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February’s 29 days of Chardonnay

a collaborative project


From Dijon to Mendoza: Chardonnay’s Clones, an excerpt

Authored by Louisa Rose

Excerpt provided by Filip Verheyden, editor and publisher of TONG

With wine, a straightforward question can elicit contradictory answers. Clones are one of these minefields; winemakers are unlikely to agree, and the observer ends up more confused after the discussion than before! 

That said, the following text is an attempt to put the clonal resources of Australia into perspective. Most of the views about flavors and ratings are the author’s own, based on nearly 20 years of observations and in-house trials. I have tried to describe most of Australia’s clones, but this is not an exhaustive list.

The early days of Chardonnay in Australia are somewhat fuzzy – depending on who you consult. It probably hit these shores in 1832 with James Busby’s famous importation and was planted on his family’s Kirkton vineyard in New South Wales, where via the Kaluna Vineyard in Sydney it even- tually made its way by the 1930s to Mudgee and the Craigmore vineyard. It was not until the late 1960s that the variety was identified as Chardonnay, and the first non-fortified wines were made. In 1970-1, Pieter Van Gent released a Craigmore wine that was labelled Chardonnay.

In 1960, the Penfolds planted their Wybong Park vineyard in the Upper Hunter – later renamed Dalwood Estate. Among the varieties they planted was a White Pinot, which probably came from the Kirkton property via the original Dalwood vineyard in the Lower Hunter nearby (established by George Wyndham in 1830).

But it is the Tyrrells who claim to be behind the first Australian Chardonnay wines. According to David Farmer, “Murray Tyrrell acknowledges that the vines that made the Tyrrell’s Chardonnay were developed from cuttings from the Penfolds Wybong Park property, presumably in the mid or late 1960s, so knowledge that they were indeed Chardonnay was known by some. Indeed, he planted Chardonnay at Rothbury in 1969. By calling his Chardonnay “Pinot Chardonnay” he rightly combined the name of the variety as it was then known “Pinot Blanc” with its true name.”

In 1957, Houghton Winery in Western Australia imported the clone known as “Mendoza” or “Gin Gin” – although it’s not clear where it came from. It is also believed that in the 1860s Sir Samuel Davenport introduced Burgundy “chardenet” cuttings to South Australia. Some of these cuttings were planted at Marble Hill in the Adelaide Hills. The vines were rediscovered by viticulturist Wally Boehm when he was working for David Wynn; after cultivation at Wynn’s Modbury nursery, they were planted out at Mount Adam in 1972.

Until a method of DNA testing is developed for grapevine clones, it looks unlikely that we will ever know how and if these early clones are related to each other. But it is clear that although the variety has been in the country since some of the earliest importations, it was not used to make varietal table wines until the late 1960s or early 70s. And it wasn’t before the 1980s that the production of Chardonnay was significant enough to make the national statistics. But when it finally did take off, it did so with a bang! As the Australian industry boomed and started selling wines around the world, Chardonnay was a leading variety; in 2011, 404,610 tonnes were harvested in Australia, representing 25% of the total crush – the largest single variety.

What Clones are planted in Australia now?

The most widely planted Chardonnay clone is probably I10V1, a Californian clone from the UC Davis collection imported into Australia in 1969. This commercial clone was widely used as it was available through commercial nurseries from the 1970s. As other clones gained popularity, it has gone out of favour for new vineyard plantings. In the regions I have worked with Chardonnay, I10V1 produces tighter bunches compared to the Burgundy and Mendoza clones, and the wines show simple fruit flavours: tropical, pineapple and citrus, but they lack back palate and do not age as well as those made from other clones or a mix of clones. Nonetheless, I10V1 has thrived in most Australian regions, and is responsible for many renowned wines. Compared to I10V1, the Mendoza or Gin

Gin clone tends to show more, although its yields are lower. It suffers greatly from poor fruit set and “hen and chicken” (millerandage) in bunches. This trait appeals to some winemakers, and you will hear contradictory messages about whether or not it is a superior clone. Mendoza’s performance can also be related to regions. I’ve seen some exceptional wines from the Eden Valley made from Mendoza. Vanya Cullen (Cullen Wines) also writes enthusiastically of the clone:

[In Margaret River] most or all of which had been grown on vines representing the Gin Gin or Mendoza clone, which produces the best Chardonnay fruit in the region. Other clones which have been trialled are the Dijon or Bernard clones 95, 96, 76, 277, which are higher yielding and appreciated for adding freshness and softness to the wine. Clones, called 1, 3 and 5, are planted in small quantities, but are not considered to be of high quality, and Penfolds 58 is also planted but not widely used. The Gin Gin clone or Mendoza exhibits nearly 100% millerandage, providing a high skin to juice ratio and thus a good depth and concentration of flavor. The fact that it generally yields less than 5 tonnes per hectare helps account for the great depth and concentration of fruit that characterizes the Chardonnays produced in Margaret River. All vines are planted on their own roots.

The fruit flavors of Chardonnay in the north of Margaret River have citrus, nectarine, white peach and grapefruit characteristics. In contrast, the Chardonnays from the southern part of the Margaret River region, of which that of Leeuwin Estate is a particularly good example, have highly distinctive and dried pear, grapefruit and stone fruit characters.

The Penfolds 58 clone – likely to have been sourced from the Penfolds Wybong Park vineyard – has a following, although it doesn’t seem to have been planted much since the introduction of the Bernard clones. It also can show significant hen and chicken in bunches, leading to concentrated flavours and textures. Wines made solely from this clone are finely structured but with concentrated flavours and long palate.

In the 1980s and after, winemakers started importing the clones known collectively as the Burgundian, Dijon or Bernard clones.

The most widely planted Chardonnay clone is probably i10V1, a Californian clone from the UC davis collection imported into australia in 1969

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Louisa Rose is the chief winemaker at Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family-owned winery. She has completed 20 vintages at Yalumba, based in the Eden Valley (Baros- sa) and has worked with the development of a number of varieties and wine styles including Chardonnay.