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Fresh new California chardonnay undergoes a major facelift



California chardonnay has always been a style: voluptuous, mouth-filling, rich and buttery. And just like clothing and music, wine styles change. These days, preservation of acidity and freshness is the mantra of serious chardonnay producers around the world, with most staying away from the oak-soaked, fat, buttery soft editions. How are they doing it? They’re calling in the clones.

California’s winemakers have long made headlines for their post-phylloxera (read: torn out and replanted) vineyards, and how they’ve reshaped those vineyards to fit modern tastes. Much of the buzz has centred around proximity to the ocean, altitude, row orientation, irrigation, pruning, temperature variations, vine density – even how many hours those vines remain under fog.

But in the past decade, another variable has been added, and that’s an increased emphasis on pre-selecting plant material. In other words: the use of clones.

The growing use of different chardonnay clones is changing the face of this very public grape. It may take a few years before the impact is fully felt, but sooner than later chardonnay drinkers everywhere will taste the change. Nowhere is this more evident than in California where chardonnay is undergoing a facelift so subtle it would make even a Beverley Hills plastic surgeon jealous.

What is a clone, you ask?

In an interview posted online at, David Graves, Saintsbury co-proprietor and curious grape guy, posed that same question to Carole Meredith, a long-time member of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis.

Meredith says, "A clone is a variant within a variety that has some difference of interest to grape growers and/or winemakers. The differences can be in visible features like berry size or cluster shape or they can be differences in such things as aroma or acidity. The older the variety, the more variants exist within the variety because there has been more time for the differences to arise."

The interest in a particular chardonnay clone may arise because it develops a zingy acidity or it thrives in cool-climate conditions, thus preserving its acidity and fruit better than other clones. It could be about richer flavours, lower alcohol or broader mouthfeel.

A quick look at the history of California chardonnay explains its significance – and the reason it needs to change. California chardonnay was born in the late 1950s. Its eureka moment, says Hugh Johnson, in his new book Hugh Johnson Wine, A Life Uncorked , was when French barrels were brought to California from Burgundy.

The seminal moment came with the release of the 1957 Hanzell Chardonnay from Sonoma, says Johnson, followed closely by efforts by Mondavi, Heitz and Beaulieu Vineyards.

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