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OR Chard: Not a New Story

Willamette Valley chardonnay grapes moments away from picking.

Willamette Valley chardonnay grapes moments away from picking.

“New” Oregon Chardonnay Wines Have Been Around for a Long Time

Seems like suddenly there is a great deal of attention being paid to Oregon chardonnay wines. Conferences are being held, national wine writers are having an “aha!” moment with the wines, and younger winemakers and wine writers are laying claim to Oregon chardonnay as if it were a new discovery.

But it is not a new story.

In 2001, I wrote an in-depth feature story on the development of so-called Dijon-clone Oregon chardonnay (though as I wrote at the time, and has been recently reinforced by Katherine Cole, sending in the clones is only a part of the story), and followed it up in 2005 with an additional feature on the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance (ORCA). It is interesting to see what the state-of-the art Oregon-chardonnay thinking was 12 years ago—now that its promise is closer to being met.

Here’s the opening section of of my 2001 story (Oregon Wine Report #7, pp. 6-13):

Oregon Wine Report #7, 2001

The cover of Oregon Wine Report #7:
The 2001 Chardonnay issue.

Think Oregon can’t make great chardonnay? Think again!

“We can produce in the Willamette Valley of Oregon the best chardonnay in the world next to Burgundy,” says David Lett, Oregon winemaking pioneer and owner of The Eyrie Vineyards. “I’m not saying second to Burgundy, I’m saying next to Burgundy.”

Too bold a claim for a region not famous for the quality of its chardonnay wines? No. David Lett is not alone in his excitement over Oregon’s chardonnay future.

Chardonnay seems like such a natural for Oregon: in Burgundy, so often the model for Oregon vintners, their white wine is chardonnay—and there is certainly no lack of great chardonnay wines from Burgundy.

When Oregon’s early modern vineyards were planted, chardonnay was panted along with the pinot noir. If we could make great pinot noir like Burgundy, why shouldn’t we be able to make great chardonnay like Burgundy as well?

But we haven’t. Or at least we haven’t reliably done so. Certainly there have been superb chardonnay wines made in Oregon over the years, but they have been the exception and not the rule. 

Why then, has Oregon been so successful with pinot noir and so lackluster with chardonnay? And why is all that about to change?

Clones are part of the answer—but not all of it. Issues surrounding viticulture, winemaking, and marketing are all part of the mix. A renewed focus by a few Oregon winemakers is resulting in excitement about the region’s chardonnay future.

That Was Then, This is Now

So here in 2013 has Oregon’s “lackluster” chardonnay reputation been shattered? Has the excitement about the region’s chardonnay future been realized? A perusal of recent Oregon chard chatter would seem to say yes!

In March of 2012 New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote:

“In the beginning, there was chardonnay, and it was not good.

This was a blow to the pioneering wine producers of Oregon, who regarded their land as a sort of new Eden. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, when the firmament of the Oregon wine industry was created, a lot of chardonnay was planted.

And why not? Chardonnay was the single most popular fine white wine among Americans. It made sense to want to produce it. After all, pinot noir, the red grape of Burgundy, showed such promise in the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s leading wine region. Wouldn’t chardonnay, the white grape of Burgundy, do well, too?

Domaine Drouhin chardonnay.

New chardonnay approaches in Oregon—like this limited bottling from Domaine Drouhin—are redefining the variety in the state’s cool climate.

As part of his article, Asimov convened a panel to taste through 20 Oregon chardonnay wines from the 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages. The results? “We were all impressed with the wines. In general, they shared a sense of freshness, balance and what Blue (Pilkington) called ‘an elegant use of oak.'”

Asimov continued: “Unusually for West Coast white wines, the best of these Oregon chardonnays did not emphasize bountiful fruit flavors. Rather, they were characterized by enticing textures with occasional citrus, herbal or floral accents.” Perceptively, he observed that “. . . we had the sense of a region in transition, still experimenting stylistically like a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble, waiting for the terroir of the Willamette to reveal itself.”

So, it would seem that for Asimov and his tasting panel, the promised land of Oregon chardonnay that David Lett envisioned has yet to be settled—though it has been spied in the distance.

More recently, Megan Graves, writing at NW Wine Anthem after attending the 2nd Oregon Chardonnay Symposium, noted that “. . . there is something truly remarkable about the Chardonnay being produced here, and the word is just getting out.” She positively reported on “. . . this ‘new age’ of Chardonnay . . .” and noted that “Oregon is fairly new, albeit adept, at producing Chardonnay, though likely just scratching the surface of its potential now that solid, mature Chardonnay vines are in place.”

California-based writer W. Blake Gray reported on the Symposium for Palate Press. He called the wines “exciting,” and “eye-opening,” among much other analysis.

I’m sure there are plenty of other plaudits elsewhere in the vino-sphere that I’ve missed.

Top Producers in 2005 are Top Producers in 2013

I think it is fair to say that chardonnay is not a new wine for Oregon—after tasting some years ago the entire lineup of chardonnay vintages from The Eyrie Vineyards, I can personally testify to the greatness of even some of the oldest of Oregon’s chardonnay wines (I will be posting more about that soon).

What may be “new” to some is the improvement of the average quality of Oregon chardonnay. But even this phenomenon is not all that new.

For me, today’s notable Oregon chardonnay quality—what has made it so apparently surprising to many—is more a function of focused intent on the part of winemakers and the benefits of a wider group of chardonnay producers than it is mature vines (though that can’t hurt). Back in 2005 I was doling out high praise, high scores, and positive commentary on what was then a fairly “new” crop of Oregon chardonnays. In my Oregon Wine Report #23 I praised:

Line up of some of the Oregon chardonnay wines I reviewed in 2005.

Line up of some of the Oregon chardonnay wines I reviewed in the 2005 Oregon Wine Report #23.

Today, ALL of these producers are continuing to make standout chardonnay wines—in many cases, they have improved both their range and their quality.

Newer Producers = More Wines and Attention

But in addition, there are a variety of important new (and often younger) chardonnay-crafting winemakers whose attention to the variety is both increasing its availability and broadening its visibility. Among these producers of what I think of as the “new, new” Oregon chardonnays, here are some I highly recommend you seek out (in no particular order):

The Oregon Chardonnay Bottom Line

What the more established Oregon producers of the late 1990s saw was a vastly unrealized potential for chardonnay quality in the state’s cool-climate growing regions. They took deliberate, long-term decisions to advance the viticultural infrastructure of chardonnay in Oregon, and they swerved the enological emphasis to include the same sort of rigor in chardonnay production as was normal for pinot noir. The result of their decisions, taken in the 1980s and 1990s, has been a dramatically improved quality of chardonnay from Oregon. This first became apparent a decade ago. What has more recently changed is not so much the fruit stock, the growing procedures, or the winemaking process—what has most changed is a larger group of excited winemakers and growers who are continuing to emphasize chardonnay quality.

Let’s get this right: The Oregon chardonnay story is most definitely not a new thing; what is new—and compelling—is that a broader commitment to chardonnay by a legitimately fresh generation of Oregon winemakers is garnering fresh attention: they are grasping the chardonnay baton passed to them by a generation of successful producers and are heartily advancing chardonnay toward new levels of expression and excellence.

That is the Oregon chardonnay story . . . and it is not new: it is part and parcel of what Oregon winemaking has always been about.

—Cole Danehower


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