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Sips of Recently Tasted Chardonnay

Chardonnay is by far the most popular varietal among American wine consumers, representing about 21 percent of table wine volume in United States food stores in 2014, according to estimates of Gomberg- Fredrikson & Associates. The 2015 Sonoma State Wine Business Institute report on American wine consumer preferences found that when a sampling of subjects in the age group of 21 to 68 years were asked to pick their favorite grapes from a list, 50% included Chardonnay, the most of any variety.

Chardonnay is California’s most widely planted winegrape with 97,826 acres reported in 2014 leading to a total harvest of 718,029 tons. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that Chardonnay accounted for 16.4% of all grape varieties crushed in California in 2015, with Cabernet Sauvignon second at a distant 11.8%. Monterey County has the most California Chardonnay grape acreage, followed by Sonoma County and then the San Joaquin Valley.

Oregon is a very small player in Chardonnay production compared to California, harvesting only 3,972 tons in 2014. However, recent years have shown a renewed interest and commitment by Oregon vintners to producing Chardonnay and the quality of the wines have escalated. The current crop of Oregon Chardonnays represent the third iteration. The earliest Chardonnays of David Lett and others were superb, but it was quickly learned that the clones planted, such as the Wente clone, would not ripen properly in Oregon’s climate. This was at the time in the 1970s when Americans were relishing bold, buttery Chardonnays from California. The second iteration resulted from Chardonnay plantings in sunnier climes with hopes that the grapes would ripen. The grapes did ripen, but acid levels in the wines were wanting. The third and current wave of Oregon Chardonnay has been most successful because of viticultural knowhow and the importation and wide plantings of Dijon clones of Chardonnay.

Chardonnay was planted in California back as far as the late 1800s. In 1882, Charles Wetmore, the President of the California State Viticultural Commission and owner of Cresta Blanca Winery, brought back budwood cuttings from Meursault in Burgundy. The budwood was then established in vineyards in the Livermore Valley. In 1912, Ernest Wente went to France and took cuttings from the University of Montpellier viticultural nursery. These cuttings took a prominent place in the Wente Vineyards in Livermore that had been established originally in 1883 by C.H. Wente, along with cuttings taken from the Gier Vineyard that had used some of Wetmore’s budwood.

Most Chardonnay vineyards were uprooted during Prohibition, but small plantings of the Wente Chardonnay survived Prohibition. Ernest and Herman Wente took over the family business after Prohibition, and developed the Wente Chardonnay clones that completely transformed California’s Chardonnay wine landscape. In 1948, Fred and Elanor McCrea obtained budwood from Wente Vineyards for planting at their Stony Hill Vineyard in Napa. Louis Martini subsequently took budwood from Stony Hill and referred to it as “Wente,” a term that quickly caught on by other winegrowers who took budwood from the Wente Vineyards.

Budwood from some of Martini’s vines, as well as Wente plantings in Livermore and the nursery established in Arroyo Seco by Karl Wente, were taken to the Foundation Block at University of California at Davis by Howard Olmo beginning in 1955. Olmo selected material that appeared to be disease-free and offered good yields. At the Foundation Block, the vines were grafted, tested and certified as Foundation Plant Materials Service (F.P.M.S.) clone 4. This clone is referred to as the “Wente” or “Heat-treated Wente.” Non-certified budwood, like that taken by the McCreas, is referred to as “Old Wente.

The Wente family will be honored at this year’s International Chardonnay Symposium May 12-14, 2016, held in Pismo Beach, California. This year the Wente family celebrates the 80th anniversary of bottling the nation’s first varietally-labelled Chardonnay, a 1936 vintage. The Chardonnay Symposium will present a panel discussion titled, “Wente Clone Comparative Tasting.” For more information, visit

34 different clonal varieties of Chardonnay have been identified in France and these so-called “Dijon clones” have been exported all over the world. The most common Chardonnay Dijon clones planted are 96 and 95, both traced to Meursault, France, and 76, traced to the Saone et Loire region of France. Dijon clones have gain desirability in Oregon because they give better yields than the Wente clone, and they ripen earlier. The first Dijon clones of Chardonnay established in the Willamette Valley were planted at Knudsen Vineyard in the Dundee Hills in 1990 (clones 76 and 96, with clone 95 added in 1995). There are very few acres of Old Wente plantings remaining in the Northern Willamette Valley as most of the Wente vines have been displaced by Dijon clones. Some Oregon vintners, including Jay Christopher and Josh Bergstrom still profess a love for the Wente clone.

