Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to…Hyde?

It was by chance that I became a Chardonnay specialist. I showed up for the 1993 harvest at Newton Vineyards and on the first day winemaker John Kongsgaard assigned us our roles, “you, Merlot boy, you, Chardonnay boy.” Boy, did I get lucky, huh? Newton was only my third crush job and it followed a long hiatus at UC Davis where I was imbued with the chemistry and biology of wine but had not advanced any further in honing the skills of the craft. My own little personal intellectual renaissance had just about run its course: though I still found a scientific approach to wine interesting, I was ready to get back to acquiring the knowledge that has been accreting over the past century in the cellars of generations of artisans.

So from Cabernet Sauvignon and Sparkling crush jobs, and a dinner table that was graced with Graves rather than Bourgogne blanc, I came to Newton green but enthusiastic. Not that I hadn’t consumed my share of Chardonnay up to that point, only now I was paying closer attention. Fortunately, the ’93 harvest at Newton proved to be an immersion course. A perk at Newton was the daily seated white tablecloth lunch served by an in-house chef hired just for the harvest. Presiding over this feast was Sir Peter, who would pour wine from his impressive and sometimes obscure cellar. Does a 1972 Sterling Pinot Chardonnay sound curious? Early on, Californians called their Chardonnay such a name. On one occasion, one of Sir Peter’s guests poured a 1991 Lafon Meursault that proved to be deliciously reminiscent of the 1991 Newton Unfiltered. A little surreptitiously, John saved the last little bit and sent me to the lab to analyze it. Not terribly romantic to measure the pH after a fine meal and bottle of wine, is it? Alas.

John had gathered together an impressive collection of vineyard sources for Newton’s Chardonnay program. The room beneath Sir Peter’s rose garden became my domain, a cool, dark cellar of pyramid-stacked French oak barrels, some well-known coopers, some quite esoteric. It was there that I learned the cellar craft of traditional Chardonnay making. It was also there that my curiosity about clones was piqued. I pestered John about the vineyard sites: how their climates varied, what clones were planted in each, what soils were predominant, and the average age of the vines. I observed the widely varying cluster morphology as we loaded the fruit into the press. And, as one must, I spent a lot of time tasting through the lots before and during their transformation from juice to wine.

John favored a selection called Old Wente, a field selection from pre-Prohibition days that traveled a multi-path route through various vineyards providing offspring that expressed a number of subtle variations with various names. Since this selection was virused, at one point someone brought it to the UC Davis Department of Foundation Plant Material Services to be heat-treated to create a series of clones. To heat-treat, cuttings from a single vine (so that they are genetically homogenous) are planted in pots and subjected to wet heat for a period of days, sometimes forty or more. The vines that don’t die are tested for virus and, if found to be clean, are numbered and released for propagation. Vines removed from heat treatment after different lengths of time are assigned separate numbers. UCD 4 and UCD 5 are examples of two unequal heat treatments of the Old Wente selection. Because the vines, grapes and wines from the pre and post heat treatment are distinct, it is reasonable to expect that the difference main between them is the presence and absence of virus. There has been the suspicion, though, that the heat alters the plant genome as well as killing the virus, and this view is supported by the particulars of the plant material from different length heat treatments: if both 4 and 5 are rid of their virus, why are the vines and the wines made from them not the same?

We have a selection of Old Wente known as Hyde, named for the pioneering grower who identified individual plants with desirable characteristics in his block of Old Wente and propagated new blocks with this material. We know that every year the grape clusters will have tiny berries and that the wine will deliver a taut mineral backbone with a white peach infused fleshy breadth that fills the mid-palate. Our lightest yielding clone, sometimes painfully low, it’s definitely worth the extra cost and effort.

When growing wine grapes, the pace of learning is slow, it takes years, sometimes decades to understand what is happening in your little plot on a hill. As a result, following the latest fashion and trend is not a conducive environment for learning about the finest Chardonnay selection for your vineyard site. We may just discover that the best clone for our site comes from old material that has been passed around the state for a long time. As with most things, often a combination of the wisdom from previous generations combined with the advances of the new result in the ultimate expression.

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