Great Wine from an Overlooked Region: Wente Vineyards

wenteThere are several regions in California that get lots of attention as “wine country destinations.”  The Livermore Valley isn’t usually one of them, although it’s just an easy 50 minute drive from San Francisco. Located east of the city, on the far side of the East Bay Hills, it’s the home of a few nationally-known wineries (ever heard of Concannon?) and many small operations.

We have family in the East Bay area who had told us good things about the area, so we set out to find it. We drove east, over the sun-baked hills, and dropped down into the beautiful valley that houses Wente Vineyards. Before we reached the winery buildings, we saw … manicured greens and fairways! Yes, Wente Vineyards is also home to a championship golf course, designed by none other than golfing wino Greg Norman. (My golfer’s heart leapt, but I had no clubs in my trunk and had to wait to fight another day).

There’s a whole lot of history here. German immigrant C.H. Wente came to the valley 125 years ago and learned to make wine from none other than the original Charles Krug. The 48 acres C.H. bought then has grown to almost 3,000 acres in the Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay appellation and Arroyo Seco, Monterey. And the fifth generation of Wentes is now in the winemaking business. This looks like a wine force to be reckoned with…

A little research showed me that the Livermore Valley is an ideal place to grow wine grapes. Running west to east from the San Francisco Bay, it gets buried every day in the fog that comes rolling off the Pacific, through the Golden Gate Gap and right up the valley. The morning fog lays longest on the valley floor, where cool-climate-loving Chardonnay thrives. They plant warm-weather-loving grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot on the sunny hillsides. Now that’s how to make the most of micro-climates.

But let’s get to the wine. The first one I tasted was the Morning Fog Chardonnay 2008 (and we know how that got its name). One effect of the fog (and cool night-time temps) is to create good acid in the grapes. And acid means balance (unless you muck it up with too much malolactic fermentation). The folks at Wente are all about preserving the character of the fruit and not mucking it up with anything. They ferment and age 50% of the grapes in stainless steel, so that the oak influence is very subdued. And they age both the oaked and unoaked portions “sur lie”, or on the yeast, which adds richness to the palate.

All this made me go, “Oh!” when I took my first sip. Ripe tropical fruit hit me first, and then some creamy tapioca. The acid was right in there too, keeping the palate clean and crisp. The oak came through on the finish, but with just a delicate hint of vanilla. The whole package managed to be luscious and fruity without being too heavy or oaky.

This is definitely a Chardonnay for those who don’t like Chardonnay. And also for those who do!

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