In 2007, Saveur Magazine asked me to write a story on the state of chardonnay in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In the end, the text below was not published in the magazine, but is now (2017) posted here for the record. The text has not been fact-checked or copy-edited, not has it been updated for this post. — JWH
Imagine New World chardonnay with the bright, apple-hazelnut character of Rully; the pear, melon and yellow plum found in early editions of chardonnay grown on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley; some fresh, white peach that seems more characteristic of viognier than chardonnay; plus earthy, resinous and citric notes, excellent acidity, and a touch of Chablisian minerality. Modest alcohol, and only a suggestion of oak. No hint of residual sugar, butter, or tropical fruit. Such is the portrait — against all odds, expectations and track record – to emerge from a cross-section of several dozen chardonnays grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, across three recent vintages. Serious, appealing, food-friendly wine that is often age-worthy, sold for astonishingly reasonable prices.
Chardonnay in Oregon runs a distant third to pinot noir and pinot gris, which occupy seventy percent of the state’s vineyard. Although, for decades, nearly every grower in the Willamette Valley planted it, it rarely made a vintner’s favorite wine, and often behaved more like a varietal black sheep. When Roy Andries de Groot surveyed American wine early in the 1980s, he liked chardonnays made at The Eyrie Vineyards, Ponzi Vineyards, Knudsen-Erath and Elk Cove, which he found, variously, “crisp,” “fruity,” “tart” and “subtle,” but in every case he preferred the same producer’s pinot noir. Chardonnay frustrated many Oregon vintners, producing “lackluster” results, especially in cool vintages. From 1995 to 2005 vineyard acreage devoted to chardonnay declined by almost half, and some producers abandoned it entirely. Newcomers to Oregon’s wine business invested almost entirely in pinot noir, or in just a few rows of pinot gris alongside their pinot noir, to give themselves a bit of something white for home consumption and tasting room sales. The contrast with neighboring California, where chardonnay has been the uncontested behemoth for a quarter century, is stark. So too the contrast with Greater Burgundy, from Chablis to the Maconnais, which Oregon resembles climatically and aspires to imitate, where pinot noir and chardonnay together, in roughly equal shares, account for nearly everything.
Context is part of the story. Neither chardonnay nor riesling was able to compete with the inexhorable success of Oregon pinot noir, internationally acclaimed since The Eyrie Vineyards’ legendary performance against a passel of outstanding red Burgundies tasted at Beaune in 1980. Pinot noir sucked oxygen from Oregon’s other varieties, becoming, as veteran wine writer Matt Kramer explained in 1996, “all anyone in Oregon wine talks about, thinks about or prays for.” Economics took care of the rest. The price of pinot soared; demand kept pace; more pinot was planted; and a shadow settled over other varieties, including chardonnay. Another bit of the picture lies with chardonnay outside Oregon, where it swept like a tsunami across the wine landscape, flooding the market with all qualities of chardonnay at all price points, and leaving little room for upstart competition. Worse, with a nod to Burgundy but more caricature than imitation, the New World’s warmer regions also imposed an international consensus style on chardonnay, creating demand and acceptance for soft, round wines redolent of tropical fruit, vanilla and butter, seasoned with a bit of residual sugar. The Willamette Valley is too cool to have made chardonnays in this mould, even if its vintners had been so inclined.
As Oregon vintners tell the story, however, their core problem with chardonnay was not contextual but botanical. Although all the world’s chardonnay has been propagated from a single Mother vine that grew, probably somewhere in Greater Burgundy, in late medieval times, spontaneous mutation (and human intervention designed to eliminate disease) has generated multiple instances of chardonnay over time, and each instance is a bit different from every other. The first chardonnay vines planted in Oregon, the vintners explain, were cuttings taken from California instances of the variety, already several plant generations removed from French antecedents. Planted in Oregon, these selections ripened late and developed little flavor until the tail end of the ripening process. In warm years, producers were able to coax “pretty good” wine from these selections – Dick Shea remembers “lovely” chardonnays made from California selections planted in his vineyard in years when autumn rains held off until the end of October – but more than a few were sappy, ponderous, tasted mainly of red apple, and lacked “zing.” Mindful that Burgundian colleagues reported chardonnay that ripened simultaneously with pinot noir, and that good white Burgundy was anything but ponderous and sappy, several Oregon vintners, including Adelsheim Vineyard’s founder David Adelsheim, concluded that that their devil must lie with the California selections. These, they hypothesized, had adapted a bit too well in California, and now refused to perform “true to variety” at a more northerly latitude. So the vintners turned their sights to Burgundy, where government-sponsored programs had been following vineyards for twenty years, taking cuttings from the healthiest and earliest-ripening vines, propagating small parcels exclusively from those cuttings, making batch after batch of experimental wines, vintage after vintage — effectively bettering the breed. The Oregonians persuaded the French to part with a few cuttings from their programs, forged a relationship with Oregon State University to manage importation, and organized their own trials. Finally planted commercially in 1989, 1990 and 1992 at Adelsheim, Argyle and Ponzi, the new selections behaved like chardonnay in Burgundy. They ripened just as the doctor had ordered: two weeks earlier than the “old” California selections and right in sync with pinot noir. However, although they hinted at the flavors and structures the vintners sought, the first finished wines were still underwhelming. Adelsheim noticed that an appealing “subtle white peach fruitiness” developed early in the ripening continuum, but also tended to disappear early, as soon as acid levels headed down. After three years of less-than-inspiring results, Rollin Soles, Argyle Winery’s partially Europe-trained winemaker, learned the trick: he picked the French selections “before they got too ripe.” Gradually, quite a few producers replanted entirely to French selections. Argyle made its first chardonnay exclusively from French selections in 1995; Ponzi in 1996.