Oregon has its own International Chardonnay Celebration, already held this year in Newberg in March. Visit

The most popular style of domestic Chardonnay is whole cluster pressed and barrel fermented with malolactic fermentation occurring in barrel, and aged sur lie with battonage. The combination of malolactic fermentation and new French oak barrels leads to richer wines with a noticeably creamy texture. There are many variations of this theme and winemaker decisions and manipulations generally play a larger role in Chardonnay than Pinot Noir.

Why review Chardonnay in the PinotFile? Many wineries that craft Pinot Noir also produce Chardonnay and the two are natural partners. There is also a familial connection, as Pinot Noir is one of the parents of Chardonnay. Finally, Chardonnay is my favorite white varietal, and I am enthusiastic about sampling the diversity of offerings.

2014 Bevan Cellars Ritchie Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.6% alc., $65. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Heavily toasted oak dominates the nose which adds aromas of buttery brioche and petrol. Ripely fruited, with flavors of yellow citrus and stone fruits, salted caramel and toast in a full, well-oaked style that made California Chardonnay both famous and infamous. The wine sports a rich and lush mouthfeel and satisfying cut of steely acidity on the finish. Score: 88

2014 Big Table Farm Willamette Valley Oregon Chardonnay

13.2% alc., $45. Label shows Big Table Farm bee hives. Barrel fermented in mixed age French oak barrels. · Light golden yellow color with a slight haze in the glass. Aromas of lemon creme, salted apple, and warm biscuit leap from the glass upon opening. Flavors of apple, pear, citrus, honey and a hint of oak carry through to a finish that is clean, dry and cut. The wine loses a bit of flash over time in the glass indicating it is for current enjoyment. Score: 90

2014 Big Table Farm The Elusive Queen Willamette Valley Oregon Chardonnay

13.6% alc., 116 cases, $85. The name was inspired by Clare’s passion for keeping bees. Unfined and unfiltered. · Light golden yellow color with a slight haze in the glass. Aromas of lemon oil, pine sap, cut apple and spice hold up nicely over time in the glass. Delicious flavors of lemon, apple and yellow peach with deft oak integration. The mantle of juicy acidity brings the fruit to life and the lengthy finish seduces with goodness. A serious, intriguing wine that deserves contemplation and even decanting after opening. Score: 94

2014 Byington Tin Cross Vineyard Alexander Valley Chardonnay

13.5% alc., pH 3.59, TA 0.57, 875 cases, $25. Harvest Brix 26.0º. Described on label as a “Chablis style,” this wine spent 12 months in stainless steel tank. · Light golden yellow color and clear on the palate. Clean aromas of lemon creme, apple and Nutella lead to a crisp, bright, and streamlined wine with appealing flavors of lemon-lime, melon, green apple and bay leaf. This French-styled wine will work nicely as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to shellfish. Score: 89

2014 Byington Tin Cross Harrison Block Reserve Alexander Valley Chardonnay

14.0% alc., pH 3.74, TA 0.48, 200 cases, $40. Harvest Brix 24.0º. Aged 12 months in French and Hungarian oak barrels. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. A hint of reduction accompanies aromas of nori, peach, lemon pie and shredded bark. Slightly viscous on the palate, with fruit flavors of lemon, pear and peach, along with a leesy note. Rather flat in character, lacking acidic vibe, finishing lean. Score: 86

2014 Chappellet Napa Valley Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.43, TA 0.60, $35. Harvest Brix 24.2º. Sourced from vineyards in some of the coolest regions of Napa Valley with the majority from Kelly Ranch that overlooks San Pablo Bay. Aged on lees for 8 months in French oak barrels, 33% new. A significant portion of the wine underwent malolactic fermentation. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. An exceptional wine in every way, with soaring aromas of yellow orchard fruits, citrus blossom and honey that persist over time in the glass, and juicy flavors of lemon and white peach fruits with hints of vanilla and caramel. Classically styled, with a seamless character, and texturally soft and smooth, this wine is like a brisk, refreshing walk at sunrise. Score: 94

