Wente: It’s All About Chardonnay

wenteYou literally can’t talk about California Chardonnay without talking about Wente Vineyards. Ever heard of the Wente Clone? It was created from cuttings that a Wente brought back from France in 1912, and can be linked to 85% of the Chardonnay planted in California.

The family’s (and winery’s) history doesn’t stop there. Wente Vineyards has the distinction of being the oldest continuously-operated, family-owned winery in California. (The current winemaker, Karl D., is the fifth generation.) And did I mention that Wente Vineyards produced California’s first varietally-labelled wine? It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the 1935 vintage. And only a year later Wente produced the first varietally-labeled Chardonnay.

I’ve tasted and enjoyed Wente Vineyards wines, so I was glad to get an invitation to join their second “Twitter Tasting.” I explained this in a post a few months ago, when I did my first Twitter event, but I’ll run it by you again. The way it works is that Wente Vineyard’s very helpful PR folks, Charles Communications, sent me and other bloggers (or “members of the on-line wine community,” the much more reputable-sounding name that I prefer) some bottles of wine. At the appointed time, we all log onto a special Twitter page called TasteLive and watch as winemaker Karl Wente tastes and talks about the wines. The medium is interactive, of course, so those of us in the blogosphere are tasting and tweeting questions and comments. Karl responds to them, live.

It’s really a blast — cheers to CC or whoever came up with the idea.

So let’s get to the good stuff — the wines. We were focused this time on four Chardonnays produced by Wente Vineyards. They represent just about every style of American Chard, and it was great to taste them side by side.

Wente Vineyards Morning Fog Chardonnay 2009 is their entry level bottling, made from fruit grown in their Livermore Valley vineyards. Although the area doesn’t have the name recognition of, say, the Napa Valley, it’s one of the best places in California to grow wine grapes. The valley runs east to west from the San Francisco Bay, sucking in the cool morning fog off the Bay. Gee, maybe that’s how this Chardonnay got its name…

The cool Maritime climate also creates beautiful balance in the grapes — remember that cool temps produce more acid and structure in the fruit, along with intense flavors.

Wente Vineyard’s winemaking practices seem designed to improve upon Nature. Only 50% of this wine is aged in oak, and the balance in stainless steel. This keeps the fruit flavors bright, and the palate light.

It all works. The nose showed lots of tropical fruit and spice, and the palate was rich without being heavy. There was more tropical fruit, bright pineapple, and rich creme brulee. The finish was nice and crisp, with a bit of lingering caramel. The acid kept it from being too blocky or oaky. i’d say it’s great stuff, especially for its humble price (around $13).

Wente Vineyard’s Eric’s Small Lot Chardonnay 2010 was a total departure. This one is also made with fruit from their Livermore vineyard, but it’s handled very differently. First, the juice sees no malolactic fermentation, which is the secondary fermentation that converts the tart malic acid to soft lactic acid. ML is responsible for that “buttery” mouthfeel we used to get in all California Chardonnay, only many of us got tired of it some time ago. Second, the wine is aged entirely in stainless steel vessels, so there’s no oak to give the Chardonnay that rounded, or “woody” taste.

What I got from Eric’s Chardonnay was a fresh, delicate nose and clean, crisp flavors of green apple and pear. The style is elegant and the finish shows the flinty, minerally character that’s possible from Chardonnay. This is a great summertime wine — it’s so refreshing.

The next Chardonnay, Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch 2009, comes from their Arroyo Seco vineyard. This Monterey appellation is also a cool-climate region, again creating well-developed flavors and balanced acid. But I think this wine is defined more by the winemaking practices than the viticulture. This is the only one of the four Wente Chard’s in our tasting that was barrel fermented and aged 100% in oak.

And what a difference. Even the nose smelled richer, with mango, apricots and honey and baking spice. The palate is rich and mouth-filling, with caramel, spice and some bright pineapple. The French, American and Eastern European oak are prominent, bringing lots of toast and additional complexity to the wine.The trademark acid keeps it in balance, though: not too much “butter” here.

My favorite of the evening was Wente Vineyards The Nth Degree Chardonnay 2009. It’s positively seductive: bright acid balances the luscious fruit and fools me into thinking this is just another well-balanced Chard. But then the palate expands to rich butterscotch and baking spice that lingers on and on. I could have sipped and savored this Chardonnay forever…

And that’s apparently what the “Nth Degree” thing is all about. Starting in the vineyard and continuing through the winemaking process, extra steps are taken to take these small lots of wine go to… the Nth degree.

I only regret that this wine is for Wente Wine Club members only. Sorry you can’t buy it — but good for me for drinking it!



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  • [...] Wente: It's All About Chardonnay | Wine Cellars Club And did I mention that Wente Vineyards produced California's first varietally-labelled wine It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the 1935 vintage. And only a year later Wente produced the first varietally-labeled Chardonnay [...]

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