Oregon Winemakers Rally Behind Chardonnay

Vintners hope to draw on success of Pinot Noir, entice wine-drinkers to try Oregon Chardonnay

by Peter Mitham
Josh Bergström, winemaker for Bergström Winery, told attendees at the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium that Oregon needs to find its own style for the varietal wine rather than trying to imitate Burgundy or California.

Dayton, Ore.—Chardonnay is enjoying a revival of sorts, and Northwest winemakers are in the vanguard of reinventing the grape for a new generation of wine drinkers.

Harvest figures for 2013 from Washington state recently highlighted the variety’s ascension to the throne of white grapes, while in Oregon winemakers attending the third annual Oregon Chardonnay Symposium on March 8 proved that there’s plenty of room for differences in style.

A technical panel of nine winemakers agreed that Chardonnay from Oregon shouldn’t try to be Chardonnay from some other part of the world—but defining Oregon Chardonnay remains an ongoing work.

“Oregon is Oregon, and we shouldn’t try to be Burgundy,” said Veronique Drouhin, winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon. She encouraged the purest possible expression of local grapes—although it was clear from the wines on offer during the technical seminar and at the grand tasting that followed that local grapes can express themselves in diverse ways.

The more than 40 wines being poured during the grand tasting—a shortlist selected from more than 70 considered—ranged from those in a Burgundian style to those hinting at the richness of the expressions for which California is known, and at times reviled. Two or three were shot through with sharp citrus notes, while many were restrained as if fearing to venture too far one way or another—bearing out the general resistance to following the California model of buttery, oak-warmed wines.

That route, in the words of Dominique Lafon of Evening Land Vineyards, would be, “kind of like a disaster.”

Yet if the ways to avoid “disaster” are many, a signature style remains elusive.

Search for a signature style
“I would not be able to say today, ‘This is how Oregon Chardonnays are,’” Lafon said, noting that his own preference is for a lighter, more elegant style.

However, site, climatic conditions and clonal selection will give individual winemakers more than enough material to work with.

This is the case for Josh Bergström, winemaker for Bergström Winery in Newberg, Ore., who studied in Burgundy and recognized a disaster of sorts with his 2003 vintage. He produced his worst wine ever that year, a Chardonnay he describes as, “a banana cream pie of a wine.”

Turning his back on the big, rich flavors the market seemed to demand, he began to explore the idea of producing Chardonnay the way Oregon had been producing Pinot Noir—choosing sites with care, and extending that care to the management of the vineyard.

The result were grapes—and wines—that proved to him that Burgundy should only inspire Oregon to be itself rather than serving as a mirror or a wishing well for the state’s own enological aspirations.

His comments were echoed by Robert Brittan of Brittan Vineyards, who also makes wine for other local producers (including Ayoub Wines and Winderlea Vineyard & Winery).

Brittan said that Oregon producers need to give Chardonnay the dedication it demands, rather than making it to stock shelves. He warned that Oregon may not have a signature style of Chardonnay for another two generations; in the meantime, producers need to bear that in mind and spend the interim crafting wines that work toward the signature style that will emerge.

Pinot Noir paves the way
Another responsibility that falls to producers is developing the public’s openness to discovering Chardonnay that’s unique to Oregon. Some of the ground has already been prepared by that other Burgundian variety, Pinot Noir.

David Adelsheim told symposium attendees that he’s travelling to Europe this week without any of the Pinot Noir for which Oregon is known, only Chardonnay. The reason for that, he said, is that the world’s acceptance of Pinot Noir from Oregon lays in the wine’s quality—and a willingness to have their opinion of what Oregon and the New World could offer.

“This has opened up the mental possibility to think Oregon might be able to excel at Chardonnay,” he said.

And excelling at Chardonnay will require working with the place that Oregon is, and crafting high-quality wines that can’t be mistaken for wines from elsewhere. “A lot of the work that we have to do is about place,” he said. “It’s not about how big can we make it.” Yet if there’s one area where Chardonnay has an opportunity to go big, it’s in acreage.

Bergström said aspirations for the grape need to be matched by acreage, which continues to lag behind that of other varieties in the state. Oregon boasts 15,369 acres of Pinot Noir and 3,426 acres of Pinot Gris, while Chardonnay trails in third place at just 1,160 acres. That’s midway between a peak of 1,603 acres in 1998 and the most recent low of 842 acres hit in 2005, when Pinot Noir began sending the aspirations of other grapes sideways.

Outside of Oregon
By contrast, there are approximately 7,654 acres in Washington state, where Chardonnay trumped Riesling last year with a harvested volume of 40,500 tons.

British Columbia’s most recent grower survey reports approximately 917 acres of Chardonnay.

While the production numbers show the grape has room to advance, Chardonnay is hardly the Northwest’s new best friend.

B.C.’s Okanagan Valley garnered one of its first major accolades, the International Wine and Spirits Competition’s Avery Trophy, in 1994 on the strength of Mission Hill Family Estate’s 1992 Grand Reserve Barrel Select Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is also a personal favorite of Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Wine Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, which is working to sequence the Chardonnay genome.

Meanwhile, in Washington state, winemakers such as Charles Smith are eyeing single-vineyard Chardonnays that reflect the grape’s renaissance.

With the symposium in Oregon rallying enthusiasm for the grape, winemakers can count on something more than a sparkling future for the variety.

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