12 Great West Coast Chardonnays

12 Great West Coast Chards for Every Palate


With the weather warming up, but not quite in full summer mode (at least for most of us), I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the West Coast Chardonnay that has been arriving in the office lately. Chardonnay still rules the roost as far as white goes, and for good reason. It’s a prolific producer, and winemakers have figured out how to create a wide range of styles using it as the base. From crisp and steely to decadently lush, there is a Chard to please every palate.

Interestingly, a lot of winemakers seem to be veering toward a middle ground these days -- it’s not uncommon for a winemaker to marry some creamy, fermented-in-barrel, full-malo juice with a bit of stainless steel tank-fermented juice to produce wines that feature the best attributes of each style. I found many of the wines I sampled to be shooting for this middle ground, and there was certainly a lot to like with this group.

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It’s not surprising to see some of the more expensive wine performing well in this tasting but I must say that I was really surprised by the fine showing of the Rodney Strong, which was simply delicious. The Mirassou, another perennial value-favorite, also showed well in a lighter style.

Of the top-scoring wines, I preferred the elegance and purity of the Carabella and Stuhlmuller. Both exhibited excellent focus and a bit of appealing steeliness that gave the wines excellent cut and definition while exhibiting the rich fruit for which the west coast is famous.

Read all of the reviews, after the jump.

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: ssigaud
    299760 23

    Hi - can you please indicate which ones are unoaked? Thx!

    Apr 29, 2010 at 12:25 PM

  • Snooth User: SDR777
    83920 24

    Mirrasou was the first winery I visited in California while I was in the Bay are on a College Sports trip 30+ yrs ago. I've kept an eye on them and find that their wines have been variable in quality, but usually well priced. IMO, this and Rodney Strong are hard to go wrong with.

    Apr 29, 2010 at 12:30 PM

  • Just wondering, on the Rodney Strong Chard, whether you were reviewing the Sonoma County bottling, or the Chalk Hill bottling, which is the label pictured in the article. I suspect it was the former.

    Apr 29, 2010 at 1:29 PM

  • Snooth User: Dendoc
    251753 16

    A bit surprised no Cakebread on the list...

    Apr 29, 2010 at 1:40 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,475

    I'm not sure any of these are unoaked. I believe they all show some oak influence, to one degree or another. The Mirrassou and the L de Lyeth showed the least influence.

    I'd agree that the Mirrassou quality can be a bit spotty, but they are good values.

    Nice catch vineaste, The Rodney Strong was indeed the Sonoma bottling. Our mistake for grabbing the wrong image.

    Dendoc, we were only tasting a dozen wines so we had to miss many of the usual suspects!

    Apr 29, 2010 at 2:11 PM

  • Snooth User: ssigaud
    299760 23

    Ha! And what would you recommend for those contrarians like me and more and more others who prefer unoaked?

    Apr 29, 2010 at 2:24 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,475

    I was first that I am generally with you. I am not a fan of overtly oaky wines and, in general, prefer Chablis when it comes to Chardonnay.

    Having said that I am finding that most, but certainly not all, of the Chardonnay I am tasting from the new world seems to show less overt oakiness with each passing vintage.

    I think there are issues that go beyond the simple use of oak that had made wines suck in the past.

    The full recipe included chardonnay planted in wrong place, producing fruit that was over-ripe, that was then subjected to barrel fermentation, full malo and 100% new oak.

    We are seeing winemakers starting with much better fruit these days, backing of the malo, which can lessen the buttery factor while keeping the acid firm and well defined. The use of second and third passage oak has also become more common.

    All of these elements combined have introduced better wines into the marketplace from winemakers who have learned how to use oak as an accent.

    I'm not guaranteeing you'll like them of course, just that the base level for these wines is way ahead of where ti was as little as 5 yeas ago and may be worth a new look.

    Having dais all of that, I'll see if I have a few unoaked samples in the office and will hopefully be able to get back to you with specific reccos!

    Apr 29, 2010 at 2:42 PM

  • Snooth User: ssigaud
    299760 23

    For full disclosure I should have said that I am originally from France and that - all parochialism aside (!) - Chablis has always been my favorite... and I have yet to find a new world equivalent. I'd love to hear your reccos! Merci!!!

