June 2012

Send in the Clones

By: Christopher Sawyer


New planting of the Old Wente clone at Sangiacomo family’s Kiser Vineyard in Carneros.

Chardonnay fans unite! Each year, an abundance of birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated in the wine industry. Many of these events are retrospective tastings or festive occasions highlighting the achievements of a winery or a particular winemaker over a series of decades. But very rarely does a specific year represent the symbolic anniversary of a special clone that helped lift the Chardonnay grape variety to star-status over the past one hundred years of cultivation in the New World.

It’s a remarkable tale that began at Wente Vineyards, a prestigious winery founded in 1883 by Carl H. Wente in the Livermore Valley.  At the turn of the last century, the two main white grape varieties planted in the region were Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon; so while attending University of California Davis in 1912, second-generation family member Ernest Wente began researching the background of Chardonnay, a unique white grape variety made famous in the Burgundy region of France.

Viticulturalist Rob Sorenson plays a very important role in cultivating the Wente clone at the Wente estate.
After learning about the qualities of the variety, Wente worked with his family and Leon Bonnet of U.C. Davis to import cuttings of Chardonnay from the vine nursery at the University of Montpellier in France. Around the same time, he also sourced budwood from Gier Vineyard in Pleasanton, CA. After decades of experimentation, the two sources formed the basis of what is now called the “Wente” clone of Chardonnay. 1

With fruit from the 1936 vintage, Ernest and his brother Herman Wente went on to release the nation’s first bottling with the varietal name Chardonnay printed on the label. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Wente clone was planted by other influential California wineries, including Stony Hill, Louis Martini and Hanzell. At the Martini family’s Stanly Lane vineyard in Carneros, Dr. Harold Olmo and other staff members at U.C. Davis ran special trials to separate variations of the clone.2 Some of the popular clonal selections planted in Napa Valley and Sonoma County were the main components used to make the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, the wine that triumphed over France’s most prestigious whites at the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976. 

With success in the vineyards and fanfare from the media, the plantings of Chardonnay in California increased from 2,700 acres in 1970 to 45,000 acres in 1988.3 Today, there are almost 100,000 acres of the variety planted in the state4—a majority of which is either Wente Clone 4 or special variations of its genetic cousins, including clones 5, 17, 72, 97 and the Hyde-Wente selection. 5

A Wente clone reaches the bud break stage at one of the Sangiacomo family’s Sonoma vineyards.
Carrying on the Tradition

In comparison to the newer Chardonnay clones imported from France, the classic Wente clusters produce smaller berries with a high concentration of flavors. Its fashionable profile often includes rich flavors and aromas of apple, pear, peach, apricot, Muscat and tropical fruits. And depending on the site where the vines are planted, the clusters can also provide winemakers with natural nuances of fresh citrus, candied ginger, cracked pepper or nutty characteristics that add more layers of complexity to the finished wines.

As a result, many distinguished wineries have sought out and planted cultivars of the old Wente clone, including Peter Michael, Spring Mountain Estate, Donum Vineyard and Kestrel in Washington. Some of the younger clones (commonly known as Hyde-Wente selections) are also favorites of maverick winemakers like David Ramey, Steve Kistler, John Koonsgaard and Andy Smith of DuMol.

Wente’s Nth Degree and Eric’s Chardonnays are made entirely from the Wente clone.
To keep the tradition alive, the Wente family farms nearly 850 acres of the clones at their vineyards in Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco in Monterey County. According to fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente, the success of the clone comes down to three important factors: the health of the vines, the quality of fruit and the flavorful taste of the grapes. “At the end of the day, I’m looking for the ‘delicious’ and ‘feel good’ factors the grapes can provide for complete sensory experience.”

Currently celebrating his tenth vintage as head winemaker, Wente says he’s learned that the secret to working with the clone is to pick the grapes when there is a perfect balance between the levels of sweetness and acidity, usually between 22 to 23 brix. The other important factor is the level of pH which provided the wine with a nice level of freshness. “You just can’t fake pH,” said Wente, who bottles four separate wines made with the Wente clone.

The Popularity of the Wente Clone Continues

Another fan of the clone is winemaker James Hall of Patz & Hall Winery, who has worked with material planted at the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros for many years. “It’s a clone that we pick at low sugar because it has so many flavors, a lot of mineral and texture, a low pH and a natural color that is off the charts” he said. “In my opinion, it’s the fountainhead of all Chardonnay clones grown in California.

The Wente clone is used for the major portion of Wente Vineyards’ Morning Fog and Riva Ranch Chardonnays.
In Sonoma County, Steve Sangiacomo and his family have the Wente clone planted in different blocks in their vineyards. According to him, newer plantings of the clone are in high demand by producers with a reputation for making sophisticated wines for consumers. “As a single clone, it has the greatest possibility of making a high-class wine.”

Vineyard blocks planted with the Wente clone can also survive for a long period of time. Celebrating his 66th vintage this year, Mendocino County grape grower Charlie Barra still works with the gnarly block of the Wente clone planted at his vineyard in Redwood Valley in the late 1950s.

“When I wanted to plant new vineyards back in the 1950s, the Wente family, Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini and Christian Brothers all paid me more money per ton to work with the high-quality Wente clone,” says Barra. “As a farmer, one of the smartest things I ever did was to follow their lead!”

1 Philip Wente
2 Nancy Sweet 2007
3 Wolpert et al. 1994; Robinson 2006
4 CDFA 2011
5 Nancy Sweet 2007

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