Chardonnays of the Pacific Northwest
Chardonnay is no newcomer to the Northwest: It trails only Riesling as the most-planted wine grape in Washington. Several high-profile, all-Chardonnay projects have recently been launched.
In Oregon, it ranks a distant third behind Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, but winemakers there are buzzing about the grape and investing in significant new vineyards.
Between the two states, there’s a range of soil and climate conditions that rival those in California. Chardonnays from Washington offer bright fruit, often ripened to tropical flavors and showcased in both stainless-steel and oak-aged styles.
Heavyweights from California (Evening Land Vineyards, La Crema) and Burgundy (Domaine Drouhin) have invested in Oregon Chardonnay, purchasing land, planting grapes and bottling wines.
The early results of these endeavors have been remarkable. On a percentage basis, Chardonnays from the Pacific Northwest garner more Wine Enthusiast Best Buy designations than those from California.
—Paul Gregutt & Sean P. Sullivan
Photos by Jens Johnson
The fourth-annual Oregon Chardonnay Symposium was held during March, deep in the Willamette Valley. It promised guests a tasting and panel discussion on clonal selections, dubbed “Attack of the Clones.”
It quickly turned into an attack on the clones. The battle lines were drawn between the Dijon clones and the original California heritage cuttings like Wente and Draper.
“I welcomed everybody to the post-clonal era, and then I had to grind an ax,” says Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards.
At the symposium, Lett said that arguments about clonal superiority take focus away from more important considerations like climate and soil.
The claim that newer Dijon clones are invariably superior seems to have fed the fire. Another Oregon pioneer, David Adelsheim, introduced the clones in the late 1980s, seeking to match ripening characteristics found in Burgundy, rather than California. But the notion that Dijon clones are best may be outdated.
Why should consumers care? Because as geeky as these debates are, the terms regularly appear on wine labels and technical sheets, and come up in casual tasting-room conversations.
There’s no argument that different clones deliver different flavors. The questions remain: Should you avoid some? Or perhaps seek others?
Dan Marca might be the voice of reason. Marca, who owns Dancin Vineyards in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley, produces five excellent Chardonnays. Different clones distinguish each blend. Several incorporate both heritage (California) clones and Dijon clones.
These Chardonnays mix clones like an artist blends paints into a unique color. The wines provide a glimpse into efforts to establish an Oregon identity for Chardonnay, much like how the state made Pinot Noir its own.
“Each of the clones gives us something specific and desirable,” says Marca. “We harvest them separately and then blend them back together to give us the best wine.
“For the longest time, we continually compared ourselves to Burgundy. We are not that, nor are we California. I think our site and those like it have the best of both worlds. We’re not too big and heavy, nor too light and elegant.”
For Lett, what defines a region’s success with the grape is its diversity.
“When you see people willing to take risks and not kowtow to a single market style, that’s when you see people pulling a region’s reputation up,” he says. “I’m seeing people taking risks now—willing to develop new sites that would be great for Pinot Noir, but instead focusing on Chardonnay.”
Cappie Peete, director of beverage and education for Charleston, South Carolina’s Neighborhood Dining Group (known for McCrady’s, Minero and Husk Restaurant), features several Eyrie wines on her lists.
“What I think distinguishes Chardonnays from Oregon is their true expression of terroir and vintage,” she says. “The cool climate of Oregon creates Chardonnays with a fruit profile of citrus, pears and peaches, whereas California Chardonnays typically exhibit more tropical fruit.
“However, fruit is the not the main appeal of these wines. It is the energetic acidity, flinty minerality, delicate floral notes and restrained oak usage that make for incredibly interesting wines that unwind in the glass over the course of a meal. They display concentration of flavors and elegant texture without opulence.” —P.G.
Ponzi 2012 Aurora Vineyard Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $60, 96 points.This sensational effort comes from 20-year-old vines. It’s a glorious wine; textural, generous and complex. The bright and fruity midpalate blends flavors of peach, quince, honey, tea and caramel, buoyed by juicy acidity and a touch of minerality. Editors’ Choice.
Bergström 2013 Sigrid Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $85, 95 points. The Sigrid bottling never fails to deliver lush fruit and hedonistic barrel flavors. In cooler years when the alcohol falls below 14%, details of skin and flower emerge as well. This is a wine with power and finesse, offering juicy pear and peach, supple acids, brioche and toasted biscuit, underscored by refreshing minerality. Drink now through 2025. Cellar Selection.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon 2012 Édition Limitée Chardonnay (Dundee Hills); $65, 95 points. This reserve-level cuvée has been made since 2004, but in very limited amounts. A mix of one-third new, one-third once-used and one-third neutral oak barrels is used. Rich, tight and sappy, it shows generous ripe stone and tropical fruits, along with rich layers of butterscotch and toast. Drink now through 2025. Cellar Selection.
The Eyrie Vineyards 2012 Original Vines Reserve Chardonnay (Dundee Hills); $45, 95 points. Sourced from the original 1965 planting, this wine demands your patience and full attention. Displaying a deep straw, slightly tawny hue, it opens with lightly spicy, nuanced threads of mint, hay, olive oil, green banana and almond. It seems almost ephemeral, but with some hours of breathing time, it opens into a full-bodied, dense and compelling wine, with the extra dimensions that old vines can provide. Drink now through 2030. Cellar Selection.
Brittan Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay (Willamette Valley); $42, 94 points. A thrilling wine, this impresses instantly with its detail and definition. Vividly fruity with a mix of melon, apple and stone fruits, this tangy, toasty effort has nuanced notes of herb and mineral as well. Drink now through 2030. Cellar Selection.
