If there’s one grape varietal casual wine drinkers love to hate, it’s Chardonnay, especially when that Chardonnay hails from California. California Chardonnays have, in years past, been deemed aggressively oaked, too buttery and just overall flabby and uninteresting. It’s become an image problem for serious Chardonnay producers; even InsideHook declared Chardonnay “the calling card of Karens everywhere.” But times have changed, and winemakers are trying to appeal to a more modern sense of taste that prizes perceptible acidity and balance.
It’s easy to disregard entire grapes or entire regions because you’ve experienced less-than-delicious wines from them in the past, but Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnays deserve a second sip. From easy-to-drink, acid-driven numbers to complex, well-structured special occasion wines, Sandhi, a collaborative project from winemakers Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, displays what California Chardonnays can be at their best. I tasted four expressions of the grape from Sandhi and discovered that this region’s Chardonnays have an identity all their own.
Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2020
Those who love bright, refreshing wines will fall for the Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2020. On the nose, green apple and lemon peel are at the forefront, while notes of peach, honeysuckle and wet stone appear on the palate. There’s plenty of acid here, showing how Sandhi is committed to offering its drinkers a different style of Chardonnay than they may be used to. This wine is ultimately easy to drink with just enough complexity to keep things interesting without seeming too fussy.
Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay 2020
The next wine I tried, the Sandhi Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay 2020, comes, as the name suggests, from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, which just happens to be the first vineyard planted in the region back in 1971. The oak is definitely perceptible in this expression of Chardonnay, but it’s restrained and well-balanced. It offers a lovely nutty, almond layer to the fresh pear, green apple and lemon curd notes. I would serve this to both California Chardonnay lovers and haters—those who are interested in that oakiness won’t be disappointed, but those who tend to dread too much oak might find that this wine offers an unexpected surprise.
Sandhi Rinconada Chardonnay 2020
To me, the Sandhi Rinconada Chardonnay 2020, grown in the first certified organic vineyard in the region, is the most robust of the bunch with the most perceptible oak. But that’s not a bad thing—the bracing acidity gives it a sense of balance that allow these strong, outspoken flavors to come to the forefront. Notes of pistachio, almond and nectarine give way to a floral, herbal quality that makes you want to keep sipping. It may smell like crème brûlée on the nose, but don’t think that means it’s not a wine that can be paired with a wide array of dishes. For those interested in exploring the world of oaked whites without feeling like they’re drinking liquid forest, Sandhi’s Rinconada Chardonnay is a great place to start.
Sandhi Romance Chardonnay 2020
Out of all the Chardonnays I tried from Sandhi, the 2020 Romance Chardonnay was by far my favorite. This wine is such a treat. There’s an earthiness and a minerality to it that plays with fresh notes of lemon juice, parsley and honeysuckle. It’s complex; each sip presents a new layer with more to discover. As it opens, you experience more of its rich texture as it develops from super-fresh to deeper and more concentrated flavors. It spent 11 months in a 500-liter puncheon, but the oak is exceptionally subtle and well-integrated. The winemaker predicts this wine will age well, so I hope I’ll get to try it again in a few years.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.