Oregon Chardonnay Gains World Acclaim
By W. Peter Hoyne
There is inner richness to Oregon Chardonnay that is restrained by delicate, refreshing acidity allowing them to intertwine and find harmony with most foods. They are unlike some renditions from the North Coast where oak may dominate with a heavy layer of butterfat masking the wine’s true versatility. In many cases Willamette Valley Chardonnay has shown to be a mirror image of the famous whites from the cru vineyards of Mersault and Chassagne Montrachet in Burgundy, France. At some point, is it conceivable that they may overtake their counterparts from France, considering their similarities in style, refined flavor profile and more affordable price points? Only time will tell.
So let’s start from the beginning on how this renaissance began. In 1964 David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards was credited with bringing Chardonnay budwood from California to plant in Oregon. Wente clones of Chardonnay dominated the landscape in the 1970’s and 1980’s. UC Davis Wente Clone 108 was favored because it was high yielding, retained low acids and had an even development of the berries. Yet, some believed it was uninspiring which cast a shadow on the clone. By 1974, David Adelsheim during his frequent travels to France and internship in Beaune had requested Dijon cuttings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir be shipped back to Oregon. The Dijon budwood revealed an enhanced flavor profile, was earlier ripening and better suited for cool climates than the Wente 108. Since this time a host of hybrid clones have been introduced yet the debate remains active.
What is certain is that Willamette Valley producers have taken the quest of Chardonnay seriously. The thought process has shifted as grape growers and winemakers are focused on observing the influence of site-specific vineyards, soil types, microclimates and farming techniques on the expression of this grape. One example is along the southern fringes, west of Salem, in Willamette Valley’s newest AVA, the Van Duzer Corridor. It is here that the cool marine winds of the Pacific Ocean are funneled through the passageway into the low-lying valley. This allows for slower ripening, thicker skins and more concentration of flavor components in the grapes. The end result reveals wines with more brightness and natural acidity. Chardonnay plantings continue to proliferate in this area yielding promising results.
The human factor must also be considered and not overlooked. Within the Van Duzer Corridor is Van Duzer Winery. Carl and Marilynn Thoma were among the first to establish a presence in this area with their family estate in 1998. Winemaker Florent Merlier is a native of Burgundy and growing up in the village of Chablis he understands the weather patterns and soil types. Florent admits that “Chardonnay is becoming the new norm in Willamette Valley” and believes that it thrives in more shallow soils. He professes to “always pushing the boundaries” and is intent on making wines that are lower in alcohol, retain acidity and are distinctive. Florent employs gentle winemaking techniques while “balancing the aromatics and textural quality of a wine.”
As French producers and French-born winemakers continue to have a notable presence in Willamette Valley there is a well founded respect for the elements and sense of distinction the wines from Willamette Valley possess. What is far-reaching is that Willamette Valley Chardonnay has come of age, solidifying its status and garnering a loyal following for what may be some of the best whites in the world.