Peter Michael’s New 2022 Releases

USA, California, Sonoma County & Napa Valley

Peter Michael’s New 2022 Releases

Working with Old Wente Clone selection Chardonnay is a conscious pursuit of quality over quantity, which is why it’s the major clone of choice for Peter Michael Winery. Yields are low for this California heritage clone due to its tiny bunches and characteristic millerandage effect, resulting in a mix of normal-sized and small berries in the same bunch, otherwise known as “hen and chicks.” In 2022, poor weather at flowering in parts of Sonoma led to shatter (failure of berry/bunch development) in Chardonnay, shrinking Peter Michael’s already tiny production of this variety. So, while the quality of their releases coming out this year is impressive, production levels are likely to render annual allocations of the 2022 Chardonnays as rare as hen’s teeth.

Hen’s Teeth

Peter Michael Winery produces very fine Bordeaux varieties wines and Pinot Noirs, yet it is probably best known for its world-class Chardonnays. The four different Chardonnay sites on the estate are planted mainly to heritage clones, most of which are Old Wente Clone selections.

California’s most significant milestone in its Chardonnay history was when Carl Heinrich Wente purchased a vineyard and established Wente winery to the east of San Francisco in Livermore, California, in 1883. In 1912, Carl Wente’s son, Ernest Wente, encouraged him to import Chardonnay planting material from the University of Montpellier in France. Two sources were propagated in the Wente’s Livermore Valley vineyards and selected for desirable traits over the next four decades. Fast-forward to today, and it is estimated that the overwhelming majority—more than 80%—of all California Chardonnay vines planted now can be traced back to this Wente Clone heritage.

Today, many different Old Wente Clone selections are shared across California, often named after the vineyard the plant material came from, e.g., Hudson, Hyde, Kistler, Haynes, etc.

“For sure, a reason to favor the Old Wente selections is the smaller yields off the vineyards,” Luc Morlet once told me—former winemaker at Peter Michael Winery and now a consultant and proprietor of his own label. “We refer to it as the ‘clone of the winemaker’, as opposed to the ‘clone of the grower.’ Old Wente typically has small clusters and a fair amount of millerandage. Often, no thinning is needed at all. Old Wente is definitely more about quality than prone to quantity.”

Peter Michael’s four Chardonnay vineyard sites are all at their estate in Knights Valley, Sonoma. I hasten to add that this ranch is enormous, encompassing 750 acres of hilly/mountainous terrain with nearly 150 acres under vine at altitudes ranging from 900 to 1900 feet.

The Mon Plaisir site is at an elevation of 1700-1800 feet on a fully sun-exposed, southeast-facing slope of the Knights Valley and is planted entirely to Old Wente Clone selection vines.

Planted in 1990 by Peter Michael’s original winemaker, Helen Turley, the Belle Côte site has the oldest Chardonnay vines on the estate. The plantings are mainly Old Wente and See Clone selections with a little Rued Clone. On an eastern-facing slope in the Knights Valley, the vineyard rests at 1700-1800 feet and features white, dusty soil. This plot is the latest of the Peter Michael Chardonnay vineyards to ripen each year.

- Robert Fiore

La Carriere is situated at around 1200-1700 feet with a rocky, shallow, volcanic soil that gives low fertility and among the lowest yields of all the Peter Michael vineyards. Planted in 1994, the vineyard is composed of See, Dijon, and Hyde (Old Wente) Clone selections.

Ma Belle Fille is the highest of the Peter Michael vineyards, perched at 1700-1900 feet. The rocky, volcanic soils are planted to a field selection of Hudson, Old Wente, Montrachet, and Calera Clones. Planted in 1999, it is the earliest ripening.

“2022 was a drier year with early budbreak, followed by a spring frost,” said Peter Michael’s winemaker, Robert Fiore, as we sat to taste the new releases. “We lost about 15% of the potential crop to the frost. Then we had dodgy weather during bloom. It rained, and we even had some snow up here, making it a very strange start to the growing season. So, we had problems with flowering and shatter. In the end, we have about 50% of a normal crop in 2022. In fact, these were the lowest crops for our Chardonnay sites that our vineyard manager had ever seen, and he’s been here since 1991! The fruit is, therefore, very concentrated. It was moderate through July, then we had the record heatwave at the beginning of September. About three-quarters of the crop came in before the heat event. After the heatwave, we had a little rain, and it cooled right down. The Chardonnay rode the heat very well. Some plots we picked into October. October 4th was our last Chardonnay pick.” 

2022 also produced a small Pinot Noir crop.

“As for our Pinots from Fort Ross-Seaview, it was a dry winter with an earlier budbreak,” said Robert. “During bloom, the bad weather hit, and we set half a normal crop. These yields were the lowest we’ve had from Fort Ross-Seaview. Then the warmer temperatures at the end compressed the picking window. We harvested September 9th through the 16th, whereas usually, we pick over a three-week period.”

Poor bloom in Knights Valley for the Bordeaux red varieties in 2021 also accounts for the smaller crop of 2021 Les Pavots being released this year.

“In 2021, we had fewer clusters and very small berries for Les Pavots,” said Robert. “2021 was a mild growing season here in Knights Valley; we could pick at our leisure.”

If it’s hen’s teeth production levels of most of the wines being released by Peter Michael Winery this year, one bright spot is the 2021 Au Paradis Cabernet Sauvignon.  

“In Oakville, we had no problems with bloom in 2021, so the yields are normal,” Robert said. “There were no heat spikes at all this year. However, the berries were very small and intense.”

Although the 2021 Au Paradis may not be hen’s teeth rare like the 2022 Chardonnays and Pinots, production is still relatively small at just 1,344 cases. Formerly known as Showket Vineyard before it was purchased and renamed by Peter Michael in 2009, Au Paradis Vineyard is composed of the red, rocky, volcanic soils common to parts of Pritchard Hill. This makes sense since it is in the Oakville foothills, below Continuum (on Pritchard Hill), and above Dalla Valle. Planted in 1984 and 2007, the varieties here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The 2021 Au Paradis is the best vintage I’ve tasted of this label since Peter Michael purchased the site, and it is well worth seeking out, especially since the 2022 Chardonnays will be a challenge to find. 

Happy wine hunting!

Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown
Photography by Johan Berglund