The story of California Chardonnay – part 1

This is the first of a four-part account of California’s most-planted vine variety.

Today Chardonnay is the most widely planted, and successfully-sold, grape variety in the state of California, and occupies a similar position in the rest of the world, but its rise to such prominence is relatively recent.

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. At the start of the 1960s there were only 300 acres of Chardonnay planted in the whole of California (Pinney 1989). The results of the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 in which Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay famously ‘beat’ some top white burgundy helped increase public interest, but on its own would not have offered enough momentum had yields, grape prices, and interest in table wine not already been established. By 2000, Chardonnay secured its position as the most-planted variety in the state. Today, more than 100 clonal selections of Chardonnay exist in California, with the diversity of plant material derived from a mix of treatments, supplemented by heritage selections and newer imports from around the world. This will be discussed at more length.

The following four-part history looks primarily at premium wine, although the historical information also gives some insight into how Chardonnay became such a commodity wine as well. The research includes my own extensive interviews with vintners throughout California, reading of transcripts from historic oral interviews of vintners throughout the state, relevant California grape harvest reports, and various books on wine. Some of the books relevant to this material are listed at the end of each instalment. As always, even more producers could be mentioned along the way. This is meant to give an overall narrative of how the variety grew to its stature and how its styles and interests evolved over time, rather than to cover every producer, which would demand a book rather than just a very, very long article.

The subject is something I find fascinating as it serves as an interesting lens into the world of wine. While Chardonnay certainly originates in France, its popularity as a varietal category starts in California. Before varietal labelling began in the United States in the late 1930s, Chardonnay had never ….

To keep reading, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the entire four-part piece will be published free-for-all to read as a Christmas present to readers.This is the first of the four-parts. The next three will publish Wednesday, Thursday, Friday of this week. Here’s the direct link to the first installment: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-1 

Happy holidays to everyone!

Part 2: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-2

Part 3: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-3

Part 4: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-story-of-california-chardonnay-part-4

Leave a Reply