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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Clone Wars: The Oregon Chardonnay Symposium


In 2012 Paul Durant of Durant Vineyards and Erica Landon, of Walter Scott Wines collaborated on the first of what has become an important and successful annual event, The Oregon Chardonnay Symposium. The event has sold out every year (maybe go buy your tickets before you finishing reading this.) This year the technical panel and tasting is being moderated by Rajat Parr, and will include some of the Willamette Valley's most vocal champions of the clone debate. Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards and John Paul of Cameron. (More on this later.)

The event features a technical panel, as well as a grand tasting to follow. This year's iteration, The Attack of the Clones, yes really; takes place on March 14th.

After Paul had returned to his family's business in the Willamette; one of the things on his mind was a childhood memory; chardonnay. "I'd always had an affinity for chardonnay and I think it goes back to when I picked it as a kid. I loved the taste, it's always been a strong memory for me; it's like that smell you remember when you walk into your parents' house."

While at this point it's safe to say that Oregon's chardonnay has arrived, it is very much a comeback story. Chardonnay remains under-planted in the Willamette Valley, The Durant family who have been one of the vineyard stalwarts in the Valley since just about the beginning originally had a fair bit of chardonnay. Much of their chardonnay though was for years, going towards sparkling wines made by Rollin Soles at Argyle.  After phylloxera forced a large replanting at Durant, many former chardonnay rows gave way to pinot gris or pinot noir.

That story is retold throughout much of the Willamette Valley. While chardonnay's star has undoubtedly risen, it still has a way to go to gain the sort of respect it surely deserves. Not only in acreage planted but in the marketplace as well.

Despite Paul's fondness for the grape, the market for Oregon chardonnay has shown a real lack of appreciation. "We started making really impressive chardonnay in around 2007, they were showing some promise. But you know we weren't getting paid (that much) for chardonnay and it's growing on some of the best vineyard ground in the Valley." One of the goals of the event is to draw attention to the kinds of chardonnays the Willamette Valley is producing, and make a case for a wine that deserves a higher price-point. 

To that end the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium began as an opportunity to educate consumers and showcase what winemakers throughout the valley were doing with their chardonnay. "It can still be a hard sell in the tasting room. You'd be surprised how resistant some people are to trying it." Which is a shame, as Oregon's chardonnay has the potential to make any doubters a believer. 

The number of participating wineries have nearly doubled each year and what Paul has really found encouraging was the number of consumers who were attending the technical panel. One guy is flying out from Minnesota. 

Aside from the overt quality, there's a bit of a chardonnay counter culture movement happening right now in the Willamette Valley, which brings us back to that clone debate I mentioned earlier. The rising tide of Oregon chardonnay has coincided with the popularity of Dijon clones being planted in the Willamette Valley. Get the back story here. The fact of the matter is though, the Valley was originally planted widely with 108 and Wente clone chardonnay. Those in the Dijon camp claimed they were simply not able to get these California clones to ripen in the cool Willamette Valley. While many folks perhaps pulled their vines, either to plant more pinot noir or as they did at Durant as a result of phylloxera, there's a lot of folks who didn't want to or didn't have to. Some of them are making dynamite chardonnay from those older "heritage" clones and so all this Dijon or the highway talk is rubbing them the wrong way. 

Others just think that a lack of diversity, or a sort of hegemony of Dijon chardonnay stunts the growth of a region, in the case of Eyrie, it's hard to argue with the kind of success and longevity they've had with their original plantings. The Eyrie original chardonnay planting is made up of what is called the "Draper Selection" a collection of clones that David Lett brought north from California. 

So it'll be great to hear from both clone camps at The Oregon Chardonnay Symposium.  If you care about what's going on in the wine scene here in the Northwest, I recommend you think seriously about this event.

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

2013 Kramer Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay Rich, rounded and redolent. Aromatics of baked apple, cinnamon and nutmeg. The wine really evolves over the course of an evening, fruit forward particularly with tropical notes and hints of spice. The combination of stainless steel and neutral French oak produces a great mouthfeel and texture, but the acidity seems to drop off a bit at the finish. $28

2013 Walter Scott Cuvee Anne, Willamette Valley A blend from vineyards in both the Eola-Amity Hills as well as the Chehalem Mountain AVA. The result is super. From Walter Scott who produces tiny quantities, this chardonnay is what I have come to think of as Oregon's wheelhouse. Bright floral and citrus aromatics give way to a substantial mouthfeel and texture. Classic lemon creme elements that have become for me a signature of these Willamette chardonnays are the signature of the palate. The mouthfeel is both rounded and vibrant with a pulsing current of lively acid. $45

2013 Durant Vineyard Chardonay "Raven" Made by Isabelle Duarte of De Ponte Cellars for $25 this is an out of sight and overtly elegant chardonnay. Can something be overtly elegant? Beautifully aromatic with chamomile, white flowers and jasmine, and early season nectarine. The palate is layered citrus, stone, fleshy and yet streaked with minerality and lively, lively acidity. This wine screams buy me and punches well above it's price-point. $25 

2012 Evening Land Vineyards, La Source Chardonnay Old vine Dijon clones from 1995 create a powerfully pretty and robustly ripe chardonnay. The floral aromatics are effusive, white flowers, jasmine and green tea. The palate continues a strong case for Dijon clones in the Valley, super balanced  lemon creme core along with a stone, chalky minerality. Fresh, vibrant yet loaded with layered fleshy fruit. $65

These wines were provided as samples.

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