Evening Land 2012 Seven Springs Vineyard Summum Chardonnay (Eola-Amity Hills); $90, 94 points. The Summum block sits at the vineyard’s highest elevation, and seems to ripen more slowly and give extra complexity at lower sugar levels. Elegant and refined, with fruit flavors more subtle than its sister cuvées, this mixes citrus flavors of lemon, lime and pink grapefruit, along with lighter suggestions of pineapple and a hint of papaya. It’s complex and captivating, with a long, racy finish. Cellar Selection.
“I think we kind of lost our way with Chardonnay in Washington,” says Brennon Leighton, winemaker for Charles Smith Wines.
Despite a 50-year history and a consistent ranking among the state’s most produced varieties, Washington Chardonnay has suffered from an identity crisis in recent years.
While the variety has been overshadowed by the rise of red wines in the state, it can be said that Chardonnay here has failed to establish its own identity, seemingly influenced too much by California styles.
However, an increasing number of winemakers are demonstrating what makes Washington Chardonnay special.
One of them is Charles Smith, of Charles Smith Wines and K Vintners. In 2012, Smith hired Leighton (formerly of Efeste) to head a new Chardonnay project named Sixto. Late last year, the winery released a series of dazzling, single-vineyard Chardonnays among the most impressive and expensive the state has produced.
Leighton says Chardonnay’s struggles in Washington began in the vineyard.
“A lot of the sites where Chardonnay is grown are more red-wine grape sites, not classic white sites,” he says.
For the Sixto project, Smith and Leighton sought out higher elevation vineyards where they believed Chardonnay would thrive.
“We’re trying to get extended time on the vines in the cooler part of the season so that we can retain acidity and get some of the flavor maturity that we’re looking for without elevating the alcohol level,” says Leighton.
Sixto also sought older plantings, with vine age ranging from 19–37 years.
“I think you get more density in the palate and a little bit more complexity in the wines overall,” Leighton says of older vines. “You don’t have to do as much winemaking.”
Chris Gorman, of Gorman Winery, also recently launched a Chardonnay-dedicated winery named Ashan, whose bottles were released in late 2013. His reasons for the project were part love of the variety and part opportunistic.
“Chardonnay is typically the second-most produced variety in the state,” says Gorman. “Doesn’t it seem strange that there has been so little premium focus?”
Ashan makes three single-vineyard Chardonnays as well as a cuvée, varying styles from neutral to all new French oak fermentation and aging.
“You have to pair up the fruit with how it’s going to be produced,” says Gorman.
As vintners and wine drinkers rediscover Washington Chardonnay, no single profile prevails. Columbia Valley—Washington’s largest growing region—offers a variety of styles.
“People don’t realize we’re just as diverse up here as say California or France,” said Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle.
The profile in Washington tends to be more based on appellation, with warmer regions like Horse Heaven Hills producing ripe wines, with stone and even tropical fruit aromas and flavors. Cooler regions like the Columbia Gorge produce sleek, mineral-driven wines dominated by apple and citrus notes.
Despite Chardonnay’s varied appearance in Washington, Bertheau said there’s commonality across the wines.
“The connecting thread is still the acidity,” says Bertheau, noting that Washington’s hot summers and cool autumns differentiate it from other wine regions. “No matter if it’s red or white, Riesling, Cabernet or Chardonnay, we always see freshness in Washington wines.”
Leighton believes that Washington Chardonnay is finally finding its way.
“You’re starting to see a return to a more classic style that’s more vineyard driven and less winemaker driven,” says Leighton. “It’s exciting to see.” —S.S.
Sixto 2012 Roza Hills Chardonnay (Washington); $55, 93 points. A pale golden color, this offers intoxicating notes of candy corn, lemon curd, spice and stone fruit along with light toast accents (30% new French oak). It’s rich, textured and full of intense, layered fruit and mineral flavors that carry through the long finish. Editors’ Choice.
Array 2011 Dijon Clone Chardonnay (Yakima Valley); $32, 92 points. Sourced entirely from the Otis Harlan Vineyard, these vines were planted about 25 years ago. It’s a pleasure to see them singled out for this showcase bottling. It’s a rich, oily, nutty, buttery style to be sure, but also dense with ripe apple, pear and peach fruit. The acidity buoys it up throughout a strong, long finish.
Woodward Canyon 2012 Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay (Columbia Gorge); $66, 92 points. This single-vineyard wine shows both the warmth of the vintage and the coolness of this site, boasting depth and richness to the fruit flavors while retaining good acidity. It combines notes of apple, peach and lees with light barrel accents—20% new French—and a creamy feel. Enjoy with shrimp stir-fried in olive oil for a pairing nirvana.
Abeja 2013 Chardonnay (Washington); $40, 91 points. A blend of top sites Celilo and Conner Lee, this appealing wine displays aromas of candy corn, corn silk and chamomile. The stone fruit flavors are elegantly styled, showing a fine sense of restraint and balance that carries through the lingering finish.
Carter-Lamour 2012 Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $30, 91 points. This wine was crafted by two winemakers, with half of the fruit hailing from Roza Hills (Brennon Leighton, Sixto) and the rest from La Reyna Blanca (Aryn Morell, Alleromb). It’s directly appealing, with notes of barrel spices, cream, peach and candy corn. A pleasing interplay of fruit and barrel flavors leads to a lingering finish. Editors’ Choice.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $25, 91 points. This wine displays all of the intensity of Cold Creek. The aromas of toasty spices and pear are light but lead to a full, rich feeling palate, with the acids providing a perfect counterbalance.
Savage Grace 2013 Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay (Columbia Gorge); $26, 91 points. This is a lightly aromatic wine, with notes of lees, apple, mineral and spice. It’s medium-bodied, with a thick, textured feel showing good weight and intensity to the fruit flavors alongside well-balanced acidity. A uniquely styled wine without an easy comparison in the region.