Chardonnay happens to be one of my favorite varietals. I love the full body and acidity, whether it’s a leaner, Burgundian French style or a tropical, voluptuous California style. But I am not a fan of the super buttery, sweet, oaky kind. The problem is many people don’t realize there is any other style. It’s our nation's favorite varietal, one out of four bottles that Americans drink is a California Chardonnay and it really all began at Wente Vineyards in Livermore.
Ever Heard of the Wente Clone?
In 1912 Ernest Wente (son of Wente Family Estates founder C.H. Wente) brought Chardonnay cuttings from France back to California and planted them in Livermore. One hundred years later California Chardonnay is the most planted wine grape in the state and most of it is still started from a Wente clone. Like any centenarian, California Chardonnay is a survivor. Chardonnay plantings at Wente Vineyards were among the few to make it through prohibition. The varietal has survived disease as well as corporatization which eventually put mediocre Chardonnays on nearly every menu as the house white. And now it is overcoming an infatuation with a certain flavor profile.
No, I am not talking about those majestic trees that dot our landscape but, rather, that aspect of Chardonnay that got out of control for awhile. In the 1950s, Ambassador James Zellerbach brought French oak barrels to the U.S. to use for aging wine. His success making Burgundian Chardonnays at Hanzell Vineyards encouraged others to use oak barrels and likely influenced Chateau Montelena's victory over French Chardonnay in 1976. But for many, bigger is better. The trend of aging in new French oak barrels took off in California. By the late 1980s that nice, toasty quality from the French oak became a kind of crack cocaine for winemakers-- addictive to the point of excess. Fortunately, the trend is beginning to correct itself.
Meanwhile, Back in Livermore
As with many younger winemakers, fifth generation Karl Wente is less enamored of the big oak, high alcohol trend. He would never say that outright. As a serious practicing yogi, Wente is less judgmental than I am. He would say something like, “Stylistically, I want the fruit to be more expressive.” At 6 foot 7, Karl Wente may be carrying the weight of his family's legacy on his shoulders but he is also reaching out to a new generation of wine drinkers who already know a thing, or two, about wine.
I paid a visit to Wente back in December, on the eve of their Chardonnay centennial celebration. Karl Wente led me through a vertical tasting of six Chardonnay vintages and styles. Like many wines, crisp Chardonnays are best paired with food and so we tasted them along side several dishes prepared by Chef Matt Greco at the winery's restaurant on Arroyo Road in Livermore.
I tried a one hundred percent stainless steel '07 Eric's Chardonnay from Wente’s artisanal, small production line. It was paired with a fowl terrine. "Awesome" was the way Karl Wente explained it. I agreed it had great acidity. If cost was not an issue growers would farm in the style of Wente's Nth Degree line. This is the best of the vintages, handcrafted and limited in production. We tried an '04 and '09 with swordfish. After aging in the bottle for eight years the '04 was stunning. The '09 was lovely but a little too oaky for my taste. I also liked one of Wente's most accessible wines, Morning Fog ($13). As Karl Wente explains, "there is this perception that the Livermore Valley is a really hot place but we get a morning fog that cools off the valley so we can retain those beautiful flavors." The Wente '07 Morning Fog shined with butternut squash agnolotti. I tasted stone fruit and pear. But I also liked the 2010 Morning Fog and could have drank it by itself. I was less enamored by the Riva Ranch 2010 from Monterey. It was lush with subtle oak and perfect for folks that like that hint of butter and vanilla.
In all honesty, I was hesitant at first to feature the Wentes because I like to focus on smaller undiscovered wine makers. But the Wentes are doing thoughtful work with Chardonnay that should be recognized. So, a toast to this California wine making family for helping to pave the way in our love affair with a certain white grape.
Do you have a favorite Chardonnay? Let us know!