Once when studying Viticulture and Enology at U.C. Davis, I interviewed for a scholarship from Gallo or some other large winery and was asked the question, “What variety of wine would you most like to make?” I was a little flummoxed because, so far, the interview was going very well. My previous response that I planned to study and travel in France the following academic year was met with the approving, “Hmmms”, “I sees….” and “ah, very goods.” With this question I was stumped. It had not occurred to me that I ever had to pick just one wine I wanted to make so I had not thought about it very much. I plum didn’t really know. I had not yet had my Pinot Epiphany nor heard the Siren Song of Syrah. But not having an answer was certain interview death so I thought quickly and recalled that the night before I had just tasted a vineyard designated Chardonnay, a 1987 Acacia Marina Vineyard. It was somewhat of a revelatory experience for me. Here was a wine that had a provenance from a single specific locale, a concept not entirely unknown to American wineries but certainly not a widespread practice. Because I was intrigued with this concept of single vineyard wine, I answered that I wanted to make Chardonnay “because it seemed to be a variety that held a lot of potential stylistically.” Uh-oh. Furrowed brows, pursed lips: not the answer they were seeking. I honestly cannot remember if they ended up giving me the scholarship because the stern group concluded that it was a decent answer after all or they thought it was just too weird of an answer and I must be an idiot savant.

Sometimes when I think of Chardonnay, that old Prince song (when he was actually known as Prince before he was the artist formally known as Prince) pops into my head, except that I unconsciously insert “Chardonnay” where “lover” ought to be:

“you need another Chardonnay like you need a hole in yo head…”

Or as my husband Nick always says, “Does the world really need another Chardonnay?” Maybe that’s what the humorless group that interviewed me prognosticated and viewed me as enologically unimaginative. I was downright dull; I may as well have said that I aspired to make vanilla ice cream. At the time, no one knew just how ubiquitous Chardonnay was going to become. Nor did I know that my answer to the interview question would be, in the end, somewhat prophetic and that I was indeed going to work with Chardonnay for the duration of my winemaking career.

My career started favorably enough, however, as I had the rare opportunity to work with the late Greg Upton who pioneered “Cuvée Sauvage” Chardonnay. My job was to monitor all the lots that made Cuvée Sauvage. This was a wine made with “wild” yeast, or rather, with juice that was not inoculated with commercially selected and industrially prepared yeast, the latter a common practice in winemaking then and now. I noticed that the Cuvée Sauvage lots had a certain texture that wasn’t quite the same as the regular lots of Chardonnay fermented with commercially selected yeast. But it wasn’t until I made wine at the veritable “House of Chardonnay”, Peter Michael Winery, where every lot of Chardonnay was vinified separately, each as an indigenous lot and also one that was inoculated, that I was truly able to distinguish what the indigenous fermentation lent to the character of the wine. By having this comparison of the two winemaking techniques for every single grape lot from every vineyard for five vintages I was able to get a good feel for defining what sort of Chardonnay fruit was most fitting for this sort of winemaking. The lots that were fermented with indigenous yeast were better integrated texturally and possessed a certain seamlessness on the palate. This was not the case for all of the lots, however. In some instances, the indigenous yeast wines were broader, not as vibrant as their inoculated counterparts. This was the reason that un-inoculated fermentation was not the protocol for all the Chardonnay lots. This incidence had a lot to do with the acidity of the grapes, or the lack thereof. With the Chardonnay grapes that we grow in the cool climate of our vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, the acidity is quite present and the broadening and smoothing element of the indigenous yeast lends a perfect counter-balance.

“Isn’t it rich? Aren’t we a pair…”

So, when I first tasted the Chardonnay grapes from our vineyard, I was really quite struck by the intensity of the flavors and I said to myself, “The world may not need another flabby, oaky, buttery Chardonnay but could really enjoy one made from these grapes!”

During the raising of the 2004 Chardonnay, I was very excited about the individual lots that make up the final 2004 Chardonnay blend. We grow five different clones of Chardonnay, each displaying its unique characteristic. As we monitored the ripeness of flavor in the various clonal blocks of Chardonnay, we noted that not only were there differences between the clones, but also that within certain clones, the clusters of the renewal canes, because of the way that they had flowered in the spring of that vintage, were not at the same ripeness as the other clusters in the same vine. So although it was more work and effort, we not only picked the clones separately, we made 2 passes through specific sections to pick certain clusters within the vine separately. It was important enough for us to do this to optimize the flavors of the grapes. This level of attention to detail is not just an indication of my unhealthy obsessive neurosis over when to harvest but, to me, is a reflection of a continuing and deepening understanding of how our vineyard grows, i.e. its quirks and patterns and what we need to do to work in harmony and benefit from our terroir. Although the clones display individual character, what they have in common is a pronounced minerality in the nose and on the palate which I think is the hallmark of the expression of our coastal vineyard. They each, however, lend an intriguing personality to the final blend. The Dijon 96 clone offers a fresh grapefruit and pear expression while the Robert Young clone provides a richer stone fruit character. The Dijon 95 clone lends a citrusy lime element while the Dijon 76 clone has a sort of spicy pear and fig note. The Hyde clone, as Nick describes in his column, contributes the mineral backbone to the blend.

Having worked with a lot of Chardonnay, I really feel that growing Chardonnay at our vineyard yields fruit that make distinctive wines with good acidity and with essence and purity. So having given you my mental wanderings about clones, terroir, indigenous yeast and what makes our wine distinct, I would like to introduce you to “The Wine Formally Known as Chardonnay”!

Recent articles by Vanessa Wong