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ORCA Chardonnays
By Linda Murphy
Aug 21, 2007
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I can get really cranky over Chardonnay.  I adore those with crisp acidity, crackling minerality and mouth-filling texture, but if toast, butter or alcohol are the predominant impressions--as they are in so many of the hundreds of Chardonnays I taste each year--my dump bucket fills up pretty fast and the neighbors get a nearly full bottle of wine for their dinner.

I'm also a marketing cynic (and I once was a wine marketer).  Stating something with an exclamation point doesn't make it so, and the efforts of some to promote their wines through spins and 'truthiness' rather than substantive facts and honesty, is wearying.  Just like most Chardonnay. 

Then along comes a marketing pitch--a Chardonnay pitch, of all things!--and I take the bait, swallowing it whole.  The seven members of ORCA, the Oregon Chardonnay Alliance, beached themselves at a restaurant in Dundee, Ore., a few weeks ago and demonstrated to me that there are good reasons for cooperative promotional groups to exist, and that at least seven Oregon wineries are producing gorgeous Chardonnays from the far reaches of their cellars, out of the spotlight now trained so brightly on Pinot Noir.

Adelsheim Vineyard, Argyle, Chehalem, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Domaine Serene, Hamacher Wines and Ponzi Vineyards are the ORCAns, secret handshake and all, and the Chardonnays they poured in Dundee were astonishingly good, both current releases and library wines.  My kind of Chardonnays. 

Each was distinctive, yet they shared several traits, including focused, fresh aromas and flavors, perfectly ripe, tangy citrus and pear fruit, obvious minerality, and the glorious absence of overt toastiness and buttery malolactic character, even though all the wines had contact with French oak barrels.  

Oregon Chardonnay hasn't always been this good, and in fact, some of it was so dreadful that growers ripped it out and replaced it with Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir.  Only since the late-1980s arrival in Oregon of grapevine clones from Burgundy--whose cool, damp climate is similar to that of Oregon--has praise-worthy Chardonnay been made in the state, and ORCA is the deliverer of the good news.
'Oregon Chardonnay has come out of the closet,' says Argyle winemaker Rollin Soles, one of the early proponents of planting Dijon clones in the Willamette Valley, Oregon's sweet spot for Burgundian varieties.  'We were trying to find pineapple and other tropical fruit in our wines, like our California model, but fast-forward and today people are drinking the heck out of Pinot Grigio, looking for more mineral and less tropical character.  That's the style of Chardonnay we can make here.'

In 1970, Dick Ponzi was among the first to plant Chardonnay in Oregon, using mainly University of California at Davis clones 4 and 5, and what's known as the Wente clone, all from California.  These late-ripening vines, planted on vigorous rootstocks, were problematic in Oregon, to say the least: Chardonnay would ripen two weeks after Pinot Noir, when temperatures were dropping and rain was falling.  Grapes were picked not when they were mature, but before they were washed away.  Phenolic, underripe wines were often the result.

David Adelsheim, president of Adelsheim Vineyard (and, along with Ponzi, one of Oregon's pioneering winemakers), visited Burgundy in 1974 and noticed that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ripened at the same time there.  By 1977, he'd convinced Oregon State University to import Chardonnay clones from Burgundy, though the first batch wasn't the right stuff.  Beginning in 1984, OSU started to bring in other Burgundian clones that were better suited to the Willamette Valley, and after they cleared a two-year quarantine, brave souls like Soles and Adelsheim began putting them in the ground.

The clones were given unsexy numbers for names: 76, 95 and 96, and later 75, 98 and 277.  When planted on de-vigorating rootstocks such as Riparia Gloire and 3309, these so-called Dijon clones matured at about the same time as Pinot Noir, before the turn in weather, and developed fully ripe flavors.

Despite the success of the ORCAns, there has not been a rush to replace red-hot Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris with Chardonnay.  ('Passion does not always replace economics,' Soles says.) There were 929 acres of Chardonnay in Oregon in 2006, about 800 of them Dijon clones; there were 2,188 acres of Pinot Gris. 

As Domaine Serene winemaker Tony Rynders points out, ORCA's new-clone Chardonnays are currently made in small quantities--in the hundreds of cases, not thousands--so production must grow for Oregon Chardonnay to play a major role in the market.  Yet fans of Chardonnays of elegance and finesse will want to find these killer ORCA wines.  More is on the way.

