It’s surprisingly clear in hindsight. Pinot Noir propelled the Willamette Valley to prominence. Pinot Noir also thrives in Burgundy. So why wouldn’t Burgundy’s other important grapes, like Chardonnay, do just as well in the rolling hills of northwestern Oregon as Pinot Noir?
Winegrowers in the Willamette Valley have been growing Chardonnay since the 1960s. But the variety got off to a rocky start. Early plantings weren’t particularly well-suited to Oregon’s cool climate. Many years, they failed to fully ripen, leading to underripe wines that tasted thin next to the increasingly popular ripe, lush, opulently oaked Chardonnays from California.
But in 1974, David Adelsheim, co-founder of Adelsheim Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, spent a vintage working in Burgundy. There, he saw Chardonnay being harvested at virtually the same time as Pinot Noir. Back home, Chardonnay didn’t ripen until well after Pinot Noir, pushing the boundaries of viability in Oregon’s cool, rainy autumns.
So in 1984, Adelsheim helped import some of the earlier-ripening clones he saw in France to the United States. Those “Dijon clones” turned out to be perfectly suited to Oregon’s climate, and today, they underpin many of Oregon’s most successful wines. “That, to me, is the beginning of the current phase of Chardonnay,” he says.
Today, Adelsheim is all-in on Chardonnay. “Where we are with Chardonnay today is where we were in 1985 with Pinot,” Adelsheim adds. “It is now the most important grape variety in our minds.”
For a producer steeped in Oregon’ Pinot Noir history, that’s saying something. But he isn’t alone. More and more Oregon winemakers are losing their hearts to Chardonnay’s versatility, nuance, charm — and challenge.
The improving quality of Oregon’s Chardonnay hasn’t happened by chance. For several years, Willamette Valley Chardonnay makers have been convening for an annual Oregon Chardonnay Celebration to taste and discuss each other’s wines, with the goal of making better bottles across the board.
Shane Moore, winemaker at Gran Moraine in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, says the information-sharing has been invaluable to helping elevate the style and refine the region’s approach. “We’re starting to learn and develop a vernacular, a better understanding of what Chardonnay gives us,” he says.
So what should you expect when you pop open a bottle of Willamette Valley Chardonnay? It’s tough to offer a definitive picture of the style. Many bottlings are lighter and brighter than California Chardonnay drinkers might be accustomed to. Yet oaked styles are also common, and a series of hot vintages has resulted in some wines just as full bodied as bottle from farther south. Eugenia Keegan, Oregon general manager of Jackson Family Wines, speculates that a conscious effort not to use oak or alcohol to create body might be a unifying Oregonian impulse.
In practice, that means Willamette Valley Chardonnays tend toward an easy kind of elegance, neither ostentatious nor austere. Perhaps where they shine most is as a transition wine, the kind of bottle that makes the journey from the pre-dinner hour to the table with ease.
And as good as Willamette Valley Chardonnay is today, it’s probably only going to get better as time passes. Chardonnay is still dwarfed by Pinot Noir when it comes to planted acreage, production and value. That means winemakers usually choose to fill their best blocks with Pinot Noir, although Erik Kramer, winemaker at WillaKenzie Estate in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, says he’s starting to notice a change. “We’re seeing more growers reserving the choicest parcels of land for chardonnay,” says Erik, “Putting it where it has the potential to be great.” In other words, for all its current success, Oregon chardonnay may just be getting started.
BOTTLES TO TRY
Adelsheim 2017 Staking Claim | Restrained oak and only partial malolactic fermentation make this Chardonnay bright, zesty and elegant, with lemon, white flowers and cut grass.
Division Wine Co. 2018 Un| A lively, refreshing bottle showcasing fruit from multiple sites, including the biodynamically farmed Johan Vineyard in the new Van Duzer AVA.
Gran Moraine 2017 | Just-ripe tropical fruits and juicy citrus give this Yamhill-Carlton bottling substance without excess weight.
WillaKenzie 2017 Estate | All-oak fermentation layers a rich, nutty structure and silky texture under Oregon’s classic fruit crispness.
Lange Estate Winery & Vineyards 2016 Three Hills Cuvée | An award-winning bottling showcasing ripe nectarine, crisp lemon and vivid green herbs.
Lingua Franca 2018 Estate | Simultaneously ample and bright, with grapefruit zest and white flowers over a richly textured palate.