Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Building Something Beautiful; The Rise of a Signature Chardonnay Style in Oregon

That Oregon Chardonnay is gaining in prominence and prestige is no longer news. If you've been drinking these wines for the last 7 or so years you've already known irrespective of national newspapers taking note very recently, that this variety from Oregon has the potential to be a fine wine, a damn fine wine.

photo from the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance
Chardonnay has been so maligned, so abused and mistreated that it has sadly become a bit of a scapegoat among the discerning wine drinking public. It's funny though because despite all of this maltreatment Chardonnay is the most popular wine in America. Chardonnay remains the most widely variety planted in California, and up until just last  year it was the case in Washington, it has since been surpassed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Here's the thing, grandmas love Chardonnay, my mother for example, she loves the stuff. But for serious wine drinkers, or actually more to the point those developing into serious wine drinkers Chardonnay, particularly domestically made Chardonnay had become verboten.  No one was going to take you seriously if they caught you drinking Chardonnay, right?(Serious-serious wine drinkers have learned how profound Chardonnay can be when it comes from Burgundy and developing-serious wine drinkers will soon find that out as well.)

Enter Oregon and David Adelsheim.

Oregon's Willamette Valley; known the world over, and I mean that sincerely, for it's Pinot Noir is also producing Chardonnay that might rival or in some cases pass its Pinot in prominence. Given America's propensity to see red wine as more "serious" though I don't know if Oregon's Chardonnay will ever get it's full due, however it's reputation is on the rise and a style is emerging as one that might just change the way American Chardonnay is understood.

David Adelsheim is certainly among the shortlist of names as one of the Willamette Valley's pioneers. Though he came a few years behind the first wave of David Lett, Charles Coury and a couple others, his role in the development of Oregon's Chardonnay is perhaps more unparalleled. The valley's original Chardonnay plantings were selected from vines intended originally for planting in California. In the cool Willamette Valley they flopped, In many cases they wouldn't ripen properly and were often a few weeks behind Pinot Noir. These two UC Davis clones, known as "selection 108" weren't cutting it.

While working a harvest in Burgundy in 1974, two years after planting his own vineyard which included Chardonnay, Adelsheim noted that the Chardonnay in Burgundy was ripening right alongside the Pinot Noir. The process was complicated but eventually some appropriate, and healthy clones were released via Oregon State University for planting in 1989. Adelsheim, along with Rollin Soles of Argyle and Chehalem's Harry Pederson-Nedry championed the planting of these Dijon clones in an effort to replace the ill selected "selection 108." Pun intended.

What we're seeing today in Oregon Chardonnay, is a result of that hard work and vision.

"Chardonnay isn't a wine-making technique, it's a grape." David Adelsheim points out. "In order to make it well you need wine-making that actually respects the identity of the grape, and the variety that you can achieve vintage to vintage." So why are we seeing this resurgence in the Chardonnay coming out of Oregon today? "What we're seeing is a collision of two things; the level of quality possible with careful site and clone selection. A clearer vision of what we can do here. It's been a gradual recognition over the last ten years or so."

It really has and over that time, you find a style of Chardonnay that emphasizes the "fresh fruit," bright acids and amazing texture for which Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has come to be known. terroir is a real thing it turns out. For Oregon Chardonnay, style is about climate, soils and the right decisions about vineyard site and Chardonnay clones. It's not about heavy oak, or maloactic fermentation. 

Thankfully for us others have followed and the number of beautiful Chardonnays coming from the Willamette Valley are at an all time high. Anam Cara Cellars is only in their second vintage with the 2012 release but they are among a group of "new" Chardonnay producers adding to the critical mass of outstanding Oregon Chardonnay coming to market. For Sheila Nicholas Chardonnay seemed like a natural decision. "When we decided to plant two additional acres, we wanted a white variety that would complement the existing plantings of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer; each in itself a wine that evolves beautifully in a cool climate. Chardonnay - specifically Dijon clone Chardonnay - fit the bill for quality and age-ability. Our decision was confirmed after following several vintages of a personal favorite: Eric Hamacher's Cuvée Forêts Diverses and Harry Peterson Nedry's Chehalem Ian's Reserve and INOX Chardonnays which demonstrate the incredible versatility of Chardonnay at the hands of a great winemaker."

2012 Anam Cara Cellars Reserve Chardonnay In their second vintage of Chardonnay bottling, Anam Cara Cellars has made both a steel fermented wine and this reserve wine fermented in French oak, about 20% of which is new. Aromatics of white flowers, sweet hay and toasted hazelnuts. The wine is textured and rounded with accents of ripe peach flesh, honey and grapefruit zest. The zip of acid is subdued and the palate balances out nicely. $32 

2012 Stoller Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay Melissa Burr reliably creates some of the most compelling Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley each vintage. Aromatics of coriander, honeysuckle, lemon zest and pineapple. Mostly neutral French oak gives this wine depth, texture and complexity and ample lemon creme, wet stone and peach skin. Mouth watering acidity and overall elegance. $35

2012 Bergstrom Sigrid Chardonnay Goddamn. That is a wine. This is probably the most complete wine from Oregon I've ever tasted. Damn. Forgive me, I need a minute. Aromatics are lemon custard, orange zest, fresh baked bread, chalk, and almond. Flavors of beeswax, lemon creme, crushed limestone and toasted hazelnut. A full bodied richness braced with a streak of energetic acidity. The impressiveness of this wine lies in it's structure and depth. Evolving in your mouth, revealing more and more facets of itself. You think you have it pinned down and it changes, shifts, gives you a bit more. I don't like to wax too poetic about wine, but this one leaves me with no other choice. It really is that incredible. I believe Burgundy would be proud. $85

2012 Adelsheim Caitlin's Reserve Chardonnay Refined and elegantly aromatic the wine gives off a warmth and roundness with aromatics of ripe stone fruit and honeysuckle. The acidity pulses  to brighten up a palate of texture and depth. The wine was fermented in nearly 40% new French oak The rounded palate shows a bit more ripe peach along with flavors of nutmeg, baked apple and honey. $45

These wines were provided as samples as part of a program called "Best Case Scenario" in an effort to highlight Oregon Chardonnay.


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