While these posts are about the mystery of the GinGin clone, a little background is probably helpful.
The Wente Clone
The first California chardonnay was made in 1936 by the Wente Brothers Winery in the Livermore Valley located some 45 minutes east of San Francisco. The wine was made from grapes that were planted in 1912. The chardonnay vines planted by the Wentes came from the nurseries attached to the winemaking school in Montpellier in France. A neighboring grower had sourced some of his chardonnay from cuttings obtained in Meursault some 30 years earlier and the Wentes had used some of that material in establishing their new vineyard as well. Chardonnay production was largely confined to the Wentes in Livermore and Paul Masson’s vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains which was planted to vines from Burgundy, theoretically Corton Charlemagne.
As in Australia, chardonnay was barely mentioned in the years prior to the 1960s. There was so little chardonnay grown in either country that harvest reports from around the middle of the century either didn’t list the grape or showed very small harvests.
As California began its slow recovery from the harmful effects of prohibition that decimated the state’s vineyards as well as the state’s winemaking profession’s collective knowledge of viticulture, professors in the enology department at UC Davis began to look at chardonnay as a varietal that could generate some commercial success and boost the industry.
The first wineries to explore chardonnay wines after World War II had gone to the Wentes to source budwood to plant their vineyards. Those pioneer vineyards, the original plantings by the Wente family and Paul Masson’s vines in Santa Cruz, later became the source for the research vineyards planted at UC Davis which is where clones of various varietals were planted for study and propagation.
The original Wente clones were known to suffer from leaf-roll virus which causes leaves to curl up and stunting vine growth. Additional problems with the Wente chardonnay grapes included poor flowering which reduced the number of berries on the bunch as well as millerandage which caused bunches to have both small and large berries. Just about all winemakers, growers and university researchers refer to this appearance of these grapes as “hen and chicken” on bunches.
To help improve yields and account for better, healthier vines, UC Davis research scientists developed treatments to get rid of viruses from vines. One approach called for “heat treatments”, done for periods of 100-150 days, and resulted in budwood free of any virus. These healthier clones did much to improve the quality of vines sent out to nurseries and growers, just as chardonnay began its first steps towards greater appreciation by consumers. And it is these cleaner, disease-free vines that the University decided were best for industry. The eventual result came in the form of healthier vines, consistent growing patterns and increased yields.
As the University’s chardonnay research expanded, a unique problem developed at UC Davis when it came to the Wente clone. Some Wente clones were directly sourced from the family’s vineyards. Other examples planted at UC Davis’s Foundation Plant Services vineyard came from growers who had planted their sites with Wente’s budwood. The first chardonnays planted and produced shortly after World War II by Stony Hill and Louis Martini all used clones directly sourced from the Wentes. Subsequently, some growers may have used vines from the McCreas and Martinis as well as Wente budwood from Livermore or UC Davis. Some of those may have been virused, others cleaned up once heat treated vines were available but all were designated as Wente clones. The original virused clone is often referred to as the “Old Wente” clone to distinguish it from the currently named Wente clones that have been heat treated. However, that name is not universally applied only to the virused chardonnay clone. Indeed, many of the post-World War II plantings and cuttings from them are also often referred to as Old Wente.
As the wine industries of other countries around the world began to expand following World War II and into the 60s, the winemaking and viticultural departments at universities and agricultural research institutions around the world began to seek more diversity in their vine stock. The goal was to see if other grapes and clones might be better suited for their particular growing conditons. Thus began extensive efforts to solicit and swap vines from and to other countries that continues to this day. And it was this spirit of research that saw California’s chardonnay vines shipped to other countries.
The GinGin Clone
Margaret River is the both the spiritual and viticultural home to the “GinGin” clone. It is the predominant clone planted in Margaret River and other areas of Western Australia with some early UC Davis clones planted later while Dijon clones appeared afterwards. And as noted earlier, just about everyone in the region considers this clone to be one of the most important reasons why Margaret River chardonnays are amongst the best in Australia. Notably, very little GinGin is planted in other areas of Australia.
Winemakers believe that the high quality of wines made from this clone is due to the typically smaller berries that offer up high skin-to-juice ratios creating intensely flavored vines. Another reason for the intense flavors are the lower yields that come from GinGin clones as compared with other chardonnay clones. Winemakers appreciate the tropical flavors that come from the GinGin clone as well. As with the Wente clone, the GinGin clone is known to have problems with flowering and yields and the term “hens and chickens” is frequently bandied about.
Many articles and papers that discuss clonal diversity of chardonnay within Australia make a point of highlighting the unique qualities of the GinGin clone and the distinctive differences that exist between it and other chardonnay plantings back east in Victoria and New South Wales. The older chardonnay vineyards found in the eastern areas of
Australia are believed to have been sourced from vines imported in 1832 by James Busby who was sent to Europe for to source the vine cuttings needed to begin Australia’s wine industry. While these clones are thought to have been the backbone of Australia’s first chardonnays in the late 1960s, they have not dominated the country’s chardonnay vineyards and as far as can be researched, play little role in Western Australia.