2014 FEL Anderson Valley Chardonnay

14.2% alc., 1,441 cases, $28. Released December 1, 2015. A blend of numerous heritage selections and Dijon clones sourced from several vineyards including Ferrington and Savoy. Harvest Brix 23.1º. Whole cluster pressed, fermented in neutral French oak barrels with limited malolactic fermentation. Aged on the lees in 60-gallon neutral French oak barrels for 9 months. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. Aromas of yellow-fleshed stone fruits, lemon oil and meadow lead to a bright and crisp palate of lemon, melon and peach flavors with a hint of roasted nuts and butter brickle. A refreshing wine that is not excessively adorned with oak and picks up interest over time in the glass, finishing with a lengthy, citrus-driven finish. Score: 89

2014 Kutch Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay

12.75% alc., $N/A. · Moderately light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Aromas of green grass and toast dominate with little fruit on the nose. Lean and woody, with tight acidity, tasting of tart citrus fruits and a petrol note reminiscent of Riesling. Slightly creamy in texture, with dry tannins on the austere and citrus-flavored finish. Score: 86

2013 La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.1% alc., pH 3.60, TA 0.58, 890 cases, $38. Greg La Follette has worked with Sangiacomo vineyards since 1984. This bottling is from Roberts Road Vineyard, planted in 1998 in the Petaluma Gap. Old Wente clone. An intentionally reductive style using native yeasts. Lees contact was maintained throughout the 10 month aging process along with gentle batonnage until the beginning of spring. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. The complex nose offers a variety of aromas including lemon oil, yellow peach, toasted brioche, spice and caramel, elevating in intensity over time in the glass. Mildly creamy and plush on the palate, with flavors of lemon drop, yellow peach, baked pear, vanilla and dark toast. The oak input is not shy, but doesn’t overwhelm, and with balanced acidity and a clean, dry finish there is much to like. Score: 90

2014 LaRue Charles Heintz Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

13.1% alc., 50 cases, $60. Vineyard planted in 1982 to Wente clone 4. Aged 17 months in French oak barrels. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Scents of golden apple, wildflower honey and oily oak lead to a bright core of golden apple flavor enriched with notes of white peach and table grape. Nicely composed, with briny acidity and a comforting baby oil mouthfeel. Score: 91

2014 MacRostie Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.2% alc., 325 cases, $32, screwcap. Sourced from Ritchie (Old Wente clone) and Mirabel vineyards.Full malolactic fermentation, 9 months of aging with lees stirring in French oak barrels, 22% new. · Light platinum yellow color and clear in the glass. The nose is energized with aromas of baked pear, lemon oil, brioche and a spritz of lime. Appealing flavors of lemon creme pie, lime, vanilla and faint toasty oak are in sync with sound acidity. Straightforward and easy to like with a pleasingly creamy mouthfeel. Score: 89

2013 Martin Ray Mill Station Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley Chardonnay

13.5% alc., pH 3.41, TA 0.68, $35. Harvest Brix 23.9º. Barrel fermented with select yeast strains. Aged 12 months in French oak barrels, 40% new. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Hi-tone aromas of lemon zest, banana creme, and cookie dough lead to relatively light, but bright and clean flavors of lemon creme, peach, and pineapple with a hint of vanilla and spice. Slightly creamy in the mouth with a refreshing finish. Score: 89

2014 Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.2% alc., $44. A blend of older plantings in western Sonoma County including heritage clones and selections. Whole cluster pressed, indigenous yeast fermentation, aged on lees with weekly stirring, 100% malolactic fermentation in barrel, aged in French oak barrels, 38% new. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Clean aromas of petrichor, banana creme, jasmine and peach. Simple, but satisfying, with a supple mouthfeel, integrated acidity, and bright flavors of lemon, pineapple and nutty oak. Score: 89

