2014 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

Given the number of restaurant guests I speak with each week looking for ABC, or Anything But Chardonnay, it is somewhat surprising that the grape remains the most widely grown in the state, with acreage even surpassing that of King Cabernet Sauvignon. This is due in part to the fact that Chardonnay can produce so many different styles of wine, from sparkling, to dry table wines, and even dessert wines. Certainly table wines are the most prevalent examples, but even within this single category there are huge stylistic variances.

Chardonnay is thought to have originated in the Burgundy region of France. At the northern end of Burgundy lies the area of Chablis. It is so far north that grapes struggle to ripen regularly, leading to tart fruit notes, a savory edge, and loads of bright, chalky minerality. These wines speak of a place, but it would be hard to decipher the varietal as Chardonnay. They rarely show any oak influence.

Further south within the Burgundy region, the wines take on more richness and are often treated to ageing in oak barrel, just like they are in California. (Monks in Burgundy started this practice hundreds of years before anyone was making wine at all in Napa.) Wines from the best vineyards such as Montrachet and Batard-Montrachet can command prices on par with the latest sneaker release from Kanye West’s fashion line. The wines show what we might think of as classic Chardonnay markers...ripe apple, lemon, and white peach. They can be creamy and show toasty spice notes as well, although usually to a lesser degree than their California counterparts. However, they are from a climate that is much cooler than anywhere in California. (Has anyone been to St. Helena in August?) This leads the Chardonnay from Burgundy to be slightly lighter and higher in refreshing acidity than examples from Santa Barbara or Sonoma.

Over the course of several decades California built and sustained an immense industry based largely on full-bodied, creamy textured Chardonnay. The reliably warm and sunny summers produced fruit that was incredibly ripe. When treated to certain cellar techniques the resulting wines showed loads of tropical fruit character, further accented by flavors of butterscotch, sweet vanilla, and freshly whipped cream. This classic California style gained a massive following driven by brands such as Rombauer, Kendall-Jackson, and Frank Family. It is a distinct, definable style, but certainly not one that applies to every wine drinker. In recent years I have experienced more and more guests looking for more crisp, lean options when it comes to their white wine. Sauvignon Blanc is wildly popular, but so are grapes like Gruner Veltliner from Austria or even dry Riesling.

More recently however, winemakers in California have been opting for a middle ground. A new style has emerged, one that combines opulent fruit and texture with brightness and a more judicious use of oak. On the Sonoma Coast, producers such as Littorai, Peay, and Radio-Coteau have shown just how “Burgundian” California Chardonnay can be. Further south in Portola Valley, California, twin brothers Jim and Bobby Varner first planted the Spring Ridge Vineyard in 1980. Jim had studied winemaking at U.C. Davis, while Bob came from a strong science background himself. They worked at the famed Thomas Fogarty Winery just up the road on Skyline Boulevard for several years. Soon after, they began producing incredibly balanced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir themselves. I remember tasting a Varner Chardonnay for the first time seven years ago, and was taken aback by the intensity of bright citrus notes, rich texture, and refreshing finish. It was all there. Surrounded by the beautiful Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, production from the Spring Ridge Vineyard has remained miniscule over the past couple of decades. Looking to expand their reach, the Varner brothers created the Foxglove label, a wine now synonymous with fresh, zesty Chardonnay from California’s Central coast. Our bottling is a perfect example of this style, showing green apple and pear, lemon and lime, and honeysuckle notes. It was aged entirely in stainless steel to emphasize brightness, and can easily be paired with food or just California sunshine.

Martin Sheehan-Stross