The story of California Chardonnay – part 3


See part 1, part 2 and part 4 of this four-part history of California's most popular grape variety. 

The globalisation of California Chardonnay: the 1980s to the 2000s 

With a few exceptions, by the end of the 1970s much of California Chardonnay was made with some period of skin contact after being run through the crusher, followed by cold fermentation with cultured yeast in temperature-controlled tanks, no malo, and ageing in new oak barrels. The result was a plethora of wines full of flavour upon release, and plenty of impact. But it is worth noting that during this period the wines were not as alcoholic as later California Chardonnays and were more commonly around or below 13%. Even the richest examples were below 13.5%. 

In 1981, Frank Prial wrote an article for The New York Times that would help begin a shake up of California’s newfound Chardonnay style. Without naming any producers beyond generally noting ‘a famous North Coast winery’, and referring to Chardonnays of the region more broadly, Prial described his issue with the wines. His critique seemed exactly counter to the goals of immediate flavour sought by many of the trend-setting producers of the time. As he explains, he brought two wines to dinner, one a California Chardonnay and the other a white burgundy. ‘Both were Chardonnays, from optimum vintages and in the same price range. At first the California wine was impressive and the French wine seemed weak and bland. Twenty minutes into the meal, however, the American wine was clumsy and overpowering while the charm and subtlety of the French wine was only beginning to emerge.’ 

David Ramey told me that Prial’s article had an important impact on California wine and caused producers to begin rethinking their approach to winemaking. The timing was significant. For the first time in recent history, the North Coast of California had a plethora of winemaking jobs available and owners willing to invest in quality and reputation. Thanks to the motivating power of the Judgment of Paris tasting, a wealth of viticulture and oenology graduates were emerging from UC Davis, very fortunately coinciding with unprecedented demand for trained winemakers. By now travel between the United States and Europe had become much more feasible, and the bullish economy meant it was also more affordable. This combination of factors led to an entirely new direction in California wine and many of today’s iconic wineries were founded by these fledgling winemakers at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s. With this new crop of trained winemakers familiar with the idea of research, thanks to their time at UC Davis, technical studies in winemaking, and specifically Chardonnay, began to emerge. At the same time, many of the new winemakers began either traveling to or actually working in European wine regions. Styles in California wine rapidly diversified as never before.

At the end of the 1970s, Ramey (picture above) emerged from Davis and took his first winery job as assistant winemaker to Zelma Long at Simi. In the 1980s, through Simi, Ramey instigated research studies in collaboration with scientists he knew from Davis on the effect of fermentation temperature and skin-contact duration on Chardonnay. These studies were then also presented through at least two international forums. In 1984, Ramey presented the work at the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) conference. The paper was also published more broadly. Later, Ramey presented a series of guided tastings and cellar research to the regular meetings of a group known as Focus on Chardonnay which brings together producers of Chardonnay from all over the world every four years for technical tastings and the results of collaborative cellar studies. The initial studies on temperature and skin contact would become influential in Australian winemaking as well as in California. The meetings with Focus on Chardonnay put Ramey in contact with other international winemakers as well, thus increasing conversations about technique abroad.

By the early 1980s, Ramey’s interest in Chardonnay took him to Burgundy, where he met with producers to learn more about their cellar choices. He cites Meursault and Puligny as primary regional inspirations. Other winemakers were also beginning to travel, learn and gain experience directly in Europe. However, Ramey’s commitment to technical learning, influence through the ASEV and Focus on Chardonnay studies, and focus throughout his career on Chardonnay make his dedication to Burgundy especially notable. After Simi, Ramey went on to lead winemaking at Matanzas Creek. While there he eliminated skin contact for Chardonnay completely. Ramey’s choices here to lighten the cellar influence on Chardonnay paralleled the developments in other North Coast cellars, creating a period in the 1980s of fresher, lighter wines, compared with the phenolic power seen in the 1970s.

Furthering the change in phenolic influence, in 1987 Ramey became the first winemaker in the state to employ whole cluster pressing for making Chardonnay. At the same time, Ramey fully committed himself to oxidising juice in order to reduce bitter phenolics at the juice phase. Over time, Ramey also, importantly, changed his use of oak barrels. By the mid 1980s, some producers were starting to move away from filtering the juice before fermentation. Ramey explains that he also began going to barrel for ageing with lees. Dick Graff was already using the practice at Chalone, but at that stage winemakers throughout the state communicated with each other much less than today. Ramey had learned the technique from his travels in Burgundy, where he credits Laflaive as one of his important influences. By 1988, Ramey moved to Chalk Hill winery, and also brought back another influence from France. He began experimenting with ambient-yeast fermentation and by 1991 had fully committed to it. In the 1980s, very few producers in California were relying on ambient yeast for fermentation. Paul Draper of Ridge has famously relied on it since his beginning there in 1969. However, with little communication between what were then remote outposts of winemaking in California, such information was not readily shared. Since starting Ramey winery, Ramey also relies entirely on spontaneous malolactic conversion. Previously, as a response to the difficulties of ensuring malo, producers tended to induce it with commercial lactic acid bacteria.