2014 Patz & Hall Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay

14.2% alc., $55. From a 3-acre block planted to the Hudson-Wente selection isolated by Lee Hudson. Whole cluster pressed, indigenous yeast fermentations, aged on lies with weekly stirring, 100% malolactic fermentation in barrel, aged in French oak barrels, 45% new. Bottled without filtration. · Moderately golden yellow with a slight haze in the glass. Mild burnt match reduction upon opening that resolves over time in the glass revealing aromas of lemon rind, yellow apple, and vanilla. Delicious flavors of lemon pie, vanilla creme and brioche. Nicely crafted with a classy demeanor, finishing with uncommon length for a California Chardonnay. The wine still seems slightly reductive, tight and holding back at this stage. Score: 92

2014 Pfendler Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.1% alc., 400 cases, $38. Estate grown. Winemaker Greg Bjornstad. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear. The nose unfolds beautifully over time in the glass, revealing aromas of lemon creme pie, malted milk, spice and the slightest toast. Highly enjoyable, with a tasty mix of lemon and white peach flavors presented in a soft and creamy texture with a crisp frame. The wine is nicely balanced with contributory oak, but it is the dreamy mouthfeel that pleases most. Score: 91

2014 Phelps Creek Vineyards “Lynette” Columbia Gorge Chardonnay

13.8% alc., 296 cases, $38. Owner Robert A. Morus’ wife is named Lynette. Estate grown Dijon clones, barrel fermented. · Moderate golden yellow color in the glass. The nose is slow to reveal aromas of citrus blossom, baked apple, apple core and vanilla. Flavors of melon, Meyer lemon and salted apple are seasoned with a light touch of oak. Crisp and uplifting, yet refined and balanced. Score: 88

2013 Saxon Brown Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.7% alc., 290 cases, $68. · Moderately light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Unusual aromas of gun metal, lemon twig and alfalfa lead off. Flavors of lemon, baked apple, and candy apple follow in a balanced offering with an hi-tone citrus-driven finish. Score: 89

2013 Saxon Brown Sangiacomo Vineyard “Green Acres Hill” Carneros Chardonnay

14.2% alc., 149 cases, $58. · Moderately light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Uplifting aromas of lemon, nectarine, nori and lees lead off. Reasonably concentrated flavors of baked pear, peach and crème brûlée. Quite expressive with noticeable mid palate and finishing presence. Nicely composed and harmonious with a juicy finish. Score: 91

2013 Saxon Brown Hyde Vineyard Napa-Carneros Chardonnay

14.4% alc., 223 cases, $68. · Moderately light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Admirable complexity in this wine that offers scents of pear, forest flora, blonde caramel, chalk and gun metal as well as flavors of pear, lemon and subtle oak. The fruit grabs on to the palate and sustains, picking up more glamor over time in the glass. Easy to like because of impeccable balance. Score: 92

2014 Sonoma-Loeb Sangiacomo Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.46, TA 0.62, $27. Harvest Brix 23.4º-26.0º. 50% malolactic fermentation, aged on the lees for 8 months in French oak barrels, 35% new. Produced and bottled by Chappellet Vineyard where winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus has been at the helm since 1990. · Moderately light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. Inviting scents of lemon meringue, pineapple and baking spices are echoed on the palate with added notes of white nectarine and apple. Fuller bodied, silky in the mouth, with impeccable balance. Score: 90

2012 Wind Racer Anderson Valley Chardonnay

13.8% alc., $40. Robert Young clone (17). Aged 14 months on the lees with frequent stirring in French oak barrels, 26% new. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. The nose opens with some reductive aromas of sulfur and flint, improving over time in the glass although no fruit shows up. Better on the palate, with flavors of lemon, peach, caramel and crème brûlée. Soft and slightly viscous, with a moderately long and chalky-textured finish. Score: 88

2012 Wind Racer Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.6% alc., $40. Clones 809 and Wente 4. Aged 14 months on the lees with frequent stirring in French oak barrels, 28% new. · Moderate golden yellow color and clear in the glass. The nose offers aromas of apple core, nori, lemon, yeast and gardenia. Soft on the palate with integrated, sound acidity, offering flavors of lemon-lime and briny apple. Lacks the lusciousness we have come to expect from Russian River Valley Chardonnay, seemingly even a bit faded as the wine is now four years old. Score: 87

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