Although Chardonnay may have its roots in Persia, most of us associate it historically and traditionally with France, specifically with the globally respected Côte de Beaune, the southern portion of Burgundy’s celebrated Côte d’Or. Chardonnay is an older grape with an ancestry that is in part noble (the Burgundian Pinot family of grapes) and in part plebeian (the unremarkable Gouais Blanc grape originating in central Europe). So, how did it get to the Golden State?
California Chardonnay Timeline
Chardonnay arrived when Charles Wetmore imported budwood from France’s Meursault and established it in his Livermore vineyard, La Cresta Blanca, east of San Francisco.
Paul Masson brought Chardonnay cuttings from Burgundy and established them in his Livermore vineyard, and later at his eponymous Santa Cruz Mountain site. This Santa Cruz site, became the source of Martin Ray’s budwood, planted in the early 1940s on what is now called Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
First varietal labeling of Chardonnay by Wente Vineyards, located in Livermore.
Ernest Wente began honing the selection in his Chardonnay blocks, choosing healthier vines to propagate and establishing them in newer vineyards and creating what would be the base selections for the state. Noteworthy, he let Fred and Eleanor McCrea collect budwood from the vineyard blocks and from these cuttings, they established their Spring Mountain District site, Stony Hill, in Napa Valley.
Hanzell winery in Sonoma County introduced stainless steel fermentation tanks and first use of oak barrels with Chardonnay in 1956.
“The Judgment of Paris” was conducted by Steven Spurrier on May 24 in Paris. At this celebrated blind tasting in France’s capital with France’s top wine critics, Chateau Montelena stunned the world as their Chardonnay took top score. The award winning wine was made largely from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley (Bacigalupi Vineyard).
Winemakers began implementing whole-cluster pressing, extended aging in barrel on the lees. More Burgundian influence, e.g. ambient yeast fermentation, etc, is employed in Chardonnay production.
Kendall-Jackson launched a medium-priced Chardonnay style which caught on quickly and was soon copied worldwide in other ‘new world’ spots.
Chardonnay became the most planted variety in California.
Fueled by America’s sommelier community, the roots of a trend toward restrained and less generous styles of Chardonnay took hold by way of winemaking styles including un-oaked (stainless steel and concrete vessel fermentation) and lower ABV, accompanied by seeking and/or further planting in cooler areas, collectively resulting in the expansion of styles of Chardonnay in California.
Surprisingly, as of the mid-1960s, there were only a few hundred acres of Chardonnay planted in all California. By 2011, that had increased to 95,000 acres/38,445 hectares! The first documented arrival was in 1882 when Charles Wetmore imported budwood from Meursault and established it in his Livermore vineyard, La Cresta Blanca. International recognition came in 1976 with the “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting, in which Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay famously dethroned several top white Burgundies. By 2000, Chardonnay had secured its position as the most planted variety in the state with 89,272 bearing acres. Today this grape and its wines are the most significant variety sold in the U.S., representing almost 20% of total U.S. wines sales.
For a deep dive into the history and evolution of the grape in California please see Elaine Chukan Brown’s ‘The Story of California Chardonnay– four part series’.