    Apr 29, 2010 at 2:53 PM

  • Interestingly, at the 17th Chardonnay du Monde Competition in Europe a few months ago, there was not a single American Chardonnay among the Top 12 wines.


    Apr 29, 2010 at 3:03 PM

  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,448

    Just curious ... the point rating is that your rating Greg or some other source?

    Apr 29, 2010 at 3:05 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,475

    Ssigaud, very luck to be close to Burgundy!

    CGSE - one has to wonder what wines were submitted?

    Just mine John. Difference of opinion?

    Apr 29, 2010 at 3:25 PM

  • Snooth User: ConwayFamilyWines
    Hand of Snooth
    211079 13

    SO happy to see the Deep Sea Chardonnay made the list!

    Apr 29, 2010 at 3:46 PM

  • I would appreciate seeing a ball park price shown along with the ratings. While I am sure I would enjoy the highest rated wines, your ratings would have more value to me if I knew I could afford to drink them.


    Apr 29, 2010 at 4:15 PM

  • Snooth User: COOLIE61
    104547 28

    i'm an oaky chardonnay person. the more oak the better. Kendall Jackson and Liberty School are my favorites right now until i find a different chard with lots of oak. Any suggestions?

    Apr 29, 2010 at 4:19 PM

  • It would be helpful to include a list price for the wines you review. We drink Chardonnay all the time and here are some of the ones that I tend to buy. These are mostly in the rate of $12-$15 (taking into account typical retail discounts) unless otherwise noted:
    - Husch, Mendocino County Chardonnay,
    - Alma Rosa Chardonnay (Central Coast) $18 or so.
    - Trader Joe's Vin TJS (Sonoma County) $5.99 (very good value)
    - Qupe Chardonnay (Santa Maria) (Closer to $20 but lately on sale closer to $13)

    Apr 29, 2010 at 4:50 PM

  • Snooth User: nrcvino
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    467360 30

    Regarding Stainless examples, as one of the winemakers for Eos, we produce the wine reviewed above (Private Reserve) in addition to our main bottling of Eos Chardonnay, which is an entirely stainless fermented and aged wine, and which uses fruit from several top-notch cooler vineyard sites in Santa Barbara County, Arroyo Grande Valley, and the Edna Valley, (as opposed to the Private Reserve, which is all old-vine Paso Robles.) If you can come across this (not sure where in the US you are,) it is really a lovely, clean style, but we still conduct limited ML fermentation and stir the lees in tank, so that it a nicely textured wine, not at all austere. Probably set you back $11 a bottle in California.

    Other local bottles i love right now are Chamisal Vineyard's Stainless (from the Edna Valley,) Tolosa's No-Oak (also Edna Valley, its what I know,) and if you can find the Diatom from Sta. Rita Hills or I think that Melville makes a small amount of stainless Chard as well.

    Happy Hunting!

    -NR Carlson

    Apr 29, 2010 at 4:52 PM

  • Snooth User: Laura10
    445013 1

    I really enjoyed this article and am always on the lookout for new Chards to try. The Melville is deeelish. But I too was surprised at no mention of Cakebread. Makes me curious about the selection criteria...

    I just heard that Santa Maria Valley is hosting a Chardonnay Symposium in July for anyone passionate about the varietal. http://www.thechardonnaysymposium.com

    Apr 29, 2010 at 5:19 PM

  • Snooth User: mikeakay
    205453 6

    Hello Greg,
    Another nice article on summer wines. I can,t wait for your round up on Rose's. If I may offer a couple of suggestions to your commenters looking for unoaked Chards from the west coast. Chehalem Inox Chardonnay from Oregon is a completely unoaked wine that has wonderful mineality and is surprisingly bright and tasty.
    For those who prefer the buttery oaked variety at a great price try the Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay. the Inox is priced $15-17 while the Columbia Crest is around $9. I am one of the folks that enjoys both. I understand why the Cakebread is not mentioned. It is a very good wine, but not a great value. It is a special occasion Chardonnay for our house.

