Chardonnay marks 100th birthday of growth in U.S.

By Leslie Gevirtz January 31, 2012
Chardonnay, the world's most popular white wine, dates back centuries, but it owes much of its history in the United States to a winemaker who planted the grape in California 100 years ago.

Ernest Wente, of the family-owned Wente Vineyards east of San Francisco, brought cuttings from Montpelier, France in 1912 and planted them in California.

Now, although worldwide there are 34 clones of Chardonnay, most of the Chardonnay produced in California is from the Wente clone.

"Nobody really thought about the great white grape of Burgundy being planted here," said Carolyn Wente, a fourth generation member of the family who heads the winery that was established in 1883.

"Now 75 percent of all the Chardonnay planted in California is Clone 4 -- the Wente Clone," she added. Chardonnay has proven to be a big success for winemakers in Northern California. Up and down the California coast, wineries such as Jordan, La Crema and Matanzas Creek in Sonoma, Parducci in Mendocino and Ortman Family Wines in Paso Robles grow the Wente clone in their vineyards.

Randy Ullom, of Kendall-Jackson wines in Healdsburg, California described it as "the workhorse of Chardonnay. It's everywhere," he said. Corey Beck, the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, California, agrees. "(I am) a fan because even in cool regions it tends to ripen evenly and it always has a lot of flavor," he explained.

Carole Meredith, a winemaker and former geneticist at the University of California, Davis said winemakers like Chardonnay because it is a very forgiving grape. "It's not so much a chameleon as it is versatile," she said. Chardonnay is produced around the globe, particularly in America, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Its green grapes yield the flinty white wines of Chablis, the nutty aromas found in Chassagne-Montrachet and the biscuity smells of Champagne.

In California and New Zealand the white wine has an aroma of tropical fruits.

Meredith and other researchers used DNA techniques to trace Chardonnay back to its roots in France as a cross between Pinot, a grape probably brought by the Romans, and Gouais blanc, an Eastern European variety considered so mediocre there were attempts to ban it.

Winemakers say that great wines are made in the vineyard and the better the fruit, the better the wine. But with Chardonnay winemakers do not have to rely on nature to make a good wine.

"Chardonnay is very amenable to winemaking techniques," Meredith said. "There are a lot of things one can do in the winery that will change the way it tastes."

Thanks to its array of flavors, its easy growing, high yields and adaptability, winemakers produce millions of bottles of Chardonnay with a wide range of styles and prices.

"It's not that Chardonnay doesn't reflect the vineyard. It's just that you can't immediately attribute what you're tasting to the vineyard," Meredith said.