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(Courtesy Peter Michael Winery) by Jack McBride.

Ever since Chateau Montelena trounced its old world competition back in 1976, California Chardonnays are only getting better and better.

Any card player will tell you that having a joker card in hand is a great thing. The joker can be whatever you want it to be-an eight of diamonds to an ace of spades. California Chardonnay is like a joker card. It can take the form of so many different styles and flavors. And like in poker, everyone wants a great Chardonnay from California. And as luck would have it, there are more great Chardonnays in California than jokers in a deck of cards.

California Chardonnay made the biggest splash when Chateau Montelena triumphed over the French Chardonnays in the Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976. Proving that California Chardonnay is not just good, it can be world-class. And over the years, it has evolved even more with better viticulture, more specific microclimates and more experienced winemakers. As a joker, Chardonnay can take different expressions according to soil, microclimates, clones and winemaking.

One of the things that make Chardonnay so special is that it does well in so many different climates and soils. There are the cooler climates that tend to produce wines of freshness and higher acidity. Warmer areas give wines with generosity of fruit and richness. Nuances in the soil can also be expressed in Chardonnay. Since 1976, there has been an exploration into more marginal and cooler climate areas in California that have yielded some exceptional results. Areas in Sonoma such as Russian River Valley and Carneros (which straddles Napa and Sonoma Counties) were already praised for their Chardonnays and rightfully so. Home to some of the brightest stars for not only California Chardonnay, but anywhere in the New World. Cult Chardonnays such as Marcassin and Kistler were founded here. I recently had a bottle of 2006 Kistler Vine Hill Vineyard Chardonnay, which has aged beautifully. It still has opulent fruit, somewhat fresh as well as poached pears and apples, a lightly toasted vanilla note and a superbly long finish. Other revered producers such as Hartford Court, Aubert, HDV and Peter Michael source their Chardonnays from the top vineyards here as well. A friend who is lucky enough to be on the mailing list at Aubert shared a truly exceptional bottle of 2016 Aubert Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay with me. It was a sheer explosion of perfectly ripe fruit, well integrated sweet oak and vanilla nuances. It also had a note of wet stone akin to Burgundy. It has so much plump fruit in the mid-palate one could mistake it for being sweet but it lingers with a bright and intense fruit finish.

But even cooler growing areas such as the “true” Sonoma Coast, Santa Barbara and Santa Rita Hills have become some of the most highly prized areas for production. Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Vine- yard on the Sonoma Coast is perhaps the standard bearer for this area. One of the closest in proximity to the Pacific Ocean the cold wind from the Humboldt current combined with ample sun exposure to develop a special balance of ripeness and acidity. The 2016 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay is a sizzling example of balance. Aromatics are supercharged with white and yellow fruit with a lovely balance of oak and zestiness. The energy in the wine is almost electric. Further south, the Humboldt current again makes its influence known with the east to west corridors of the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. In fact, the Santa Rita Hills is the coldest AVA in all of California. One of the pioneers of the Santa Maria Valley is Au Bon Climat. Jim Clendenen makes not only world-class Chardonnay, but “worldly” Chardonnay. They are not necessarily wine of ‘power and might’ but of nuance, finesse without losing any intensity. These are wines of “class.” His 2014 Au Bon Climat Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay starts with a whiff of wet stone then leads into a rainbow of fruit. The oak here is more for structure rather than flavor, but adds to the complexity and refinement of the wine. I could choose half a dozen top Chardonnays from Santa Rita Hills, but perhaps the one that epitomizes the area best is from Melville Vineyards. The 2015 Melville Estate Chardonnay is a compelling wine that combines the great sunshine of Southern California with the cold breeze of the Pacific Ocean. There are big fruit flavors buffered by a lingering acidity that begs to be drunk in copious quantities.

Whether you have a pair of queens or a four of a kind, having a joker in your hand makes it better. The best California Chardonnays are world class, no matter the style. They are some of the greatest examples of Chardonnay on the planet. And just like the joker, everyone wants one.

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