Pinot noir is the undeniable star of Oregon wine. Given that pinot often grows alongside chardonnay -- the classic example is Burgundy -- you'd think that Oregon would also be known for chardonnay.
Not so. For years, chardonnay struggled -- and some vintners abandoned it. Pinot gris and riesling grabbed the limelight.
Now Oregon chardonnay is coming into its own. Vintners found clones that are better suited to the cool Willamette Valley, and they've refined their winemaking. The resulting wines can be stunning and vibrant, with a common thread: refreshing natural acidity. Fruit flavors tend toward citrus, apple and white stone fruit, rather than the tropical fruit that you find in many California chardonnays.
"I think we're making some amazing chardonnay," says Jesse Lange, winemaker for his family's Lange Estate. "I'm really bullish on the variety."
Chardonnay got off to a slow start when Oregon's first vineyards were planted in the late 1960s and early '70s, because the concept of clones wasn't well understood. Chardonnay is chardonnay, right? In fact, there is a wide variety of clones and selections of chardonnay, each with different characteristics. Since a lot of Oregon's wine pioneers came from California, they planted vines from the Golden State. But the growing conditions in the Willamette Valley are quite different from those in much of California, with fall weather that's cooler and wetter. The chardonnay often didn't get ripe.
In the 1980s, vintners heard about new clones that had been developed in Burgundy for more marginal growing conditions and set about trying to get some vines. Oregon State University agreed to get the necessary permits to import cuttings and quarantine them to guard against the spread of pests and disease; the French agreed to provide the vines. Vintners in Oregon (as well as in California) started planting the new "Dijon clones" in 1990.
Now that vintners had chardonnay that would ripen reliably, they took another look at their winemaking. "I feel that a lot of the problems with Oregon chardonnay were our own fault" because the wines were too oaky, says Jason Lett, whose father, the late David Lett, founded Eyrie Vineyards in 1966.
Lange notes that chardonnay is a "variety that gets abused and manipulated a lot." David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard adds, "It's possible to overoak chardonnay, and with this beautiful fruit, why would you do that?"
Acidity gives Oregon chardonnay enough structure, so winemakers don't need to rely too heavily on oak, says Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem Wines. Peterson-Nedry makes an unoaked chardonnay called INOX, as well as a more traditional barrel-fermented wine. In general, he says, Oregon chardonnay isn't about "bigness and lushness. It's about structure and elegance and white fruit."
Although most Oregon vintners are using the newer chardonnay clones, Eyrie Vineyards has stuck to the old ways. As Jason tells the story, David Lett found "some particular chardonnay he was fond of from Spring Mountain," above the Napa Valley. He brought the vines to Oregon and planted them in a nursery plot while he looked for suitable vineyard land.
Eyrie's chardonnays still come from the original plantings, although Jason Lett says he planted a little more chardonnay last year. (He didn't plant Dijon clones; he planted "heritage" clones from California.) Eyrie does pick its chardonnay late, and Lett says the vineyard is trellised for maximum airflow, in case of rain.
Whether made from old clones or new, today's Oregon chardonnays can be outstanding. The 2011 Eyrie "Original Vines" Reserve Chardonnay ($45), made from the old clones, is lemony and persistent, with some toasty notes. The 2012 Adelsheim "Caitlin's Reserve" Chardonnay ($45) offers a nice combination of rich and racy, with white fruit and a kiss of oak. The 2012 Lange Three Hills Cuvee Chardonnay ($38) is fleshy, with lemon, apple, mineral, some creaminess and a firm core of acidity. And Peterson-Nedry's unoaked wine, the 2012 Chehalem INOX Chardonnay ($19), is fresh and crisp, with apple, white peach and a persistent finish. The latter three are made from Dijon clones.
Willamette Valley's vintners say they're still trying to figure out the best sites for chardonnay. "I don't think we know yet where they are," Peterson-Nedry says. Adelsheim agrees, saying, "We're still at a somewhat primitive state."
Contact Laurie Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some other recommended Willamette Valley chardonnays:
The 2011 Stoller Reserve Chardonnay ($35) is bright, floral and a little creamy, with racy lemon, green apple and quince flavors, while the 2012 Anam Cara Nicholas Estate Reserve Chardonnay ($32) offers creamy apple and lemon, with a racy character.
The 2011 Ponzi Reserve Chardonnay ($30) exhibits grapefruit flavors, along with a creamy richness. The 2012 Bergstrom "Sigrid" Chardonnay ($85) is made in a rich, creamy style, with apple and pear fruit and some toastiness.
Although I haven't tasted the wines lately, the chardonnays from Domaine Drouhin Oregon are generally excellent. Domaine Drouhin is the Oregon outpost of the well-known Drouhin family from Burgundy and is one of Oregon's best-known wineries.