The History of Chardonnay and Tasting Creatively

chardonnay grapesElaine Chukan Brown’s recent 4-part series on the history of Chardonnay in the U.S. is a fascinating read for wine lovers. Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape in California, the largest seller nationwide, and is now grown in almost every wine region in the world. Brown argues the popularity of Chardonnay is one of the unique contributions the U.S. has made to the wine world. But it’s striking how modest its beginnings were and it is a bit of a puzzle how it achieved such prominence.

Of course, Chardonnay has a long history as the main white varietal in Burgundy, France. But France did not label their wines with the variety and most Burgundy lovers in the mid-20th century probably had no idea they were drinking Chardonnay. In any case, as I described in this column, Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s were primarily drinking sweet wine and in the early 1960’s there were only about 300 acres of Chardonnay planted in California, according to Brown.

As Brown tells the story,

It was not until the 1970s, by which time three key events had occurred in the United States, that plantings of Chardonnay in the state really took off. Sales of table wines finally surpassed those of dessert wines; the price of grapes finally surpassed the cost of farming them; and clonal selections increased average yields.

On top of these conditions, the Judgment of Paris tasting in  1976, in which Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay placed ahead of some famed Burgundian wines, was a key event generating publicity for this lesser-known grape.

But these factors don’t explain why Chardonnay instead of some other grape was able to gain prominence.

What I find interesting about the early history of Chardonnay was the fact that some winemakers and grape farmers acquired their commitment to it early on and persisted with it despite low yields and the utter lack of a market for the grape. The first cuttings were brought to the U.S. from Burgundy in the late 19th Century. Pioneers such as Ernest Wente, Paul Masson and Martin Ray maintained these plantings during the lean years of prohibition and WWII and began experimenting with new clones in the 1950’s, still without an established market. The McCrea family at Stony Hill Vineyards, Jack Taylor at Mayacamas and later James Zellerbach at Hanzell all commit vineyard land to Chardonnay long before its commercial viability was established.

My point is that some people could taste the promise of Chardonnay well before those three events and the Judgment of Paris launched Chardonnay’s popularity. No doubt, part of the commitment of these pioneers came from their fascination with France. They were trying to emulate French quality and it was natural to use the varietal at the heart of Burgundy’s success.

But as Brown points out there were limits to how well they could copy the French:

Although it was the wines of Europe that inspired them, there was little communication between wine producers in Europe and California and so there was little knowledge of, for example, Burgundian winemaking techniques.

I suspect it was ultimately the use of temperature controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks, developed in the U.S. in the early 1950’s, that persuaded these pioneers that Chardonnay was capable of a range of expression beyond what other grapes could offer. Cooler fermentations enabled the pure fruit expression that was ultimately to set California apart.

But that promise has to be tasted before it can be developed. The ability to taste with creativity and imagination is at the heart of every great development in the wine world.

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