    Apr 29, 2010 at 6:15 PM

  • Summertime is perfect for Chardonnay, a light meal, lunching on the veranda; too bad most CA Chardonnays are over oaked, high in alcohol and winemaker altered. What happen with letting the terrior do the talking

    Apr 29, 2010 at 7:31 PM

  • I too agree, when the weather turns warm and the foods lean more toward salads and lighter fare we reach for more whites and chardonnay is always handy. Being club members of EOS we do drink a lot of their chard but mostly their lower priced one not the one reviewed here. I would agree wholeheartedly with the review, the reserve does show that soft full mouth feel but their regular bottling is very good also and offers much the same wine at a reduced cost.

    I would add Cottonwood from Santa Barbara Co. and Martin Weyrich from Paso Robles. These wines split the difference between steely and buttery as well as anything from Napa or Sonoma.

    I was wondering, has anyone had any of the Lake Co. CA chard's? You would think with their weather and soil they should be able to produce so good juice.

    Apr 29, 2010 at 9:00 PM

  • I am a total big oaky chardonnay person and I love Mer Soleil. They also have a silver Mer Soleil for those stainless people. Prices are a little spendy-about $25-30, but really wonderful!

    Apr 29, 2010 at 9:34 PM

  • Snooth User: beliefteam
    204587 25

    So, which of these is buttery, rich and oaked?

    Apr 30, 2010 at 12:28 AM

  • Snooth User: Robert Dallas Gray
    Hand of Snooth
    91817 542

    Am I alone in finding the alcohol levels in many of these insane? 8 out of 12 over 14%. Is this normal for West Coast Chardonnay?

    Apr 30, 2010 at 12:42 AM

  • Snooth User: GeoS
    102241 1

    I'm glad the Mirassou did well, but remember that this wine has nothing at all to do with the famous Mirassou tradition that we grew up with. The winery in San Jose closed many years ago, and the label was purchased by Gallo. The Mirassou family then started their own winery again under a different label, but that did not last more than a year or so. There is no Mirassou winery now in existence. For an "entry level" Chardonnay, I'd urge you to consider the lower priced Chateau St. Jean. It is consistently amazing for the price. About $10.

    Apr 30, 2010 at 1:28 AM

  • Snooth User: StockBoy
    188562 78

    I think you guys missed the most important aspect - the location of the grapes. Carneros produces the very best. Not everyone can own or buy these grapes, so other lesser grapes are used and promoted. But they are clearly second best, and the presence of so much Oak proves this.
    Sebastiani, thanks to their new ownership, now as access to great Carneros grapes, and makes an afordable "Carneros Chardonnay".

    Apr 30, 2010 at 8:32 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,475

    Yeah, I think the alcohols are a bit high, but thats the way it goes with warm climate vines. This isn't burgundy, and one of the problems of the past was the attempt to create Burgundian wines with fundamentally different fruit.

    With regions like Lake County, the Sonoma Coast, Carneros, etc now being properly farmed and matched to high quality clones I think we'll see a growing selection of restrained styles moving forward.

    I don't agree that Carneros produces the best fruit. It has vineyards that produce great fruit, but so do many other regions. It's not the region that necessarily makes the wine, it's matching the right vines to the right plot of soil, farming it well, and making the wine intelligently - letting the fruit dictate the style and not visa versa.

    Apr 30, 2010 at 12:09 PM

  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,448

    @Greg ... no difference in opinion because I haven't tried any of them!

    I also agree, that proper farming and clone selection matters as much as location. I do like Chardonnay's from Carneros but don't think it is the best location for Chardonnay. Extreme Sonoma Coast (true Sonoma Coast) vineyards allow for production of some outstanding Chardonnay.

    One more point, I don't mind the higher alcohol (not more than 14.5) as long as it can be balanced with acidity. You can achieve balance with high alcohol but it can be different.

    Apr 30, 2010 at 1:36 PM

  • Snooth User: Sportywineguy
    Hand of Snooth
    391283 3

    Just some info for those of you talking about Mirrasou... Mirrasou went out of business in 2003 when it sold its name to (wait for it) Gallo. Soooo, Mirrasou is just another label for marketing cheap inconsistant wine. God only knows where the grapes come from!

