient yeast, sur-lie aged in 35 percent new French oak, full malolactic.

The fruit derives from a mélange of great vineyards: Gap’s Crown, Parmalee Hill, Sun Chase, Dutton Ranch, and Durrell. Pineapple, Crenshaw melon, warm yellow apple skin, and slight caramel characterize the wine’s aromatics. The body is gingery, with round yellow fruits, lemongrass, hazelnut, and savory sage. It’s medium-bodied with a lovely texture, striking a nice balance between acid, fruit, nut, and oak.

2013 Inman Family Wines Chardonnay Russian River Valley
12.2% abv | $35 (sample)
Whole-cluster pressed, fermented with ambient yeast, full malolactic with regular bâtonnage. 

Snappy and fresh, this wine suggests both preserved lemons and fresh-squeezed citrus. Creamy and rounded but still very clean and bracing, lacking any distracting buttery notes. The texture is lean and chiseled, almost crystalline. It’s a wine of great purity and precision.

2012 Inman Family Wines Chardonnay Russian River Valley
11.5% abv | $35 (sample)
Whole-cluster pressed, fermented with ambient yeast, aged partly in new French oak and partly in small stainless barrels, full malolactic.

The Brix at harvest was 20.9 degrees, bringing the alcohol in at a Burgundian level. The result is an exceptionally pure and elegant Chardonnay redolent of lemons, apple skin, and crushed hazelnuts. The wine’s crackly acidity and chiseled finish snap the palate to attention, while the quiet finish drifts into wet stone and savoriness. I admire the wine’s brilliance and crystal clarity, plus its low alcohol. California Chardonnay: take note.

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