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Chardonnay clones: how much do they matter?

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I’m going to be moderating the panel on clones at The Chardonnay Symposium, which makes it sound like I know all about them when, in reality, I know very little. However, a panel moderator doesn’t have to know much about the topic at hand. The secret to moderating a panel is simply to get the panelists do the talking.

Well, I’m being modest. I do know a little about clones. Here’s what I know–or think I know. I’m hoping to learn more from comments by my savvy readers

-       There are many, many clones, or selections, of Chardonnay: Clone 4, the Wente selection, Mount Eden, Hudson, Rued, Dijons 7, 95, 96, 548, etc. I couldn’t tell you what each of them does, though.

-       Almost everybody grows the Wente selection (and to add to the confusion, there are different strains of Wente).

-       The various clones are sensitive to climate, which affects the wines’ acidity. That’s why some clones are preferred in Oregon and Burgundy, as opposed to others used in California.

-       It’s debatable whether certain clones succeed better with certain rootstocks.

-       That Rued clone often reveals itself with a Muscat-like scent.

-       Some vintners, including Marimar Torres and Elias Fernandez, believe that making a single wine from multiple clones lends complexity, and helps protect against vintage variation. (We see the same thing with Pinot Noir.) At Williams Selyem, Bob Cabral planted more than 20 clones in a single block.

-       Chardonnays made from different clones react differently to oak. Some seem better able to handle lots of new wood than others.

-       Some winemakers swear that certain blocks within their vineyards consistently produce superior Chardonnay, and they attribute this to the clone. But it could be the terroir, couldn’t it?

Obviously, any and all of these issues can make for lots of conversation, so I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about.

There is, however, a lacuna of knowledge concerning Chardonnay clones, which is why there’s so much confusion about them. As Nancy Sweet, at U.C. Davis’s Foundation Plant Services, explained in her 2007 paper on Chardonnay, Formal grape clonal selection programs in the United  States have not received the financial support that has allowed European programs to progress. I would guess, given the dismal state of educational funding nowadays, that that situation is unlikely to improve.

So far, my panelists are Merry Edwards, Jeff Stewart (Hartford Court), Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench), James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9) and a Wente yet to be determined (but I think Karl is unable to come. The Wentes, of course, know a lot about Chardonnay clones). The Symposium is at Byron, down in the Santa Maria Valley, where we should have an audience of about 100-150.

One thing I want to avoid, as moderator, is the panel getting bogged down in technical minutiae. After all, this is a consumer event, not a graduate seminar at Davis. But I won’t let it get dumbed down. I was at a panel event recently (in the audience, not onstage) where the moderator tried to dumb it down by getting cutesy with the panelists. It wasn’t exactly “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” but it was close. When you have smart people onstage, let them be smart.

  1. One question I would have (we don’t make enough Chardonnay for me to have tried to find an answer), is whether the importance of clonal selection with Chardonnay is over shadowed by winemaking decisions. For example, Chardonnay may or may not be put thru malolactic fermentation (but virtually all reds are). Chardonnnay may be fermented in oak or not (but few reds are). Do these decisions take precedence over clonal selection.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Adam, that’s the kind of question I don’t think has an objective answer. Like most of these wine questions, it overlaps science, esthetics, personal opinion and the vagaries in individual experience. This is what keeps wine writers in business!

  3. Steve,

    Undoubtedly, you are correct, there is no objective answer. But given the speakers you have lined up, and the wines they make in addition to Chardonnay, I’d love to hear (and learn from) their opinions on the subject.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Adam, I’ll be sure to zero in on this! Hope to see you there.

  5. Steve, if I was there, I would be interested in hearing their thoughts on matches between soils and clones. Are there certain clones that produce special wines in specific soils? And are there clones that are more common in specific appellations of Burgundy?

  6. Dan Updike says:

    Interesting topic. I was just having the same discussion with a New York winery about Chardonnay clonal selection in the Finger Lakes. I know from talking to NY winemakers that pioneers in planting vinifera here 30 to 40+ years ago often had to guess as to what might be suitable and use what was available. For instance there are older Pinot Noir vineyards in the Finger Lakes planted with Champagne clones. Now vineyard managers can choose (and have done so) clones from Calera and Dijon for example. I’d be interested in your discussion in California if there are clones that were widely planted that would be frowned on be planted today if one had the choice.

  7. Michael Thomas/Wrath Wines says:

    Steve,

    While an objective answer may be hard to come by, we do enough work with different Chard clones and different wine making variations (oak versus steel tank; malo versus no malo or limited malo; or indigenous versus inoculated yeasts)to see pretty distinct clonal variations.

    A great topic for a panel…

    Michael Thomas
    Wrath Wines

  8. i’d be curious to hear their thoughts on putting chard through ML then bottling it unfiltered

  9. Dan Kleck says:

    My experience is that the Dijon and Wente clones of CH usually carry about 10 – 15% less total acidity in their final ripeness makeup, making them ideal candidates for very cool-climate winemaking, where ML is utilized. However, in most Calif. climates, even the cooler ones, these clones generally don’t carry enough acidity to be balanced post-ML. They do, however, contain much higher levels of fruity aromatic compounds, making them wonderful blending components. Clone 4, on the other hand, somehow nearly always holds excellent acidity through ripening….even when over cropped. While less flavorful in its basic state than the much smaller berry Dijon, Wente & Rued clones, the Clone 4 Chards can readily be put through full ML fermentation in cooler CA climates, rendering them much more complex wines, overall, due to the secondary charcteristics of that bacterial fermentation. Dijon, Wente & Rued are clearly great clonal choices for Oregon, New York & similar microclimates, however, from a California perspective, Clone 4 is usually a better choice as a base wine, supplemented with small quantities of these more exotic clones.

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