Pinot Noir, known to be a finicky dame, calls ahead to make sure the accommodations will be to her liking. Chardonnay is the friend who will crash on your couch without complaint. Once Pinot Noir gets cozy and established, she will give the place a four star review. Chardonnay will tell the other members of the band about your couch.
It has been said that Pinot Noir reflects a sense of place like no other grape. But when site selection for Chardonnay in Oregon is as deliberate as Pinot Noir, will Chardonnay sing as true?
In the recent past Oregon growers and winemakers have sought to define Oregon Chardonnay. Kristin Marchesi, president of the Oregon Chardonnay Celebration board of directors, set the tone for the 2017 event by asserting that Oregon Chardonnay is now “more thesis than preamble” and “wants to tell you where it is from.” Five winemakers took on the theme, Road Trippin’ Through Oregon Chardonnay Wine Country, and lead a guided Chardonnay tasting. The panel was moderated by Ray Isle, executive wine editor at Food & Wine magazine. Isle pointed out that teasing out the subtleties of regional nuances has been part of the white Burgundy story for 1000+ years. Now Oregon Chardonnay can be appreciated for its complexities and translation of terroir.
Five Stops In Oregon Chardonnay Wine Country
Columbia Gorge, Phelps Creek Vineyards 2014 ‘Lynette’ Chardonnay
Raised in California, winemaker Bob Morus, was afraid of the rain when he moved to Oregon to plant grapes. He put down roots in Columbia Gorge where diversity is key. “Go 20 miles and experience a 20 inch decrease in rain,” he chuckled. Thriving grapes range from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel with each variety finding a perfect spot somewhere in the Gorge. Despite his misgivings about rain, Morus chose to plant at a 1,000 foot elevation, with an average of 36 inches of rain, on the cooler western side of the Gorge with heat units similar to Willamette Valley. In the early 1990’s Morus discerned that Oregon Chardonnay had difficulty ripening, except at nearby Hood River and Celilo Vineyards, where clonal selection and site seemed to be key. Using this knowledge, Morus was able to plant the best clones for Phelps Creek Vineyards. He also pointed out, noting the obvious shape revealed from an aerial photo of his vineyards, that “phallic shaped vineyards produce feminine Chardonnay.” The “Lynette” Chardonnay was bright and acid driven with aromas of vanilla cream soda, lemon pound cake, yellow apple, underripe cantaloupe, and minerality.
Chehalem Mountains Ponzi Vineyards 2014 Aurora Chardonnay
In 1993, Luisa Ponzi was the first American woman to earn the Certificate Brevet Professionnel D’Oenologie et Viticulture in Beaune. Upon returning from her studies in Burgundy, she inherited Ponzi’s Aurora Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains and was determined to make great Oregon Chardonnay. She credits the site, Dijon clones, and age of the vines for the quality of the Aurora Chardonnay. Laurelwood soils, which consist of windblown sedimentary layered over basalt, dominate in the Aurora Vineyard. “When vines are first planted in Laurelwood soil they produce voluptuous forward wines,” explains Ponzi. “Older vines, at about 10-15 years, begin to root deeper into the basalt soils, affecting the acidity and minerality of the wines.” Ponzi buys fruit from many sites but believes the combination of 27 year old vines and soils at Aurora Vineyard allows her to work the wines a bit harder, pulling out structure that is both silky in texture and freshly acidic. The 2014 Aurora smelled of orange, toast, and subtle floral with the structure Ponzi predicted – bright acid, a bit of tannin, citrusy lemon, and a lively minerality.
Yamhill Carlton 2014 Antica Terra, Aurata Chardonnay
When Maggie Harrison decided to make Chardonnay she was advised to avoid richness, new oak, low yields. But she wanted to make “the most beautiful thing in the moment.” For her that was Chardonnay with brown ripe seeds, skin golden from the sun, a percentage of new barrels, and lees contact for eighteen months. It was Chardonnay from a place known for Pinot Noir, from a place that breeds power. It was Chardonnay from Shea Vineyard and in the lean year of 2011, that power paid off. The ancient soils though, according to Harrison, have made the difference even in more opulent vintages. “Old soils of silt loam over compressed seabed hold acid and architectural substance in the wine,” explains Harrison. The Aurata Chardonnay tasted like toasted banana nut bread.
Eola-Amity Hills 2014 Walter Scott X Novo Chardonnay
When California Winemaker, Craig Williams, came to Oregon he found X Novo Vineyard, at 550 feet on thin volcanic topsoil layered over fractured basalt rock, to be a near perfect spot for Chardonnay. Fifteen different clones appear in this bottle designed to broadcast all the site has to say. Ken Pahlow of Walter Scott credits the soil and wind for the tension and precision found in this Chardonnay. Eola- Amity Hills is the AVA currently closest to the cooling coastal winds blowing through the Van Duzer Corridor. “Eola- Amity Hills nights are generally ten degrees cooler than the sub-appellations in the north end of the valley,” explains Pahlow. For those craving acid driven wines, these cooling winds are key. The X Novo Chardonnay smelled of sweet vanilla bean and orange kissed pound cake and had a silky texture.
Southern Oregon, DANCIN 2015 ‘Melange’ Chardonnay
Ancient rivers preceded the uplifting of mountains in Southern Oregon, which take their place as some of the oldest geologic formations in the state. Combined with the variations of soil and the convergence of the Cascade, Coastal Range, and Klamath Mountains, Southern Oregon’s landscape offers ideal growing conditions to over 70 wine grapes. It is known for its diversity, even within single vineyards. A snapshot of DANCIN Vineyard outside of Jacksonville shows a 10 degree drop from the top of the vineyard to the bottom due to elevation and the shadow cast by the surrounding forested hillside. This ‘Melange’ Chardonnay is bred for ripeness, concentration, extract, acid, and purity of fruit. Winemaker Bryan Wilson calls it the “Goldilocks wine” – just right. This wine smelled of tangerine, banana taffy, limestone, candied citrus zest, and honeysuckle.
The Chardonnay Celebration was held at the Allison Inn and Spa where the panel discussion was followed by a grand tasting showcasing 46 Oregon Chardonnay from across the state. Visit oregonchardonnaycelebration.org for to stay informed about future events.
A version of this article appeared in Oregon Wine Press.