ANALYSIS: Chardonnay Meets Promise in Oregon

Group of winemakers say varietal wine is a natural partner in Pinot Noir country

by Paul Franson
oregon chardonnay
Source: Oregon Wine Board
Portland, Ore.—Chardonnay is by far the most popular wine in America, and Chardonnay is the natural partner to Pinot Noir around the world—except in Oregon. Chardonnay would seem a natural fit for Oregon with its Burgundian climate, yet growers in Oregon long ago chose Pinot Gris as their favored white wine.

The numbers tell the story:
• 12,560 acres Pinot Noir
• 2,590 acres Pinot Gris
• 950 acres Chardonnay

In the past dozen years, however, a group of determined growers and winemakers have worked to change the reality and perception of Oregon Chardonnay. If the wines sampled at the recent Oregon Wine Board Unwine’d Oregon tasting and visits to wineries there are any indication, things are turning around.

Ponzi Vineyards winemaker Luisa Ponzi said, “In the last five years, we’ve seen a tremendous shift in quality. Now the struggle is to change the perceptions of wine drinkers.” She found great interest in the Oregon Chardonnay during a recent visit to New York. Many wine lovers don’t know the history, so for them, Oregon Chardonnay is new.

Adelsheim Vineyard's David Adelsheim, a pioneer in Oregon winemaking, said, “We took the shortcut importing vines from France instead of figuring out which California clones would work, but it took us 10 years of winemaking to find out what Oregon Chardonnay is—and we’re still trying. But we’ve gotten pretty far along.”

Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem recounts why Chardonnay didn’t take fertile root in Oregon: “Chardonnay is finally seeing the ascendancy it deserves as a variety in Oregon. Intellectually it has always been seen as a natural partner for Pinot Noir, however the initial results were less than awe-inspiring and definitely less than we saw in Pinot Noir. “

The reason boils down to clones.

“The versions of Chardonnay initially brought into Oregon were variants of Clone 108 from California’s warmer growing regions and, although they did very well there, they were less well-suited to the cool climate of the Willamette Valley,” Peterson-Nedry said.

“The person who figured this out and inspired growers to replace 108 with more appropriate clones was David Adelsheim. In the early 1980s, based on his experiences in Burgundy and a subsequent review of normal harvest times between Oregon and Burgundy pointed to the later ripening nature of 108 relative to Pinot Noir (in Oregon), dissimilar to Burgundy seeing coincident harvests for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.” 

His work with Raymond Bernard, who led clonal selection research for decades at the University of Dijon in Burgundy, led to the so-called Dijon clones being imported into Oregon and the U.S. through Oregon State University. The Dijon Chardonnay clones proved to ripen appropriately there, meaning at the same general time as Pinot Noir, not two to three weeks later.

A few growers like Bethel Heights had planted Wente Chardonnay clones from California, and they did well in Oregon, too.

Peterson-Nedry added, “The Dijon Chardonnay clones gave a step-function improvement in fruit quality, whereas the Pinot Noir Dijon clones we imported merely added additional colors to our Pinot Noir palette, since the original Pommard and Wadenswil clones were and still are stellar.”

The Dijon Chardonnay fruit went through quarantine, and expanding quantities in nurseries and vineyards were not available in large quantities until the mid- to late 1990s. So, it has taken 15 years to mature the vines and erase the prior reputation of the 108 clone. All of Chehalem’s Chardonnays have used Dijon clones since 2002, including both Ian’s Reserve (barrel fermented) and INOX (unoaked).

Beginning in 2000, seven wineries in the Willamette Valley committed to Chardonnay and its resurrection began ORCA (ORegon Chardonnay Alliance) to learn from each other in the vineyard and winery, and then to communicate the conversion to trade and the media.  ORCA is still at work behind the scenes, expanding now from the seven wineries (Adelsheim, Argyle, Chehalem, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, Hamacher and Ponzi) to include the bulk of 30-plus wineries releasing quantities of Oregon Chardonnay.

