California chardonnay is the pop star of wine grapes. Immensely popular, it has also hit the equivalent of wine-world scandal sheets for having gotten too fat, too buffed up with steroidal oak and too boozily alcoholic.
The obvious solution is to send it to rehab. Don't let Chardonnay vines luxuriate in the lush warmth of Napa Valley; don't let them spend summers soaking up the rays in Paso Robles. Instead, plant Chardonnay somewhere cold. In California, that means somewhere near the coast.
California Chardonnay redeems itself when it's grown close to the Pacific's chilly influence. Fog and wind off the ocean moderate daytime heat and lengthen the growing season, helping grapes retain acidity. At the same time, the ocean actually helps keep temperatures in winter from getting too cold, since a vast body of water tends to remain at a stable temperature, even on the coldest days.
In these conditions, California Chardonnay's fruit character shifts away from fleshy pineapple flavors toward more compelling citrus and stone fruit (white peach, nectarine) notes. Instead of feeling unctuous, the wine feels focused, thanks to vibrant acidity and modest alcohol levels. And, possibly the most significant benefit, Chardonnay planted near the coast transforms from a wine that often overwhelms food to one that complements a remarkably wide range of dishes—everything from delicate fish like sole to a classic roasted chicken.
Most good coastal Chardonnay comes from a handful of appellations: Anderson Valley, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, and the coolest section of the Russian River Valley, Green Valley, in Sonoma. Carneros is also ocean-influenced, though it's warmer, since it's closer to San Pablo Bay than to the Pacific. And Chardonnays from vineyards on the mountain ridges at the edge of the Sonoma Coast AVA are some of the best in the state.