    Apr 30, 2010 at 2:10 PM

  • Stockboy, first, I don't think Carneros necessarily has the best grapes. Personally, I find some of those Carneros whites to have a sort of spicy hint. Nothing wrong with that if that is to your liking but it doesn't make the grape any better than others.

    Secondly, I don't follow your thought that now that Sebastiani is under new management it makes better Chard because it can get grapes from Carneros. Foley now owns Sebastiani and since he also owns vineyards in Central CA he could just as easily be shipping those to Sebastiani or buying from a bulk supplier.

    I think all big wine makers buy bulk grapes and there is no way to tell where they come from. All you need to do is drive through the Central Valley of California, on either highway, and you will see mile after mile of grapes. Granted some are table grapes, especially in the south, but many are sold for wine in bulk.

    The best gauge is not where the grape was grown or by whom but how the wine taste.

    Apr 30, 2010 at 2:17 PM

  • Snooth User: mmrmaid
    304930 43

    i am not a fan of these new unoaked chards, although i don't like a chard that tastes like i'm drinking a 2x4, either! that being said, since coolie 66 DOES like a lot of oak, i would suggest jordan chard to compliment your other selections. we serve patricia green from oregon and barboursville from va at my restaurant - both stainless selections and not to my liking - just way too tart / green for me. cakebread is of course, the gold standard, although i seem to recall liking chalk hill back when i was at morton's. also like ferrari-carano, although it seems more pedestrian to me lately. any suggestions for those of us who DO like a little bit of creaminess from SOME malo? i had a bad reaction to the ch. st michelle TWICE - weird awful hangover?!

    May 01, 2010 at 1:25 PM

  • Snooth User: mmrmaid
    304930 43

    ah - the eos and the trinitas sound like they might be up my alley...

    May 01, 2010 at 1:29 PM

  • I'm not usual a fan of Chardonnay, but I have run across a couple that were pretty tasty:

    Sonoma Vineyards (unoaked) $5.99 at TJ's
    (not sure of current availability)

    Jason-Stephens Chardonnay (only 2 months in oak) $21. It has the butter without the oakiness (which I don't like). Very limited quantities of current vintage: Call winery or visit Tasting Room in Gilroy.

    BTW, "Oak Monster" fans: Toasted Head is for you.

    Also, keep your eyes peeled for a TJ's private label Chardonnay from a very famous CA appellation known for this varietal.

    Angela T Carlson
    Alameda Trader Joe's Wine Geek

    May 01, 2010 at 4:47 PM

  • Thanks for the tip on TJ's Angela.

    May 02, 2010 at 1:18 AM

  • Has anyone ever had Varner, especially the Bee Block? This is from Santa Cruz and is one of the closest things to a White Burgundy. It's the Spring Ridge Vineyard, and from what I understand it's planted on its own rootstock, rare for a CA wine.

    May 04, 2010 at 3:14 PM

  • I happened to be drinking a glass of the Rodney Strong Chardonnay (Chalk Hill, 2007) when I got this article. It's hands down my "go to" chardonnay for the incredible flavor/price combo ($15).

    May 05, 2010 at 12:31 PM

  • Snooth User: BG422
    343567 19

    For lightly oaked and under 14% ABV Chards, I would suggest looking into some of the Chards coming out of Washington. The Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills H3 2007 Chards were excellent. I have been letting them rest for the last 16 months and they are drinking excellently now (I didn't like the 2008 near as much). From California, among others, I find the Dutton Estate Chards appealing for a non-oaky Chard, but they are a bit fruity. They do weigh in at just over 14% ABV.

    May 05, 2010 at 10:29 PM

  • Larry - you should give David Bruce estate mountain Chard (Santa Cruz) a go - another White Burgundy-isk CA chardonnay. Someone above said Carneros was the best hmmm.. Russian River - Santa Maria . Santa Cruz - Carneros - all so different! All great for chard.

    Aug 05, 2010 at 1:46 AM

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