Illustration: Tom Jellett
Every winemaker wants to use the best grapes possible, so if a particular vine produces fruit of exemplary quality, it will be carefully nurtured. Cuttings are taken and grafted onto other vines to propagate new versions that will, hopefully, also produce excellent fruit.
Most of the chardonnay planted today in California comes from the Wente family. It all started just over 100 years ago, when second-generation winemaker Ernest Wente was a student at the University of California, Davis. He persuaded his father to import chardonnay cuttings from the vine nurseries of the University of Montpellier in France for a wine project. He then grafted these onto American budwood in the Livermore Valley and, over the next 30 to 40 years, nurtured the vines that showed the best traits: high yields, flavour and resistance to disease. His efforts paid off - the Wente Clone was established and shared with other California wineries; long-time fans are Hanzell, Stony Hill and Louis Martini. In 1976, the white wine that won the Judgment of Paris, pit-ting Californian wine against French, was Chateau Montelena's 1973 chardonnay - made from the Wente Clone. The win encouraged Californian winemakers to grow more chardonnay (2,700 acres in 1970 was, by 1985, expanded to 45,000 acres, and today there are more than 100,000 acres, accounting for 25 per cent of the world's total chardonnay plantings). Chardonnay is now the most popular white wine in the United States.
The word "clone" might suggest something that is identical to the original; but in winemaking, clones are simply vines that have been chosen for their distinctive characteristics. Even though grapes from clones may have similar origins, what ultimately gives a wine its individual character is where it is planted, the soil conditions (we're talking terroir here) and how the fruit is handled once harvested. Decisions include when to pick the grapes, how they are pressed, the type of yeast used, length and temperature of fermentation, whether or not the wine is filtered and whether it's aged in oak barrels - which then gives rise to other questions, such as whether to use French or American oak, and if it should be new or used.
Californian chardonnays show an incredible range of styles and come in at a wide range of prices, so there is one out there to suit any budget.
For a chardonnay that is similar to those produced in Burgundy, one should look to Russian River Valley in Sonoma. Kistler, Hartford Court, Williams Selyem and others all produce excellent chardonnays that would give the Burgundians a run for their money - and they all use Wente Clones. These wines show lots of cool-climate characteristics - crisp acidity (apples and pears), a bit of flintiness and not a lot of oak.
If you're after the classic buttery chardonnay with a bit of tropical fruit on the nose, then look at the ones from Napa Valley. Carneros (part of which is in Sonoma) is a particularly good place for chardonnay: it produces good ripeness. Stag's Leap Vineyards, Chateau Montelena and Mayacamas all make very distinctive chardonnays in this style. Other areas to look at include Monterey and Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile, for everyday-drinking chardonnays, who hasn't had a bottle of Gallo - probably the world's largest producer of the grape - at one point or another? Yes, these wines are made in vast quantities, but what makes them successful are their consistency and availability.