Wente Vineyards Shows Chardonnay’s Range

lumber“I don’t like Chardonnay.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this lately, from customers and friends. Heck, I’ve even heard it from my significant other!

I used to try to argue, or to persuade, but it was usually a waste of time. The problem was that these folks thought all Chard tasted like the old-fashioned California style: a 2×4 and a stick of butter.

They should have tasted Wente Vineyards Chardonnays. They could have picked from a range of styles that hit all kinds of palates, and hit one very important nail right on the head — BALANCE! This deceptively simple feature just means that none the elements of a wine — fruit, acid, oak and alcohol — overpower any other. They play a nice little symphony in your mouth, without the tuba player or the cymbals hogging all the attention.

So how do the folks at Wente make such kick-ass Chardonnay? Well, they kinda have it in their genes… The generation that’s currently running the winery and vineyards is the fifth — which takes the winery’s founding way back to 1883. They have the distinction of being the country’s oldest, continuously-operated family-owned winery.riva

But being old doesn’t make you good. What makes them good started with the second generation, Ernest Wente, who was in the first class that graduated from UC Davis’s famed enology program. One of Ernest’s professors went to Europe and brought back some Chardonnay cuttings from Montpelier, France. In California’s climate they produced particularly beautiful fruit flavors. They propagated what they now call Wente Clone 4, and the rest is history: something like 75% of all the Chardonnay grown in California is the Wente clone. Most of those high-priced, highly-rated Chards you’ve read about use fruit descended from Ernie Wente’s French cuttings.

So I knew all this when I fired up my computer to participate in an online, streaming wine tasting with Karl Wente, the fifth generation winemaker. We tasted through four Wente Chardonnays, each representing a different style and flavor profile. It became clear that the words of another Wente ancestor, maybe Ernest again, were true: he said that Chardonnay was the grape that offered the most opportunity to create a style by manipulating different elements (Sorry Karl — you said it better but I forget your words). A winemaker can choose:

1 – When to pick the grapes. When they’re picked at lower sugar levels, like 22 Brix, the wine will be lighter, leaner, and less “fruity”. Grapes that hang on the vine till they reach 24 Brix will be riper, rounder, and richer tasting.

2 – A winemaker can choose to ferment and/or age in stainless steel or oak barrels, and if oak is used the possibilities are almost endless for what type of oak is used; whether the barrels are new or used; and how long the wine sits in barrel.

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