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Meet the Chardonnays Giving White Burgundy a Run for Its Money

A new wave of Chardonnays from lesser-known regions are wowing wine lovers

Stacey Lastoe By June 9, 2021
A view of Mount Hood from high above vineyards in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Photo courtesy of iStock.

A trio of Chardonnay-producing regions around the world have wine drinkers rapt. And none of them are Burgundy.

Among them: Santa Cruz, a region home to some of the oldest vineyards in California; Oregon — Willamette Valley, in particular — and New Zealand. According to industry veteran Jeremy W. Noye, Chardonnay from these distinct areas can not only compete with Burgundian Chardonnay in style and quality — but also in price.

Three outstanding regions

Noye, president and CEO of Morrell & Company, an upscale wine retailer that’s been serving a mostly highbrow drinking clientele since 1947, has been watching the growing interest in non-French Chardonnay for some time. He believes these regions in particular will interest both collectors and casual wine drinkers. Of the three, Noye says some of the most exciting Chardonnays right now are distinctively Californian. He describes the style as “very racy and intense,” especially from relative newcomers to the scene, such as Kutch and Ceritas

This new, young generation of winemakers is in good company with old, historic producers, including Ridge and Arnot-Roberts, both of which are California wineries renowned for their site-specific wines.

Jen Ziskin, a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and wine director/restaurant owner in the Boston area, is also excited about Chardonnay’s rise in these regions. Ziskin’s enthusiasm in a recent phone call is palpable, saying that Oregon Chardonnay is “probably my second favorite Chardonnay to drink.” Ziskin, who began her wine appreciation and education in Italian wines, still loves a Bourgogne Blanc but says she considers it less of an everyday wine, unlike a Chardonnay from New Zealand’s Martinborough region. 

Drew Brady, director of operations and wine director at Overthrow Hospitality in New York City, is enthusiastic about non-French Chardonnay as well. “Chardonnay from these regions, especially in the last 10 years, is surely as compelling as it’s ever been.”

Part of what’s making these other Chardonnays compelling is their accessibility. These wines “can really go with anything,” Ziskin says. In Ziskin’s latest venture, Punch Bowl, which she owns with her husband Josh Ziskin, Winderlea Chardonnay from Willamette Valley is on the list, and Ziskin is considering adding one from New Zealand too. 

Oregon’s world-class wines

Willamette Valley Chardonnay reminds Ziskin of Burgundian Chardonnay: They have this kind of “flintiness to them, they’re not too oaky, they’re really well-balanced, great acidity,” she says, drawing comparisons to each’s soil composition. Ziskin points to similarities in longitude and the weather as reasons that Oregon Chardonnays are similar to Burgundy.

Moreover, Willamette Chardonnays, such as the Winderlea, says Ziskin, are more akin to an entry-level white Burgundy — less heavy and rich than, say, a Montrachetmaking it easy to pair with a variety of foods and open on a no-special-occasion weeknight this summer. 

Brady appreciates many Oregon Chardonnays’ “incredible nervy-ness and striking textural component.” 

“Oregon Chardonnay is probably my second favorite Chardonnay to drink.” – Jen Ziskin

The relatively lower cost no doubt adds to its appeal. Indeed, some of Oregon’s best Chardonnay retails for about $50 a bottle, as compared to about $115 for a bottle of white Burgundy, which has lately suffered price increases in the States, thanks to the recent high tariffs and a simple supply and demand issue. Noye points to several years of bad crops due to frost and hail in Burgundy as a major contributing factor. 

Known primarily for Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley Chardonnay has been sneaking up on the scene in recent years as the “wine community in Oregon has proven that Oregon can make world-class wine,” says Noye, adding that this feat has captured the attention of the French. As such, major Burgundy houses have bought land in the state or bought producers, content with the knowledge that the land is ripe for producing both of these world-class grapes. 

But Oregon is not the only region making waves for its Chardonnay.

Chardonnay regions on the rise

Older vines, plus a cooler climate, means the Chardonnays from New Zealand are attracting renewed attention. The winemakers at Craggy Range Winery in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, for example, use similar techniques to their counterparts in Burgundy, including aging in French barriques, explains Ziskin. Also, the soils are so gravelly, that one of the most important sub-regions is even called Gimblett Gravels. The gravel sits on top of very sandy soils and as the large vine roots pass between the stones, they are able to send out fine roots that spread wide and deep through the sandy layers; deep roots are one of the most prized features in viticulture, as the more the vine is anchored in its soil, the better its grapes.

Then there are the wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains region, whose cooler western side and steep slopes have attracted top winemakers seeking high-quality fruit. 

Cole Thomas, winemaker and founder of Madson Wines in Santa Cruz, is unperturbed by the so-called ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) crowd. Thomas is biased, of course, but says their “happily Californian” Chardonnay has “totally perplexed and intrigued” people when they found out what they were drinking. 

Brady is equally optimistic, calling what’s happening in the region “an exciting chapter for Chardonnay,” and one that could potentially draw “Never Chardonnay” folks back to the formerly-rejected glass. Brady calls mountain viticulture an uphill battle and says of the terroir that “when you’re working with such an expressive grape as Chardonnay, this collusion of circumstance, guided by winemakers adept in adaptation, often results in some of the most distinctive, brilliant Chardonnays the world has to offer.” 

As always, high quality does not come at a low price. But as Noye points out, because the quality level of these other regions’ Chardonnays is akin to Burgundy, the value proposition is obvious.

Five Chardonnays to Try:

Madson Arey Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Cruz 2019 ($30)

Intense, complex, and imminently drinkable, this Santa Cruz Chardonnay offers a real bang for your buck. It’s crisp, bright, and demonstrates a minerality reflective of its cool climate.

Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay 2017 ($38)

Another Santa Cruz standout is this Chardonnay with its baked brioche notes and full-body texture and mouthfeel. Apples and fruit-laden pastries round out the aroma and flavors.

Winderlea Willamette Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($40)

Nutty with hints of stone fruit — peaches are prominent — this Willamette Valley Chardonnay further exemplifies why the region is continuing to emerge as a top-Chardonnay producing area.

Greywacke Marlborough Chardonnay 2015 ($42)

Greywacke is the name of the sandy rocks found in New Zealand’s mountains. An abundance of greywacke, tumbled into smoothness by river action, are to be found in the vineyards of Greywacke, hence the name. Winemaker Kevin Judd’s Chardonnay is heady — think apricot, guava, and honey characters, along with cedar and some citrus too.

Walter Scott Willamette Valley Rock Salt Chardonnay 2019 ($55)

Gorgeous minerality, fresh and bright with nice salinity (hence the name), this Willamette Valley Chardonnay pairs well with seafood, roast meats, and creamy cheeses.