How the GinGin clone arrived in Western Australia is one of the country’s great viticultural mysteries. An authoritative overview of the history of Australian chardonnay by David Farmer observed:
In Western Australia the favourite clone of chardonnay is ‘Gin Gin’ and was introduced by Houghtons in 1957. It is also known as the Mendoza clone. Where this came from I do not know though some references say it is from, naturally enough, Argentine. It seems unlikely that Houghtons would have looked to South America rather than Europe.
As late as 2012, numerous academics and viticultural officials based in Western Australia shared a wide variety of anecdotal information amongst themselves in trying to ascertain how the clone came to the state and began to be propagated. Almost all shared a desire to have a more definitive answer on how the clone came to arrive in the state and no one has proposed an authoritative answer to this question.
The Mendoza Clone
There is much more background information and research about the GinGin clone as compared to the “Mendoza” clone, largely due to the long-standing commitment of Australia’s wine industry to viticultural research. Although the Mendoza clone has achieved considerable recognition among Kiwi winemakers for its quality and is beginning to make a name for itself in the trade, there has been less emphasis on “improving the breed” in New Zealand since the fortunes of the country’s wine industry were hinged on sauvignon blanc. Consequently, there was less impetus for New Zealand’s chardonnay producers that were devoted to the premium market segment to explore other clones. When it came to mass produced chardonnay, other clones that came from UC Davis in the 1960s that emphasized uniform bunches, bigger yields and no problems with viruses such as Clone 5 and 15 played their role perfectly. These cleaner clones formed the backbone of the big vineyards in Gisborne that cranked out large volumes of chardonnay just as they did in California.
The arrival in New Zealand of pinot noir clones from Dijon also caused local nurseries to take a serious look at the new clones of chardonnay from the same source. Local grapevine merchants slowly began to broaden the range of clones available for sale to growers. Kiwi chardonnay producers quickly found themselves discussing the merits and drawbacks of the Mendoza clone. All of this activity led to the country’s wine industry to examine the origins of the Mendoza clone.
No one really knows how this particular clone of chardonnay got its name and its ultimate origins are still a mystery waiting to be solved. The name itself would suggest that it is somehow related to Argentina’s Mendoza region. Indeed, NZ wine writer Michael Cooper, in his book Wine Atlas of New Zealand, claims the clone was first known as the “McRae” clone on its entry into the country in 1971 only to be “renamed in the 1980s by Government Viticulturalist Dr. Richard Smart in order to identify its origins in the Mendoza region of Argentina.” But there was no evidence submitted by anyone to think it would have come from Argentina. (It could be that the McRae name could be a misspelling of the McCrea family that owned Stony Hill in Napa Valley.)
Interestingly, an Australian research report claims that a “Mendosa” clone came to Australia in 1968 from Argentina via UC Davis. And another viticulturalist declared that “I don’t believe there is any connection between Chardonnay Gingin and the clone which originates from Mendosa, Spain via UCD.” As one can see, it is all too easy to be confused.
This background info was supplied in a 2010 article by Nick Hoskins and Geoff Thorpe of New Zealand’s Riversun Nurseries at NZ:
New Zealand Chardonnay wines have tended to rely on four main clones: Mendoza, UCD Clones 6 and 15, and Clone B95. The UCD clones are part of the catalogue at the University of California, Davis, which in turn imported its selections from Burgundy.
The Mendoza Clone, however, has a murkier heritage that remains somewhat mysterious. The Mendoza Clone was imported from CSIRO Australia by David Sheat in 1971, already infected with Grapevine Leafroll-associated Virus 1. Mendoza yields low to moderate crops of medium clusters prone to some hen and chicken formation, and produces rich and intense wines. It was – and still is for many – the preferred clone for premium Chardonnay.
According to an article by David Farmer, the CSIRO source was from Western Australia, where this favoured clone is still known by its nickname “Gin Gin.” Records indicate that Mendoza was introduced to Western Australia by Houghton Wines in 1957. Where it came from, Farmer could not say, although he commented, “Some references say it is from, naturally enough, Argentina. It seems unlikely that Houghton would have looked to South America rather than Europe.”
The leaf roll virus that Hoskins and Thorpe refer to as well as the other descriptors they mention clearly imply that there could be some association between the GinGin and Mendoza clones. How these clones got to the CSIRO vineyards in Victoria is a bit of a mystery. It was known that the Australian viticultural departments received fruit from UC Davis around 1968-69 but would they have asked for virused material? Whether the CSIRO got a GinGin type clone from Western Australia that was then sold as a McRae clone is a matter of conjecture. But the likelihood that chardonnay clones were somehow sourced from Argentina in the 1950s is quite slim. The name, however, will probably remain the same.