Have you ever wondered how Chardonnay grapes grow across a variety of terroirs? Whether in Chablis or the south of France, Chardonnay can be grown to perfection despite the drastic difference in climate. The answer lies with clones; France is home to 34 distinct subspecies of Chardonnay grapes that are specifically bred for the climates in which they grow. As climate change raises temperatures globally, collectors will see stronger, bolder Chardonnay vintages made from the hardiest clones, instead of wines made with more delicate subspecies.
A Dijon Clone for Every Climate
Dijon was one of the first regions of France to separate grape clones that grew naturally on its terroirs. Dijon clones each have a number associated with their subspecies, and wine producers have to sort through dozens of clones to find the species that best matches their soil and climate. The record-setting warm weather in northern France, and the renewed popularity of winegrowing in the south of France, will likely result in fewer Chardonnay vintages grown from Dijon-77 and Dijon-809. The wines produced from these Chardonnay strains tend to have a delicate, aromatic quality, but they also require more care and cooler temperatures to achieve. Strong heat damages the thin skins on these grapes before they have the chance to thrive, and their acidity becomes too low in hot seasons.
Instead, Dijon strains 96, 95, and 76 are becoming more popular on premium estates because these strains produce low yields of flavorful grapes. These strains have the opposite problem of the aromatic strains, in that rain and hail damages them far more quickly. They need plenty of sunlight for most of the year in order to develop a dense, saturated concentration of flavors. Dijon-75 is one of the most popular clones purchased by California producers, as its hardy exterior can withstand intense temperatures and it produces higher yields than the similar Dijon-76. For areas like the south of France and Napa Valley, the result of planting these clones will be wines that are bolder in flavor than the subtle Chardonnay of the past. Climate change will also play less of a role in Chardonnay development over time, as strains will become more acclimated to the heat.
California Looks to Mendoza Chardonnay Clones
After Prohibition, California winemakers bought French grapevine clones in order to match the success of France’s finest terroirs. One of the first clones to leave France for California was the Mendoza strain, which has since become the most popular Chardonnay strain in the state. Word got around that this subspecies grows best in water-starved soil, which is the norm in nearly every terroir in California. This strain produces grapes that have millerandage, a quality that used to be considered a flaw. Millerandage describes grapes that grow in varying sizes on the same cluster. In dry weather, when grapes are exposed to strong sunlight all day, the variation in grape sizes actually allows producers to select the most mature grapes more easily. When a handful of grapes on a cluster receive too much sunlight, they shield some of the medium-sized or smaller grapes from direct sun, allowing these grapes to retain their acidity.
For wine collectors, this means that Mendoza-type wines will vary greatly by estate, and that traditional, hand-picked winemaking techniques, such as those employed by Kongsgaard, will produce the best wines. Wine collectors are also likely to find multiple bottle brands that come from the same vine, each with a different flavor profile depending on the size of the grape. High quality Chardonnay is already the norm in California, and it will continue to produce the finest bottles made using the sturdiest grape clones from France.
California Perfects New Subspecies
In the past, California producers would purchase clones directly from the best French terroirs, but as Napa Valley develops its own personality, producers are experimenting with more hybrid Chardonnay clones of their own. These clones are being bred specifically to withstand the drought conditions in the state. Today, many of California’s Chardonnay grapes are grown in breezy Monterey, whose oceanside estates grow strains on 17,000 acres. In comparison, inland Napa Valley Chardonnay is only grown on 7,000 acres. More producers, such as Napa’s Aubert, are growing Chardonnay wines that have the concentrated juice traditional to inland estates exposed to a great deal of sunlight, but that retain the acidity of wines grown in cooler areas like Monterey.
When California estates began planting Chardonnay in the 1800s, the grapes had low yields and poor flavor development, as the subspecies being planted was too thin-skinned for the extreme climate. Modern wine experimentalists are breeding Chardonnay with thicker skins than even the sturdiest found in France, which is making a climate change leader out of California in 2015. Collectors should look to more wines from Napa, Sonoma, and the Central Coast for their Chardonnay vintages, especially those that come from multiple vineyards. Kistler selects the best grapes from all of its vines on multiple plots of land, which allows the producer to experiment with its vintages for ideal flavors, even in the hottest seasons. California’s status as a drought state, coupled with its historical experimentation of hybrid clones, makes it ideal for collectors looking for the next big trend in Chardonnay as the weather changes worldwide.
The best Chardonnay vintages, especially those from France and California, are found on Vinfolio’s online portfolio. Search for Chardonnay by region, vintage and price to find your next selection. With up-to-date information about each producer, the website makes it simple to find premium estates selling only the finest wine.