Chardonnay clones: how much do they matter?

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.


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