Perhaps as important as the fact of the new selections, which have now grown to account for about half of the chardonnay in Oregon vineyards, is the new attention lavished on chardonnay by vintners sensing a “better future” for the hitherto underperforming variety. At Chehalem, winemaker Harry Peterson-Nedry devised a “bracketed picking” scheme to address the singular ripening profile of the French selections. He picks some vines when the grapes reach barely 12 percent potential alcohol, then others at around 13 and 14, and builds the final blend from a combination of lots, to achieve verve and body in the same wine. Eyrie’s new winemaker, David Lett’s son Jason, has adapted barrel fermentation followed by long élevage in neutral wood, plus other “tricks I learned in Burgundy,” to produce an especially well-built edition of chardonnay for his personal Black Cap label — from heritage vines in the family’s estate vineyard. Patty Green, Patricia Green Cellars’ eponymous winemaker, reports an evolution for the chardonnay she makes from the Four Winds Vineyard (in the Coast Range foothills west of McMinnville) from “inspiration by village-level Meursault” to “inspiration by Chablis,” based on zero use of new barrels, and harvest early enough to capture a mix of still green and ripe berries. Green calls the 2005 vintage “a lean, mean, fighting machine.” Westrey Wine Company has resuscitated 28-year old vines propagated from the California selection used in Eyrie’s estate vineyard to anchor the reserve tier of its chardonnay program, using six months of lees contact and batonnage to showcase pear and Golden Delicious apple flavors in a straw-colored package. An impressive list of producers, apparently led by Chehalem’s Peterson-Nedry, but now including Adelsheim, Sineann, Halloran, Bethel Heights, and Boedecker Cellars among others, has converted all or part of its chardonnay program to an oak-free protocol where the wines are fermented and raised entirely in stainless steel. Production of Chehalem’s unoaked chardonnay (“Inox”) has soared 500 percent since its debut in 2002. Argyle’s Soles thinks the “new American palate” has now learned to like minerality and acidity, and cites the popularity of pinot grigio as proof. “It was tough up here in the old days of fat, ripe chardonnays,” he recalls. “We were trying to please the palate of the time, but we just couldn’t do it.” David Adelsheim thinks a consensus Oregon style is emerging from experimentation: light-handed use of new oak, fresh acidity, modest alcohol and low tannins. The wines’ body is built naturally from low yields, and bright flavors can persist through complete malolactic fermentations because the unfermented juice starts out with high effective acidity.
Some Oregon makers have begun to talk about chardonnay with the same awe and respect they previously reserved for pinot noir. There are references to “the inherent greatness of the variety” and its “exciting tension between floral and fruit aromas.” Eric Hamacher, who has made both pinot noir and chardonnay in Oregon since 1995, now declares that chardonnay is “the other half of the Holy Grail.” Others argue that, as a matter of good business, chardonnay is the only white option for Oregon growers. Since, in the neighborhood of the 45th parallel, all viable varieties compete to be grown on the same prime, south-facing hillsides and to be cropped at not much more than two tons per acre, growers and vintners must cast their lot with a variety than can, with time and excellence, produce wine that justifies prices in the same range as those commanded by pinot noir. Of all white varieties, vinified as dry table wine, only chardonnay has a track record for such results. If the Oregonians are wagering correctly, fine Oregon chardonnay will not sell in its current $18-$35 price range forever. Carpe diem.