In 1996, Ramey started his eponymous winery based entirely on Chardonnay from Hyde vineyard in Carneros. Over the next several years he added additional vineyard-designated Chardonnays, and other varietal wines, and continues to make several different vineyard-designated Chardonnays from iconic sites of the North Coast. In the early 2000s, Ramey took his final winemaking job at Rudd in Napa Valley, before committing solely to Ramey wines. Since his first job at Simi, Ramey has made Chardonnay the central focus of his entire career. In addition to being barrel fermented and aged on lees with native yeast and lactic bacteria, the Ramey Chardonnay is aged 20 months for the single-vineyard wines, and 12 months for the regional wine. The stylistic goals of Ramey Chardonnay include balancing richness and freshness, in order to make a delicious wine that remains classic in style with a focus on elegant ageing.

The freshness and complexity emerging from California wines in the 1980s attracted international interest, with producers from Europe beginning to move towards collaborations or purchases in the North Coast, initiating another small wave of stylistic evolution. One of the earliest of these successful collaborations, Opus One, was instigated by the global-mindedness of Robert Mondavi and announced in 1979, though in that case it was focused entirely on Cabernet-based blends from Napa Valley. Interest in similar joint ventures for Chardonnay would begin to emerge first through sparkling wine with projects such as Roederer’s Anderson Valley estate, and Tattinger’s Domaine Carneros. Mondavi would also inspire another international investment in this period on the part of Italy’s Antinori family. On the slopes of Atlas Peak, they began to develop what would be Chardonnay and Cabernet vineyards for their Antica wines.

At the same time that North Coast winemakers such as Ramey were importing techniques from Burgundy to make their wines, winemaking in the Central Coast was finally beginning to develop its own distinctive character. By the early 1980s, Santa Barbara County was beginning to expand vineyard plantings and develop its own unique winery brands. Importantly, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat (pictured above with Elaine) took his experience of making wine in Burgundy to the vineyards of Santa Maria County. His overall stylistic commitments resemble those, generally speaking, of Ramey with an interest in balancing freshness and richness while using cellar techniques classic to Burgundy with uniquely California fruit. The Chardonnays of Au Bon Climat are also known for needing about five years in bottle before starting to express themselves, and with up to 10 years in bottle they show off the savoury freshness and tension of their Pacific-cooled region.

Clendenen’s influence extends beyond mere stylistic commitments into global awareness and the next generation of winemakers. More than almost any other Central Coast winemaker, Clendenen has done the hard work of marketing Au Bon Climat literally all over the world, and thus opening up international awareness of an otherwise obscure region of California. Wines of Au Bon Climat can just as easily be found in remote parts of Asia as in Europe or the United States. In that way, then, like Mondavi in the North Coast, Clendenen in the Central Coast paved the way for younger producers reaching an international audience. At the same time, Clendenen has consistently mentored younger winemakers, training them in the cellar via internships while also offering them winemaking space in his own winery. Clendenen’s commitment to barrel fermentation and ageing, with an interest in freshness as well as flavour, can therefore be seen in Chardonnays from many of the region's younger wineries today.

Napa Chardonnay evolves

Back up in the North Coast, changes were also afoot. Though making Chardonnay profoundly contrasting in style from that of Ramey, in the same time period John Kongsgaard also emerged from Davis and became influential in his approach to Chardonnay. Prior to attending Davis, Kongsgaard’s first job was working at Stony Hill in 1975. At the time he made wine alongside Fred McCrea, Mike Chelini, and Ric Forman (another important figure of Napa Valley Chardonnay). It was at Stony Hill that Kongsgaard realised he wanted to make wine, and formed his early understanding of Chardonnay.  As Kongsgaard explains, one of his important lessons from the experience was that it was not only possible, but also safe, and beneficial, to ferment Chardonnay in barrel. Though much of Napa Valley was relying on stainless-steel tanks, Stony Hill had never changed their reliance on wood.

