Dunne on Wine

Mike Dunne: Livermore’s long chardonnay history yields impressive results

The Wente family founded their winery in 1883, and in 1936 became the first vintners to release chardonnay wine.
The Wente family founded their winery in 1883, and in 1936 became the first vintners to release chardonnay wine. Courtesy of Balzac Communications & Marketing

Semillon, sauvignon blanc and even grey riesling have had their day in Livermore Valley. Now it’s chardonnay’s turn.

It’s about time. No California wine region has played a more pivotal role as the incubator of chardonnay, the state’s most popular varietal wine.

Much of the credit for that goes to Livermore Valley’s Wente family. Many of the chardonnay vines they first planted in 1912 survived Prohibition, and at Repeal, provided the stock for growers keen on reviving the state’s vineyards. Even today, Wente clones of chardonnay are believed responsible for 80 percent of the California acreage cultivated to the variety.

The Wentes founded their winery in 1883, and in 1936 became the first vintners to release chardonnay as a varietal wine.

Oddly, however, chardonnay hasn’t been the white wine most closely identified historically with Livermore. Early on, other whites, like sauvignon blanc and semillon, brought flattering attention to Livermore Valley and continue to play prominent roles in the region’s wine story.

When I toured Livermore Valley not long ago, I routinely asked winemakers what varietal or style of wine would be most closely identified with the region in 20 years. Their speculation ranged all over the wine map, from cabernet sauvignon to fiano.

Only one said chardonnay. That was Karl Wente, the family’s fifth-generation winemaker. “It presents such a beautifully diverse palate,” Wente said.

His comment came at the outset of my trek. Two days later, I felt that he was on to something. I can’t recall tasting chardonnays from any region that presented as much uniform quality against a backdrop of individualistic interpretation.

In Livermore Valley, there’s no one school of chardonnay. Most suggest fruit from the apple family, but some are decidedly citric, and a few tropical. By and large, they were strikingly complex and exceptionally vital. Their builds were more lean than pudgy, their spice tingling, their acidity refreshing. At the outset, I didn’t expect to return home raving about Livermore’s chardonnay, but there you have it.

What made them stand out? The valley’s “terroir” isn’t exceptional by California standards. It’s sunny, sure, and it’s cooled by maritime breezes and fogs off the Pacific Ocean, but so are several other California appellations.

I suspect the quality of Livermore Valley’s chardonnay goes back to the area’s early experience with the variety. Over the past century, Livermore growers and vintners have refined their techniques, patiently gaining an understanding of just what chardonnay needs to yield consistently a white wine of harmony, complexity and finesse.

With experience and knowledge have come a confidence to tinker with chardonnay more daringly and more precisely than customarily found elsewhere. Whether they are talking sugar levels at harvest, proportions of malolactic fermentation, percentages of new oak barrels, degrees of toast or some other inside measure of winemaking, Livermore vintners toss around data like baseball geeks reviewing ancient statistics.

Just check out these selections to taste how their meticulousness is shaking out:

▪ Wente Vineyards 2013 San Francisco Bay Livermore Valley Estate Grown “Morning Fog” Chardonnay ($15): Half the fruit was fermented in stainless steel, half in American and Eastern European oak, then partially stirred on its lees for seven months to flesh out and round off the wine. What’s more, 2 percent gewürztraminer was introduced to swell and complicate the fruit. The result is a seamless chardonnay with the snap of green apples, a diverting note of apricot, a faint suggestion of sweetness and a brushstroke of creaminess. It’s the perfect bridge chardonnay – fruity enough to stand on its own as an aperitif, solid enough to move to the dinner table for matching with fairly rich chicken and seafood dishes.

▪ Page Mill Winery 2013 Livermore Valley Chandler Vineyard Chardonnay ($20): Mostly fermented in stainless steel, but with a fourth fermented in American oak barrels, the result is an unusually assertive and layered chardonnay, with aroma and flavor suggestions ranging from lemon verbena to raw almonds. The texture is luscious without being thick.

▪ Steven Kent Winery 2013 Livermore Valley “Merrillie” Chardonnay ($34): Steven Kent Mirassou, a member of another longtime Livermore Valley winemaking family, understands that chardonnay on its own generally doesn’t deliver a whole lot of character, so he plays with a varied regimen of fermentation techniques, processing vessels and the like to capture this kind of chardonnay – ripe, complex and muscular, but with the kind of bright acidity that leaves the palate eager to savor more.

▪ Darcie Kent Vineyards 2012 Livermore Valley Original Estate Vineyard DeMayo Block Chardonnay ($30): As shown here, Livermore Valley is quite capable of producing the sort of rich, buttery and toasty chardonnay often associated with Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but with a bit more spirit at the outset and a bit more persistence in the finish.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.