A different style
Not surprisingly, most Oregon winemakers are attempting to make Burgundian-type Chardonnay, not the rich, oaky-butterscotch wines made famous by Rombauer and others in California.

More typical is Luisa Ponzi, who studied in Burgundy and makes her wine in the style she learned there: All barrel fermented with wild yeast for 18 months, but with very few new barrels. The lees are stirred often, and the wine goes through full malolactic fermentation, which works as the musts are quite acidic. “I highlight the richness but the real focus is on keeping it bright to go with food.”

Steve Girard of Benton-Lane Winery, who earlier made wine in California, is an exception. “I like that (Napa) style of Chardonnay. I make the wine for myself.” Girard first made Chardonnay in Oregon in 2009 and produced only 200 cases last year; he plans to make 2,500 cases in five years.

Girard says he thinks the time is ripe for Oregon Chardonnay. “It will be hot. It’s the best place on earth to grow Chardonnay. In 10 years, Oregon will be as beloved for Chardonnay as Pinot Noir,” he predicts.

Adelsheim agrees, “We’re on the way toward Chardonnay being equal to our other wines, in quality if not quantity. The world is tired of a certain style of Chardonnay, and they will be delighted to find a delightful wine hiding behind the label they thought they knew.”

In spite of the progress, however, some say the effort may be too late. Myron Redford of Amity Vineyards, who makes only about 100 cases of Chardonnay annually, said, “When the Dijon clones arrived, the Chardonnay ship had already sailed. We were in the middle of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) period and Oregon wineries had shifted to Pinot Gris.” He added, “As a result, Oregon is making some very nice Chardonnay, but Chardonnay is no longer a major focus of leading-edge wineries.”

Oregon gets its act together
Oregon vintners and winemakers have been described as a pack of cats; notoriously individualist and fractious, some having fled California for a rural life long ago and many who don’t shy away from being described as former hippies.

In particular, Oregon state wine efforts have been widely seen as ineffective at promoting the state’s wines, while the various regions have squabbled over focus. The contrast was especially great with the effective promotions by Washington state and Napa Valley.

That seems to be changing. A year ago, the Oregon Wine Board hired Steve Burns, who gets credit in part for Washington’s promotional success, as interim director while they searched for an executive director. Tom Danowski was recently named to that position.

One of the first things Burns did was to create Oregon Wine Month and establish Oregon Unwine’d, a major tasting that attracted almost 90 wineries. Amazingly, the state hadn’t held such an event in recent history and skeptics questioned whether it could attract enough traffic, particularly at $50 per ticket.

With 1,000 trade and consumer visitors, however, the Board feels confident, and plans to take the show on the road next April during Oregon Wine Month, including to the belly of the beast, San Francisco.

Posted on 05.07.2012 - 10:15:14 PST
More than surprised and a little disappointed that there is no mention of Evening Land's stewardhip of the much lauded Seven Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Hills AVA. Wine maker Isabelle Munier and consulting Winemaker Dominique Lafon have produced some very exciting Chardonnays that speak to terroir with respect and forward thinking. A conversation with Ms. Munier would have added a lot to this discussion.

Posted on 05.09.2012 - 09:47:46 PST
Andrea, you bring up one of Oregon's most important Chardonnay producers. It is also worth including; Arterberry-Maresh, Hillcrest, Eyrie, and Maresh Red Hills Vineyard to the list of producers who make exceptional Oregon Chardonnay.
So, why are they not mentioned? And why do all of these Oregon Chardonnay articles that have been appearing online over the past few months mention the same three wineries?
The reason why Evening Land and the others mentioned are NOT included is because they are they do not belong to the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance (ORCA). There have been a few of these press releases (I mean articles) on Oregon Chardonnay recently. It's a media push. They are written specifically to drive sales to these three wineries and more egregiously to try and spin the notion that the 108 clone or any other clone besides the dijion clone will not produce exceptional Chardonnay here in Oregon. Those that claim this are completely wrong.