Given its success with Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley Chardonnay seems like a slam dunk white for the region. It has taken some time to prove itself, but during a visit to the region’s Chardonnay Celebration in February, I had the chance to catch up on how far Chardonnay has come, and what it took for the grape to find its way in Oregon.
Much of the change represents a turn from California influence to a more French, Burgundian approach. This is true in the vineyards and the wineries. Many of the early Chardonnay cuttings came from Oregon’s southern neighbor, and the clones better suited to California sunshine than Oregon’s more overcast, cooler weather. To my memory many Chardonnays from 15-20 years ago consequently had a clumsiness, or, in warm vintages like 2003, seemed like copycats of the stereotypically overripe and often over-oaked cliché of California Chardonnay from that time. Not necessarily poor wines, but with little sense of a regional character.
The introduction of Dijon clones, notably 95 and 76, has given Oregon clones well-suited to its climate. Growers have also been favoring cooler, higher-elevation sites that work particularly well with these clones. That said, the climate, as we know, is changing, and in other, warmer spots older plantings of California, Wente clones are finally getting the growing conditions they prosper in. These latter wines do sometimes stand out a bit from the more focused, citrus- and mineral-driven wines from the cooler sites, but changes in winemaking have helped bring them into the fold of Willamette Valley Chardonnay, though perhaps on the riper end of the style.
Those winemaking changes again point to France, with the presence of Dominique Lafon at Seven Springs Vineyard in particular. Lafon is no longer involved there, but left a lasting influence that has been reinforced by ongoing French investment in Oregon – Resonance Vineayrds is now owned by Louis Jadot, Ponzi by Bollinger, and the “Nicolas” in Nicolas-Jay is Jean-Nicolas Méo of Meo-Camuzet. The attention given to texture, mouthfeel, and focus has dialed into a style of Chardonnay that seems to suit the Willamette Valley well.
There is another, more practical reason for growers in the valley to opt for Chardonnay. The simple matter is that Pinot Gris, once thought to be the Valley’s white signature grape, isn’t financially viable. Aside from the greatest Grand Cru Alsace examples, there is a price cap on what wine drinkers will pay for Pinot Gris, and one that makes growing Pinot Gris in the Valley impractical on sties that could support Pinot Noir. Chardonnay is one of the few classic white grapes that has proven it can command premium, luxury prices that justify planting it alongside Pinot Noir. Right now Chardonnay makes up about seven percent of the Valley’s vineyards, but that number is expected to grow. All that said, many of these wines are still excellent values compared to their Californian or Burgundian peers.
Some recommended wines:
Ponzi Avellana Chardonnay 2019: Very elegant, with lemon, almond, and vanilla notes. Ripe and plump, but still lively and fresh. Ponzi ferments their Chardonnays around 52-54 degrees Fahrenheit, and stresses the yeast to develop texture in the wines. Oak-aging involves a combination of puncheons and smaller barrels, all of which are steam-bent, so toastiness is not a factor.
Ponzi Laurelwood Chardonnay 2019: Shows nectarine and lemon on the nose, with the addition of saline and spice touches on the palate. Medium-bodied with good length and a slight phenolic grip.
Fairsing Chardonnay 2021: Mineral-driven with lots of oystershell and gunflint. Aromatic, with notes of lemon, exotic spices, and floral touches. While the acidity is a little light, the wine has impressive length, aided by a slight, well-balanced phenolic touch.
Resonance Decouverte Vineyard Chardonnay 2020: Really impressive wine, citrus-driven and precise ,with meyer lemon, mineral, and gunflint touches. The latter speaks to a well-balanced reductive character that hints at the Burgundian ownership behind the wine; Resonance was purchased by Louis Jadot ten years ago.
Resonance Les Coteaux Chardonnay 2020: Only made for the tasting room, with a 50/50 mix of estate and purchased fruit. More generous than the Decouverte, with pear, spice, and hazelnut nuts. Tense and lively, with great presence on the palate.
Abbott Claim Eola Amity Chardonnay 2019: One of the lighter-bodied, more acid-driven Chardonnays in the bunch, but still well-balanced and finessed. Shows citrus, hazelnut, and mineral notes along with some leesy touches. For now, Abbott Claim is sourcing fruit for their Chardonnays while they wait for their estate vineyards to mature.
Abbott Claim Seven Springs Chardonnay 2019: This is Abbott Claim’s final year working with the Seven Springs vineyard, but a single vineyard wine from Temperance Hill will step in to replace it. More generous in its fruit, it leads with pineapple and Asian pear notes, with some flinty undertones. Great presence, with a long finish.
Abbott Claim Omni Chardonnay 2019: The juiciest of the three Abbott Claim Chardonnays, with nectarine, Asian pear, and oystershell notes. Elegant and acid-driven.
Adelsheim Ribbon Springs Vineyard Chardonnay 2019: Lemon notes on the palate broaden into riper, more tropical notes on the palate. Generous but still elegant.
Domaine Serene Clos de Lune Vineyard Chardonnay 2019: From the highest elevation vineyard Domaine Serene owns, the wine shows exotic spices, orange zest, and mineral touches. Powerful and focused, with vibrant acidity and good length.
Domaine Serene Clos du Soleil Vineyard Chardonnay 2019. Weighty, juicy, and fresh, with quince, meyer lemon, and melon notes, plus a touch of spice.
Cristom Louise Vineyard Chardonnay 2020. Shows a mix of tree fruit and slightly riper pineapple notes, with some nut and spice touches. Fuller, with good length, and some phenolic grip to provide added structure.
Hamilton Russell Oregon Maple Grove Vineyard 2019. Firm but elegant, with notes of lemon zest, pineapple, and spice. Excellent length.
Nicolas-Jay Affinités Chardonnay 2021. Citrus and mineral notes dominate, though some spice and quince notes emerge on the palate. A firm, medium-bodied, and focused wine, with good length.