Tasting Chardonnay with Wente Vineyards, 2018
In honor of the recent National Chardonnay Day (May 24), our friends at Wente organized an interesting tasting: A horizontal lineup of five of its chardonnay wines, all from the 2016 vintage.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Wente — which is the oldest continuously-operating winery in the state — to the California winemaking industry. To wit: “In 1912, 2nd Generation Ernest Wente persuaded his father and founder, C.H. Wente to import Chardonnay cuttings from the vine nursery at University of Montpellier France to the Livermore Valley and hand-picked the best of the best vines. Today, over 80% of all California Chardonnay stems from the Wente Clone. In viticulture a “clone” refers to vines descended from a single plant by taking a cutting or bud; in theory, each vine grown on a clone is genetically identical to the original vine.”
For the tasting, fifth generation winegrower Karl D. Wente and his cousin, fifth generation winegrower and viticulturist Niki Wente, led us through this online event, which covered a huge range of styles.
Thoughts on all the wines tasted follow.
2017 Wente Small Lot Eric’s Chardonnay – Livermore/San Francisco Bay fruit, hand harvested, and unoaked. Very fruity, with pineapple up front leading to an intense almond character. Fresh and lively, with strong acidity, it’s a great aperitif wine that is tropical and lightly lemony, with a cleansing and engaging finish. A- / $30
2016 Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay – Estate-grown, Livermore and SF Bay fruit, with 2% gewurztraminer added. Half fermented in stainless, half in neutral oak. Some similarities here to the Eric’s, with a nice tropical base but with almond that is more pronounced, and the finish is more lingering, hinting at vanilla notes. A great value, and good with food. B+ / $18
2016 Wente Single Vineyard Riva Ranch Chardonnay – Single-vineyard Arroyo Seco (Monterey) fruit, again with 2% gewurz. 90% barrel fermented in new and second-use French and American oak. (The other 10% is fermented in stainless.) Iconic California notes kick things off, with a showcase of vanilla and buttery oak notes, but the wine finds restraint, keeping the sweetness in check as it lets some gentle citrus notes push their way to the fore, particularly on the orange-heavy finish. I gravitate more and more to the complexities here over time. B+ / $22
2016 Wente Nth Degree Chardonnay – A return to Livermore/SF Bay fruit, 100% fermented in French and neutral French oak barrels for 14 months. This is Wente’s luxe bottling, opulent from the packaging to the glass. This rich and buttery chardonnay positively fills the mouth, offering exotic notes of lychee and spice, mango and lemongrass. There’s lots going on here, though lively acidity keeps things moving such that the palate remains engaged in the broader package. This is the wine to pair with that butter-poached sea bass. A- / $70
2016 Wente 135th Anniversary Celebratory Chardonnay – Made with Central Coast fruit, aged for 16 months in a combination of new/neutral American Oak and some French Oak, with 20% fermented in stainless steel. Rich and buttery, this is the most classically styled chardonnay in the lot (which is perhaps why it was saved for last). Bold and oaky, but not overblown, it’s a wine that offers power and wood-centric savory notes, a little green olive, and a lingering, bright and sunny lemon rind note. Bring dinner. B+ / $40
And just for kicks, and because I have nowhere else handy to put this, I am typing up some thoughts on this recent Wente cabernet. After all that rich white wine, one might need a tannic, red chaser.
2015 Wente Cabernet Sauvignon Charles Wetmore – 78% cabernet sauvignon, 8% malbec, 6% merlot, 4% petit verdot, and 4% petite sirah. Quite dry and restrained, its dried blackberry, blueberry, and cherry fruit build to a tart, almost sharp palate. The body is restrained but a bit chewy, with a note of charred wood on the back end. B+ / $30
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