Winter Vines at Pfendler Vineyards Winery in the Petaluma Gap AVA.

Pfendler Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Petaluma Gap

James Knight

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Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were not the first choice when the late Peter Pfendler planted his vineyards in the 1990s, but they're the stars today at Sonoma County's Pfendler Vineyards winery.

I'm not the biggest Chardonnay drinker, but I am pleasantly surprised when a producer's Chardonnay grabs my attention over their Pinot Noir. This happens most often in very cool-climate locales, like Sonoma County's newest viticultural area, recognized in December 2017: the Petaluma Gap.

Touted above all for their cool-climate Pinot Noir, the Petaluma Gap's vineyards are 75 percent committed to the thin-skinned, red Burgundian grape. And it's a good match — particularly in the kind of higher elevation, wind-blasted sites like the vineyards that winery owner Kimberly Pfendler's late husband, Peter, first planted in the 1990s to, of all things, Bordeaux varieties!

He corrected his path, later planting Pinot Noir and developing vineyards like Gap's Crown that are now famous, leaving to founding winemaker Greg Bjornstad the task of budding over Pfendler vineyard vines to old-school California 'heritage' Pinot Noir clones like Swan and Calera. They're called 'heritage' because they've been grown here for well over a century, unlike newer imported clones.

Bjornstad handed the reins of daily operations to Pfendler's new winemaker, Justin Harmon, who explains the varietal duo like this:

'As in their native home of Burgundy, France, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay make fitting vineyard fellows in the Petaluma Gap. Due to the ocean-influenced nature of the Gap — with its long, foggy mornings and persistent, maritime-borne winds — these cool-climate varieties produce elegant wines, with distinctive California intensity. In particular, Chardonnay finds its sweet-spot in the Petaluma Gap where soils run heavier in clay, and fog lingers deeper into the morning. These cooler conditions allow for harvest to occur at higher acidity and lower brix, leading to a crisp, vibrant expression of Chardonnay.'

Although I've only sampled two vintages of these wines, the 2010 and 2015, I totally concur: the Pfendler 2015 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($38) has that lovely marriage of sweet butterscotch candy and juicy, citrusy drinkability that just gets better the longer it sits in the glass — or is emptied from the glass, better yet. It's an example of how you don't have to choose between brightness and butterscotch when it comes to well made, cool-climate Chardonnay.

I also like the 2015 Pfendler Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($45) very much. What's missing from this is the brown spice we typically get in a Sonoma Coast or Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, but that's okay. The wine reminds me of pure plum and cherry fruit conserve, or a sauce poured over a dessert or even a meaty main course — duck? see below — but it's not sweet as those aromas might suggest. Fruit skin, chocolate, and black cherry, and a firm handshake between acidity and tannins lead to a slightly warm finish.

Topic for discussion: is this wine's style the result of Petaluma Gap terroir, winemaker Bjornstad's (in this vintage) style, or the sometimes-noted 'brooding' quality of the heritage Pommard and Swan clones?

Mull that over while munching on some of these favorite food pairing recommendations from Kimberly Pfendler.

With Pfendler Sonoma Coast Chardonnay: Cowgirl Creamery triple cream cheese served on hazelnut flatbread, gougeres (popovers), and seared scallops.

With Pfendler Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: Figs stuffed with goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto, lamb broquettes, wild salmon with roasted portobello mushrooms, and roasted duck breast.