It happened quickly. Oregon has for several decades now been known as a producer of some excellent Pinot Noir. Its cooler climate was capable of producing Pinot Noir that, at its best, could be subtly nuanced, refined and elegant. Comparisons with Burgundy would come up in conversations among the wine cognoscenti and then in the wine press. Pinot Noir had put Oregon firmly on the wine map. In fact, Pinot’s dominance made people associate Oregon with Pinot Noir, to the point where “Oregon equals Pinot Noir” is a common mindset in the same way people think Napa equals Cabernet Sauvignon. No wonder people think that, as the Willamette Valley Wineries Association has on their website landing page, in bold all caps type: “WE ARE PINOT NOIR”.
Of course, neither of those notions is really true, it is just a common perception. In Oregon that perception is starting to change, and wine drinkers are starting to take notice of some of the delicious Chardonnay being produced in Oregon.
We first started to see the rise of Oregon Chardonnay 6 years ago while we were on a trip down the Oregon coast. We were in the little town of Florence on Oregon’s coast and we stopped in for dinner at the Waterfront Depot; the town’s old train station that has been converted into a very quaint restaurant. The restaurant is perched on the edge of the Siuslaw River near to where it empties into the Pacific Ocean and seafood is the specialty of the house.
We decided we would have white wine with our dinner and at that time we were not that familiar with Oregon Chardonnay.
We looked down the list and saw a Chardonnay by St. Innocent, a very reliable Oregon producer whose Pinot Noirs we have enjoyed very much. We thought this was as good as anything to see what Oregon was doing with Chardonnay. What a wine it was! Our eyes (and our palates) were opened and we have been on a quest to seek out more Oregon Chardonnay ever since that chance encounter.
But before Oregon Chardonnay’s rise, it went through a fall. Quite a fall, in fact. While Pinot Noir has always held the number one spot in terms of acreage of vitus vinifera (wine grapes as opposed to table grapes) planted, there was a time when Chardonnay held a respectable number 2 position. In 1994, Chardonnay made up 22% of plantings in Oregon. The problem was those vines for the most part were not making very good wine. There were probably several issues at play, including a relatively young and inexperienced (at least with Chardonnay) winemaking community.
But the biggest culprit was clonal selection. Grapes come in many different varieties (such as Chardonnay) and are grown from numerous different clones, the cuttings from a parent plant that has been propagated to be replanted elsewhere. Much of the early Chardonnay in Oregon was planted to clones that came from California. These clones which had adapted to California’s hotter, drier climate, such as the Wente clone, did not fare well in Oregon’s cooler, wetter climate. The result were grapes that did not fully ripen in Oregon producing lean wines with vegetal characteristics and not a lot of charm. So viticulturists started the process of ripping out their Chardonnay vines and replanting with other species. From 2000 to 2005 44% of Oregon’s Chardonnay acreage disappeared. Chardonnay handed its second place slot over to Pinot Gris. During this time the vineyard scene was booming in Oregon but people were not planting Chardonnay.
The turnaround came with the realization of the many similarities between Oregon the undisputed grail of Chardonnay regions, Burgundy.
The similarity in latitude results in a more similar climate than when compared to California. Burgundian clones of Chardonnay were planted and these grapes ripened earlier and were able to thrive in Oregon’s cool climate. Early success with Chardonnay came from Burgundian winemakers who started Oregon wineries. Dominique Lafon of Burgundy’s Comtes Lafon fame started Evening Land in Oregon and was an early pioneer with Chardonnay and helped put Oregon on the quality map with the variety. Fellow Burgundian Veronique Boss-Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin fame started Domaine Drouhin and produced beautiful minerally Chardonnay with her Cuvée Arthur. These two leaders helped pave the way for the Chardonnay renaissance in Oregon by showing the world that, planted in the right place with the right clones, Oregon was capable of making world-class Chardonnay.
After reaching their low in 2005, Chardonnay plantings in Oregon started to come back slowly. The rise in plantings carried on at a moderate pace until 2014. 2014 was a very successful vintage in Oregon for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, following a cool, damp 2013. The success of the 2014 vintage spurred on even more planting of Chardonnay resulting in a doubling of acres planted during the next 5 years.
Since that trip to Oregon in 2015 and tasting that delicious St. Innocent Chardonnay we have been big advocates of Oregon Chardonnay.
The Oregon Chardonnay cause has been helped a string of consecutive excellent vintages. 2014, 2015 and 2016 all saw warm to hot, dry sunny vintages where grapes we easily able to achieve phenolic ripeness and disease in the vineyards was well controlled. 2017 saw record hot temperatures in August but the warmth of the previous vintages taught winemakers much about how to deal with the heat and the season was another success. 2018 and 2019 are only now starting to show up in the market but reports are these have also been strong vintages.
If you are new to Oregon Chardonnay you might be wondering what it tastes like. The comparisons with Burgundy abound and fair enough, we see the reasons why. But we resist referring to Oregon Chardonnay as “Burgundian” (as we wrote about in this article) because it does a disservice to those top Oregon winemakers who have worked so hard to express their own terroir.
While there are several similarities with Burgundy, there are plenty of differences, too. To us, if comparisons are to be used, Oregon Chardonnay possesses traits also found in the warmer appellations of Burgundy: Mersault, Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet and other parts of the Cote d’Or. Rich textures coming from ripe grapes and ageing in oak barrels evoke these districts to us. We have not really encountered Oregon Chardonnays that bring to mind the steely tension of a Chablis. We see some similarities with California, in particular some of the cooler parts of Santa Barbara county. We don’t find the richness of Oregon Chardonnay going to the point of most of the Russian River Valley wines in Sonoma county. What we do find in Oregon Chardonnay are generally delicious wines of medium body, flavours of apple, pear and citrus fruits with enchanting mineral notes and bright acidity. We also find that on a relative basis, Oregon Chardonnay, while creeping up in price, offers good value compared to many wines from either California or from Burgundy.
Top Oregon Chardonnay producers to look out for include: Domain Drouhin, Lingua Franca, Résonance, ROCO, Soter, Brick House, Nicolas-Jay, Big Table Farm, Alloro, Youngberg Hill, Roserock, North Valley, St. Innocent and Evening Land.