Oregon’s Unheralded Chardonnay

With a cool climate and winemakers with a light touch, Oregon is poised to deliver some of the new world’s great interpretations of this queen of white wines!


I was recently in Oregon, for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, which is a splendid reason to visit Oregon’s wine country, though you don’t need such motivation to be wowed by what you’ll find in McMinnville and the surrounding areas. While tons of Pinot were in fact tasted and consumed during that long weekend, today I want to take a few minutes and discuss that other Burgundian grape, you know the one. It elicits visceral responses in most people, either fawning or frightened. They call it Chardonnay.
As it happens, one of the great and ongoing discussion in Oregon is usually about Chardonnay. A region so well adapted to Pinot Noir should also be able to produce world class Chardonnay. I mean just look at Burgundy. The two varieties thrive side by side in their homeland. Common wisdom has held that this should be the case just about anywhere, and yet in Oregon that has not been the case, until recently.
If you ask the producers why this is you are met with a chorus. Clones. It’s the arrival of the Dijon clones that marks the turning point, which is undoubtedly true but not the whole story, though I’m not sure how much the rest of the story actually matters. A few points worth considering might be the ancillary facts that the prime vineyard spots in the region have always been reserved for Pinot Noir, and that until recently Pinot Gris was the go to white for many producers. Easier to farm than Chardonnay, more prolific in production, and frankly cheaper to get out of the winery and into retail channels. Cash flow can not be discounted as a reason why interest in Chardonnay had been tempered.
You blend these two additional facts and it becomes obvious that the earlier versions of Chardonnay, from clones that were less well suited for the region, sites that had been deemed not quite good enough for Pinot, and wineries focused on Pinot and cash flow, never had a chance. 
Today Chardonnay not only has a chance, but it is poised to become increasingly important throughout Oregon. Not only because it’s easy to market. I mean people do love their Chardonnay, but also because it is good. Like fabulously good, and in a market increasingly moving away from big creamy butter-bombs and searching out Chablis like expressions of the grape Oregon has it’s ducks in a row.
Today the main topic of discussion when Chardonnay is brought up in Oregon no longer is about quality, but has become about style, and whether or not the state has some inherent style that winemakers should be producing. The answer to that question is of course no, and yes. No, no state, save perhaps Rhode Island and Delaware can really have a state style, but when it comes to Oregon the wine industry is not about the state for most people. It remains about the Willamette Valley, though I tasted examples of Chardonnay from both the extreme north and south of the state as well on this visit. Inasmuch as the broader wine industry remains within the Willamette valley we can at least say that the region has a fairly uniform climate, which in turn does allow for significant consistency within their wines as a group.
So yes, to my mind there is an emerging Oregon style of Chardonnay based on examples from within the Willamette valley and producers are free to push its boundaries, but I love where they are forced to focus. Chablis came to mind repeatedly over the weekend when tasting these wines. Perhaps not specifically, the soils are of course different and diverse in Oregon, but the precision on the palate, crisp textures, relatively limited use of impactful wood, and joyously refreshing quality of these wines in generally really reminded me of why I love Chablis so much. With the subtle but obvious difference though I think that we are in fact witnessing the emergence of the a unique Oregon style of Chardonnay which will be both an exciting option in the marketplace as well as an important addition to the quiver of the state’s wine industry.
One point worth noting here is that the wine industry as a whole is generally responding to a marketplace that increasing favors immediacy over age worthiness. To that end an elegant and delicate example of Chardonnay may have a distinct advantage over one that is more heavily laden with oak and fruit. Those regions or producers who are able to produce this style of wine are being rewarded with growing market share and increased distribution while proponents of a richer style of Chardonnay are running up against a saturated market and a shrinking, or at best stable demand for their products. 
The Oregon wine industry is of course still quite young and dynamic, with interesting projects popping up all over the place. Some of which are focused on Chardonnay. I was fortunate to have been able to sit down and taste through some mini-verticals of Chardonnay while discussing the developments with the grape in Oregon and I do believe that even in this brief span of time covered by these modest verticals improvements in the wines have been made.
Bottom line: It’s a very exciting time to be a fan of Oregon’s Chardonnay. These are bright wines, transparent and driven by terroir. It’s a market segment that the new world has been lacking, and Oregon is getting ready to make some big noise here. So get on this boat before it leaves the dock. You won’t be disappointed by the wines, and I bet you’ll even shock the pants off some of your Anything but Chardonnay friends!

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