Sunday, April 13, 2014

The “First Family of (US) Chardonnay” -- Wente Vineyards

In 1883, German immigrant Carl Wente bought 48 acres of land in Livermore Valley in Monterey County, California and planted a mess of grapevines. Fast forward to 2014, and Wente Vineyards is the oldest continuously operated winery in North America, run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Wente family.

Wente is a notablewinery in the history of American winemaking. Through the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, thanks to the efforts of Carl’s son, Ernest, the Wentes planted a number of different varieties of Chardonnay. Through experimentation and crossbreeding with both domestic and French vines, the Wente chardonnay grape clone emerged. Wente released their first varietally labeled Chardonnay (along with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc) in 1936. Neighbors of the Wentes would take cuttings for planting on their own lands. Today, 75-80% of California chardonnay is grown from one the “Wente clones.”

Thanks to the good folks at Balzac, I had a chance to sample two versions of the new vintage of the Wente chardonnay, as well as one of their new releases of pinot noir. How did the “First Family of Chardonnay” do this time around?

Wente 2012 “Morning Fog” Livermore Valley Chardonnay – I was lucky enough to have a massage scheduled for a Saturday, and the SPinC was nice enough to put together a lunch for when I got home. She’d put together this very tasty oriechette pasta with chickpeas and Kalamata olives in a rich (but not buttery) sauce. I thought this might be a good accompaniment, and we ended up with a great team decision. This wine is everything you could hope for in a $15 chard. The wine’s got a nice nose of apple blossoms and vanilla. The body is substantial without being overly heavy, full of pears and vanilla. There’s creaminess without being too buttery, oak without being too charcoalled, and just a pleasant overall flavor. With the pasta, it was assertive enough not to lose its character along what could have been a slightly challenging pairing. “Middle of the road” may be curse words in some vocabularies, but for a California chardonnay, this sort of balance is a sweet spot I’m happy to find. Recommended.

Wente 2012 “Riva Ranch” Arroyo Seco Chardonnay – Now this is an interesting white. This Chardonnay comes from a blend of two of the Wente clones -- Clone 2A and Clone 4, if you’re keeping score at home. Clone 2A is the “classic” varietal, while Clone 4 is a more recent version that’s got some more fruit characteristics. Riva Ranch, a property in the Arroyo Seco region, starts you off with a bright bouquet of orange blossoms and toasted almonds, which led me to believe there would be more oak on the palate than turned out to be. Instead, there’s a cheek-puffing flavor of apricot and pineapple that leads to gentle buttery flavors. The finish is long with caramel and a little bit of oak gradually trailing off. It’s a forward chardonnay, but a good one. I put this alongside a really nice seared scallop dish with wilted spinach and a light citrus cream sauce. It held up nicely. I’d get this one again if I needed an assertive white. This retails for around $22.

Wente 2010 "Riliz Creek" Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir – In this case, what was good for the goose wasn’t necessarily good for the gander. The Morning Fog impressed me by being middle of the road – by holding a balance between the various elements of the flavor, which is what you might want in a relatively inexpensive bottle. But for the pinot noir, it’s as if they followed the same formula. All the elements are there for a pinot noir – cherry and berry flavors, a medium body, light tannins, and a little bit of smokiness. And these elements were in harmony for the most part. The problem was that there was so much balance that the wine became almost uninteresting. It wasn’t that it was bad, it’s just that nothing really stood out about it. It’s clearly a quality wine, and it’s much better to drink than most inexpensive pinots, but it’s fairly nondescript for the price point. It’s a nonthreatening wine. People will like it. I liked it, too. I just didn’t love it. Food pairing wise, we had it with a turkey meatloaf dish that sounds pedestrian, but calls for those flavors. It was OK, and a bit overpriced at $28.

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