It’s not often that someone with a background in wine retail finds themselves involved in a viticultural mystery of some significance. But things happen….
In no way would I consider myself a qualified viticulturalist or winemaker. My wine career has focused on retail, putting wine in people’s hands. To do a better job of that, it was also important to learn. Three decades of visiting the world’s vineyards and cellars have only taught me how little I really know and how much more there is to be learned. What I have learned over the years is that I truly love chardonnay, especially for the ability to see how decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar become apparent in the glass. My love of the grape has driven me to continually learn more about what goes into the final product.
My passion for chardonnay was particularly stoked as examples from the southern hemisphere began to appear in America. Australia and New Zealand were clearly capable of making world-class chardonnays that rivalled the best from California and Burgundy. Layered, complex and ageworthy, the best examples satisfied both the hedonistic and intellectual aspects that wine can encapsulate.
What follows is a story about how a mystery about chardonnay came about and how, almost accidentally, it got solved. Partly a personal narrative of how the mystery came about and how it got solved, I hope readers enjoy this little story of a small trip I undertook over the past few years.
Raising the Question
As the first of Australia’s chardonnays of consequence began to appear in the US market, it was clear that Leeuwin Estate was fashioning some of the best wines in the country. Denis Horgan, the thoroughly passionate and entertaining owner of the winery, was forever expounding on the superiority of Margaret River’s climate and its suitability in producing top-notch chardonnays.
As more Margaret River chardonnays appeared in the States and the region consolidated its’ position as a preferred appellation for the varietal, visiting winemakers began to promote the role that the “GinGin” clone played in producing fine chardonnay. At the time, the role of clones in making chardonnays and pinot noirs was just beginning to be part of the dialogue between wineries and the trade in California. As a result, certain clones were mentioned more than others, increasing the familiarity about some clones over others. Margaret River winemakers had great pride in the GinGin clone making it a unique story amongst all the varietals being discussed at the time.
Years later, New Zealand chardonnays arrived in the US market although in much smaller amounts than what Australia was exporting at the time. What little chardonnay that made it to America was also subsumed by an avalanche of Marlborough sauvignon blanc so it was pretty rare that conversations with winemakers focused on factors that contributed to quality Kiwi chardonnay.
Nevertheless, having mastered a bit of an understanding about clones, it became natural to ask growers and winemakers about which ones were used in NZ and it became clear that the “Mendoza” clone was the foundation of the best chardonnays of the time. Once again, winemakers took great pride in the role that this particular clone played in fashioning the final product.
What became of special interest was the way winemakers from New Zealand assigned the same words and descriptions in describing the Mendoza clone as Australians did when talking about the GinGin clone. All of them noted the appearance of shot berries, “hen and chicken” berry sizes on small bunches, problems with leaf-roll virus, low or reduced yields, as well as richly textured tropical fruit flavors. Despite the problems that were encountered, winemakers from both countries agreed that the quality of the final product was superior enough to overlook any difficulties encountered in the vineyard.
Given that the descriptions and problems ascribed to the GinGin and Mendoza clones were nearly identical, I frequently asked winemakers from both countries whether the clones were related in any way and interestingly, I never heard any suggestion that the two were the same or could be linked in any way. Indeed, many winemakers clearly had never even considered the possibility that they could be related. But my gut told me the two could be one and the same. And that there may be more to the story of these two clones that no one had considered.