15 Best Bottles of Chardonnay Worth Splurging On

Don't let your misconceptions about Chardonnay hold you back from these impressive bottles.

Glasses of chardonnay

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Perhaps more than any other category of wine, California Chardonnay suffers from a reputation problem. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard some version of the claim, “I just don’t like Chardonnay from there. It’s all too oaky and buttery for me.” This, of course, is ridiculous: California is a huge state, stretching from Mexico to Oregon and encompassing a mind-boggling range of terroirs and micro-climates within its borders. Wine producers throughout grow grapes and craft wines that range from nervy and bracing to unabashedly lush. To say that California is primarily home to a single style of Chardonnay is just as inaccurate as claiming that the one quintessential dish across the country, from New Orleans to Philadelphia to Chicago and Los Angeles…is the hamburger. 

The issue is that, for a relatively extended period of time, the California Chardonnays that got the lion’s share of attention were of the richer style, often harvested quite ripe, marked by a significant percentage of new oak, and allowed to go through total or near-total malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation that converts tart apple-like malic acid into creamier, rounder lactic acid.

Even then, however, those Chards weren’t the whole story. Producers like Stony Hill, for example, stood their ground, crafting wines of elegance and energy that reflected their terroir in particularly transparent ways. They still do. And the Chardonnays of David Ramey have, for decades, ranked among the best in the country, evocative of their terroir and channeled through the passionate vision of Ramey himself; even in his more powerful bottlings, balance and accuracy are at their heart. But the story took hold that California’s calling-card white grape variety was primarily made in a style that was more or less the vinous equivalent of Andre the Giant, and now, in 2023, it’s stubbornly sticking around.

The fifteen California Chardonnays below, all of which ring between $50 and $100, showcase the fantastic range that the Golden State is capable of. They run the gamut from leaner in style to more overtly generous, and all of them are balanced, expressive, delicious evocations of all that California is capable of.

2019 Amici Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay Carneros, Napa Valley

This is a fantastic embodiment of why Hyde Vineyard is so venerated: It rolls across the palate with orange-blossom honey, orange marmalade, white figs, and vanilla, and the finish lingers with cardamom-flecked caramel cut with a bright pop of yellow apples and nectarines. 

2018 AXR Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River Valley

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the aromas here are reminiscent of eating a croissant next to the sea while challah French toast cooks in a neighbor’s house. On the palate, this is both weighty and creamy, as well as full of life and energy. Mashed honey-drizzled almonds, pizzelles, and warm butter are joined by yellow plums, lemon oils, and a hint of toasty vanilla and butterscotch alongside white tea.

2018 Babcock Dream Field Peake Vineyard Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills

Beeswax mingles with candied lemons and verbena in this layered, lengthy Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills. It’s all perked up with nicely considered acidity, and the hint of cedar running alongside nectarines and white grapefruits lends it all depth.

2021 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay Carneros, Napa Valley

This feels like it splits the difference between Burgundian savoriness and Napa Valley plushness. Vaguely smoky notes of hot flint and granite anchor candied citrus, lemongrass, cantaloupe, and white licorice,  it’s structured not just by acidity, but also a vague sense of tannin, likely from the French oak barrel fermentation. This is great already and will reward another 10 to 15 years of age, if you’re patient enough.

2020 Center of Effort Alba Chardonnay Edna Valley

Fermented with native yeast, and estate grown on a single 2.2 acre block (from a single clone planted when Bill Clinton was president!), this wine vibrates with energy, a laser beam of acidity electrifying shiso-flecked nectarines and apricots, with a hint of white raspberries and cranberries pulsing through it all. 18 months on the lees has lent it creaminess, which meshes brilliantly with pineapple and orange creamsicle flavors through the subtly floral finish. Winemaker Nathan Carlson is crafting a number of remarkable wines at Center of Effort, and this one is no exception.

2020 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Napa Valley

Taut and with tons of promise for the future, this citrus- and mineral-driven Chardonnay is already a vibrant treat. Incisive flavors of hard apples mingle with white tea, chamomile, lemon, passionfruit, and white cardamom, and it all finishes with a lingering whiff of dried springtime flowers. In a difficult year, Bo Barrett, Matt Crafton, and their team have produced a wine of real beauty.

2019 Donum Single Vineyard Year of the Pig Chardonnay Carneros, Sonoma County

Estate-grown and with a striking label featuring art by Ai Weiwei, this is beautifully structured and clearly capable of aging for another decade. Notes of white tea, hard pears, jasmine, and ginger are cut with lemon oil and pith and a hint of hard persimmon. The savory finish calls out for food.

2021 Flora Springs Flora’s Legacy Chardonnay Napa Valley

This small-production Chardonnay is crafted in a more lush style, with plenty of honeycomb and caramel alongside grilled peaches and baked red apples. But that generosity is also sliced with acidity and anchored by an umami-rich core. This will reward opening now or holding onto for a decade.

2020 Gary Farrell Durell Vineyard Sonoma County Chardonnay

Mature and energetic, with nuance and brightness to spare, this is showing its vineyard pedigree very well. Lemon-based acidity is joined by dried apricots, mashed almonds, fennel bulb, a hint of woodsy spice, and a finish of marzipan, and honey-coated sesame seeds.

2021 Heitz Cellar Quartz Creek Vineyard Chardonnay Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley

Deftly balanced between mashed almonds and gunflint alongside cooked honey, dried apples,  persimmon, preserved lemon peel, and candied ginger, this is a rich yet very lively Chardonnay whose salt-kissed finish makes it both irresistible right now, but still full of promise for future evolution.

2021 Inman Family Pratt Vine Hill Chardonnay Russian River Valley, Sonoma County

This wine is coiled, concentrated, and full of energy, with nectarine and orange blossom notes dancing with pineapple and white cardamom, all with a finishing note of honey-dipped and almond-dusted apples. It’s still young, and will certainly reward a few more years in the cellar, but is excellent already.

2021 Mount Veeder Winery Chardonnay Napa Valley

This is the first Chardonnay from a producer that built its reputation with well-regarded reds, and it’s a worthy first bottling: Vibrant with meyer lemons and juicy pears, savory with oyster shells, and gently spiced with clove and cinnamon stick, this is a well-rounded white that rings in at right around $50.

2021 Ridge Vineyards Estate Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains, California

Grown on the famed Monte Bello Estate Vineyard, this smells a bit reductive – a technique that limits oxygen during the winemaking, and often results in a distinctly savory, struck-match note on the nose – and is all the more delicious for it. It has a long life ahead, but right now, aromas of walnuts and apricots precede a palate of lemon pith, turmeric and ginger root. A deep core of minerality lends the finish a saline savoriness that is long and deeply delineated. It’s all very Burgundian in character, almost Meursault-like, yet seen through the lens of the inimitable Ridge.

2019 Robert Mondavi Winery The Estates Chardonnay Carneros, Napa Valley

Toasty and gilded with brown butter, this tarragon- and flower-flecked beauty is anchored by a fascinating combination of charred pineapples, aromatic cedar, grilled apricots, and a suggestion of vanilla flan and bananas foster through the lingering finish.

2019 Three Sticks Wines Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast

Broad, deep aromas of pear fritters, white peaches, walnuts, and flinty mineral tee up acid-driven flavors of melon pith, ripe autumn orchard fruit, rhum baba, and sesame. A white licorice note lingers nicely on the finish.

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