Soon after, Kongsgaard began planting his first vineyard on his parents’ property on the far western side of Coombsville. His choice to plant Chardonnay in the site he now calls The Judge (in honour of his father, who was a Napa Valley judge) came at the suggestion of the family’s neighbour, André Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff had retired from Beaulieu Vineyard in 1973. Though the winery was best known for its premium Cabernet Sauvignon, Tchelistcheff had maintained a strong commitment to fine Chardonnay, too. He believed the uniquely rocky Judge site in a cooler portion of Napa Valley would be an interesting place for the variety. Following his work at Stony Hill, Kongsgaard also worked alongside Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in order to learn Cabernet Sauvignon.

After graduating from Davis, Kongsgaard began his first winemaking job in Sonoma making white wines alongside red wine maker Doug Nalle at the soon defunct project Balverene. Though the project was short lived it gave both Nalle and Kongsgaard ample freedom in the cellar. After the close of Balverene, Kongsgaard was hired at Newton in 1983, where he remained until 1996. There, owner Peter Newton was deeply inspired by the wines of France. To deepen his winemaker’s knowledge, Newton did two key things. He gave Kongsgaard a wine budget with which Newton expected Kongsgaard to drink not only burgundy and bordeaux regularly, but also to share his thoughts on the wines with Newton. He also sent Kongsgaard to France once a year to meet with winemakers in both regions. It was there, soon after starting at Newton, that Kongsgaard began to explore producers who relied on extended barrel ageing. 

In 1988, Kongsgaard took a risk and brought the practice back to California. He became the first to produce a California Chardonnay that was the product of native yeast fermentation, ambient malo, barrel fermentation, two-year barrel maturation and no filtration. To convince sales people the wine was not only safe but also delicious, he initially bottled the wine in two lots and brought both on sales trips with him. One lot had been filtered as was usual in the state, and the other was bottled unfiltered. When tasting the wines blind, sales people consistently preferred the unfiltered wine. As Kongsgaard explains, since the wine goes entirely through malo, it does not need to be filtered for microbial stability. Additionally, extended time in barrel allows precipitation of solids, creating a profoundly stable wine that even gains expressiveness days after opening.

In 1996, Kongsgaard left Newton to start his eponymous winery, where he continues to make Chardonnay in the same style today. Until 2016, the wine was fermented in 100% new French oak barrels. In 2016, that proportion dropped to around 80%. Even with this proportion of new oak, the wine stays in the same barrel through its second year, thus decreasing the appearance of new oak to less than would be expected with one year's barrel maturation. As the wine settles, the oak influence diminishes. At the same time that the new oak proportion has lightened slightly, Kongsgaard has also been moving to picking slightly earlier, bringing a bit more freshness to what is otherwise a relatively full-bodied, generous wine.

Importantly, Kongsgaard moved from making wine in a typical above-ground winery facility to making wine in his own cave excavated high up in Atlas Peak. Set into the side of the mountain, the cave creates its own cool temperature regulation that extends fermentation so significantly that it sometimes takes as much as a year to complete. For Kongsgaard, the extended ageing removes any worry about the elongated fermentation. Even so, malolactic conversion is often completed before alcoholic fermentation, which creates a distinctive and unique flavour component in the wine. For Kongsgaard, it is simply part of the terroir of the cave. At the same time, extended ageing also increases the final alcohol of the wine slightly due to slow evaporation in the cellar. Already picked for relative ripeness, the final result is a wine with bigger bones overall. Kongsgaard, The Judge Chardonnay generally reaches between 14.5% and 16% final alcohol, depending on the vintage. It is relevant to point out that many other California Chardonnays also reach such high alcohols but Kongsgaard is notable for honestly disclosing the final alcohol level of his. The impact of the extended ageing also creates a unique tension to the wine that avoids it simply being a rich or fuller-bodied wine, instead gaining a range of complex characteristics. Admittedly, it is also a style that tends to divide tasters. At the MW seminar in October, MWs tended to either love or dislike it.

The Kongsgaard style has taken on additional freshness in the last couple of vintages with the introduction of son Alex Kongsgaard to the winery. While Alex has not studied at Davis as his father did, he has learned winemaking through hands-on experience. He also spends time tasting and studying with other established winemakers of the region. For example, he has made an effort to spend time with Ramey in order to refine his approach to pressing at Kongsgaard.