'Newcomers to Willamette Valley have a mono-focus on Pinot Noir and it's hard to convince them to plant white as well as Pinot,' says Harry Peterson-Nedry, winemaker at Chehalem.  'But every one of us in this group is either planting or purchasing more Chardonnay.'

'We're not making the same wines as California,' adds Adelsheim.  'We tried, and it didn't work.  Now there is a cohesiveness here; this group is setting a standard.'

The ORCA wines I tasted have the cool-climate structure and natural acidity to remain fresh for at least five years, maybe more, as was demonstrated by an informal tasting of older Chardonnays in Dundee: 1998 Domaine Serene Cote Sud (showing its age but still very much alive), Argyle 2000 Nuthouse (mouthwatering and perfect to drink now), Ponzi 2002 Reserve (soft, creamy and delicate) and Domaine Drouhin 2002 'Arthur' (crisp and elegant). 

'There is no reason why Oregon Chardonnay shouldn't match the quality of Oregon Pinot Noir,' says Hamacher Wines owner/winemaker Eric Hamacher.

I believe him.

Adelsheim, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 'Caitlin's Reserve' 2005 ($36): Attractive aromas of wet stone, pear and red apple are followed by similar flavors plus bright, lemony citrus on a light-on-its-feet frame.  'Pretty' is the word for this wine, made from clone 76 grapes grown in the Stoller Vineyards in the Dundee Hills appellation.  Fermented in French oak barrels and with complete malolactic fermentation--which might suggest softness and a woody character--this wine is anything but that.  Rather, it is bright in its fruit notes and crisply textured.  91   
Argyle, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Chardonnay 'Reserve Series Nuthouse' 2005 ($30): This wine starts out a bit tight yet opens with time in the glass--and will likely improve with cellaring, as the 2000 vintage did.  Subtle mineral and almond-skin aromas lead to a creamy entry and vibrant citrus and peach flavors, with underlying notes of pineapple and oak spice.  The alcohol level is a gentle 13.5%.  The Nuthouse designation comes from the former hazelnut drying facility in which winemaker Rollin Soles makes the wine.  89
Chehalem, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 'Ian's Reserve' 2004 ($32): Rich custard and mango aromas lead to a lively--almost spritzy--palate of grapefruit, mandarin and lemon-lime.  The acidity is so brisk, a la Chablis, that this Chardonnay would pair nicely with fresh oysters, yet there is enough fullness on the palate and exotic fruit character that the wine is a pleasure to drink all by itself.  Oak is very much in the background.  89

Domaine Drouhin, Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley, Oregon) Chardonnay 'Arthur' 2006 ($30): The wine, named for winemaker Veronique Drouhin-Boss' son, Arthur ('ar-TOUR'), was fermented in an equal mix of French oak barrels and stainless steel, with the two components blended after eight months.  Barrel fermentation gave the wine subtle toast and hazelnut shadings and great texture in the mouth; stainless steel kept the zesty citrus and unripe pear flavors clean and crisp.  Finely balanced, it has racy acidity and hints of crushed rock on a lingering finish.  The result is, as Burgundy native Drouhin-Boss aptly describes it, a meeting of Meursault and Chablis.  93.

Domaine Serene, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 'Clos du Soleil' 2004 ($40): Tony Rynders has produced a Chardonnay crackling with natural acidity and flintiness.  A bit angular and tight now, its citrus, white peach and pear fruit is just waiting to burst forth with another year in the bottle.  The deft use of French oak (42% new barrels) for fermentation and aging gives the wine multi-dimensional caramel, toast and spice notes.  92

Hamacher Wines, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay 'Cuvee Forets Diverses' 2004 ($30): Somewhat softer and gentler than the other wines in this flight, it has a rich, creamy texture that coats the mouth.  The juicy pear, Meyer lemon and yellow stone fruit aromas and flavors are laced with sweet vanilla and spice that come from winemaker Eric Hamacher's use of lightly toasted French oak barrels made from staves that have been air-dried for three years.  There is a harmonious melding of opulence and crisp structure, and the finish is long and refreshing.  90

Ponzi Vineyards, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Chardonnay Reserve 2004 ($30): Very crisp and flinty at first taste, the wine unfolds with full, complex layers of pear, tangerine and peach flavors.  It has commendable richness on the mid-palate, then closes with minerals, brisk acidity and a dash of cinnamon spice.  Polished and elegant.  Although the wine is not vineyard-designated, the grapes were grown in the Ponzi family's Aurora Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains appellation.  90