Historically, Kongsgaard (below) represents two important stylistic evolutions. The 1970s, generally speaking, represented a strong focus on technique in the cellar with a successive series of technical tweaks and adjustments made in order to solve issues that occurred as different types of equipment became available. Stainless-steel tanks led to increased skin contact while increased skin contact led to more filtering, for example. Producers such as Ramey were able to bring elegance back to the technical approach by discovering which techniques could be eliminated or minimised to bring more transparency to the wines. Producers such as Kongsgaard, however, went the other direction, stepping outside the strictness of technical winemaking to instead impose a greater degree of intuition on the process, and an even more profound sense of minimising unnecessary techniques in the cellar. 

By the late 1980s, the re-emergence of bigger wines was starting so that by the mid 1990s it was truly again an established style, but with a difference. While the size of the wines in the 1970s came from extended skin contact, the unctuousness and size of the wines that emerged in the 1990s came instead from later picking and, for some producers, choosing to avoid rebalancing such wines with tartaric acid additions or by the use of cultivated yeasts for fermentation. Wines then were not only riper, and higher in alcohol; they often had higher pHs, lower acidities, and thanks to the ripeness of the grapes, many were left with some residual sugar. The result was fuller-bodied wines finishing with sweetness. They were again about power but with a focus more on alcohol and riper fruits, rather than the phenolic presence of the wines from the 1970s. The power wines of the 1990s into the mid 2000s tend to be associated with the stereotype of California Chardonnay, and represent the style that took hold strongly in commodity, or grocery-store style, Chardonnays. The bulk of California’s Chardonnay vineyard acreage goes to this level of wine. In more recent years, it should be noted, even the range of styles available for grocery-store Chardonnay has broadened.

While public interest in richer styles of wine was established, a few producers remained committed to their classic approach. At the same time, not all higher-alcohol, richer expressions necessarily relied on residual sugar. Some were simply riper. Even so, the riper style grabbed the attention of reviewers such as Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and the critical attention created a new rush of iconic wineries and winemakers that carried into the 2000s. The rush of riper styles also led eventually towards a sort of public divisiveness.

Parker and the Wine Spectator identified several favourite producers of the riper style including Marcassin, Kistler and DuMOL in the North Coast, and Brewer-Clifton in Santa Barbara County. Some recognised these riper styles as carrying size with nuance. Wines such as Kistler and Brewer-Clifton Chardonnays proved to offer ageing potential as well as heft. For other wine lovers, riper wines seemed to offer only greater size, and the appeal beyond that was not obvious.Tasters began to turn away from not just riper wines but also from California Chardonnay as a category. The turn against riper wines was largely motivated too by the residual sugar levels emerging in mid-tier and grocery-store level wines. Chardonnay in general became associated with the style and wine lovers instigated an Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) movement. At the same time, underlying changes were already afoot.

It is also important to note that while the higher-alcohol wines of the 1990s into the mid 2000s took hold, classic producers such as Mount Eden, Hanzell, Stony Hill, Au Bon Climat and Ramey did not change their more restrained styles. In other cases, as wineries such as BV, Chalone and Mondavi were sold to big corporations, the new owners shifted to the newer trends, retaining their classic reputations only in name. For those who held course, the persistence of these classic styles kept open a space (admittedly quite small at times) for stylistic diversity within the monolith of riper styles. By the 2000s, other international involvements were also forming in the North Coast with the aim of bringing European finesse to California fruit. Famously, the collaboration through family relation between the Hyde family with their vineyard in Carneros (first planted in the late 1970s) and Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy took hold at the start of the new millennium in their HdV winery. There, French winemaker Stéphane Vivier brings together the mentorship of de Villaine with the farming acumen of Hyde to produce a wine housed in French perspective while respectful of California flavour.

Tomorrow – part 4: Broadening the range of styles: 2000 to today

Additional reading

Gerald Asher, 1990, 'Chardonnay: Buds, Twigs and Clones', Gourmet

Robert Benson, 1977, Great Winemakers of California

Doris Muscatine, Maynard Amerine, Bob Thompson, 1984, The Book of California Wine

Thomas Pinney, 1989, A History of Wine in America, Volumes 1 & 2

Frank Prial, 2001, Decantations: Reflections on Wine

Nancy Sweet, FPS, UC Davis, 2007, 'Chardonnay History and Selections at FPS', FPS Grape Program Newsletter

George Taber, 2005, Judgment of Paris: California vs France and the historic 1976 Paris tasting that revolutionized wine

FPS Grapes, Grape Variety: Chardonnay

Focus on Chardonnay (proceedings of a four-yearly meeting of Chardonnay producers from around the world, available from the participating wineries only)

University of California Oral History Project: including Ernest Wente, Wente Family, Mike Grgich, Zelma Long, Eleanor McCrea, Maynard Joslyn