The Top Secret Chardonnay Files


Are thoughts of Thanksgiving Pinot starting to dance in your head? It’s not time for that just yet. But when the holiday wine planning finally begins, there’s a good chance you’ll be thinking about Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Established in 1984 (and now consisting of six sub-regions), the Willamette Valley AVA has consistently garnered accolades for its strong showing in Pinot Noir. These are age-worthy, vanguard bottles that give Burgundy cause to shudder in its casks. The area is also known for its remarkably crisp Pinot Gris. But the Willamette Valley has been hiding something. It’s something steely with characterful minerality and plenty of bright yellow fruit flavors. It’s been right under your nose all along, and the history of its cultivation is just as complex and storied as the wine itself. It’s time to get intimately acquainted with Willamette Valley Chardonnay.
Honey, almond, caramel and butterscotch aromas commingle with some Sherry-style savory notes of baked brie and pear. These are the notes you will find in a 1992 Cristom Vineyards Willamette Valley Chardonnay. In 2015, this wine is a sublime example of venerable Chardonnay. The problem is, you may not be able to find it. (I was fortunate enough to score a rare glass.) While the Willamette Valley has been planting Chardonnay since wine grapes were introduced to the area in the 1960s, older vintages (like Cristom’s 1992) are tucked away in cellars around the valley. Incredibly small lots were produced as winemakers struggled to get their formulas just right. The older bottles of Willamette Valley Chardonnay that still exist today are prized examples of thoughtful craft and dedication. Conversations between winemakers and nature can go on for decades. And in the mid-1960s, some of the Willamette Valley’s Chardonnay grapes were crying out in frustration.
But let’s take a step back. What is Chardonnay, anyway? According to DNA fingerprinting, it’s a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. It’s an Old World staple that has found a welcome home in the New World. However, as any sentient human being will understand, adapting to new circumstances can take time. Some rise to the occasion while others tarry behind. Still more will never be able to adjust to their new circumstances and return home. A few will get by with a little help from their friends. Wine grapes work the same way.
According to Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder of Chehalem Vineyards, “The right variety and clones in the wrong place miss ascendancy, as do oak barrels and malolactic fermentation with poorly grown fruit.” The Chardonnay clone once predominantly used in the Willamette Valley, known as clone 108 or the Wente clone, caused a great deal of strife for farmers and winemakers alike. Sure, clone 108 was well suited to Northern California’s comparably equatorial climate; but for the most part, it fell flat in Willamette. Many clusters simply did not ripen in time to avoid the rains. And even when they did ripen in time (usually during hotter-than-normal vintages), the acidity was far too high. Willamette farmers and winemakers experimented and struggled with the 108 clone for years. There were decent bottles from certain sites, but on the whole, something was missing. 
One of the key facets of the Willamette Valley wine industry is camaraderie; all for one and one for all. David Adelsheim, Founder and President of Adelsheim Vineyards, is credited with encouraging his Willamette Valley colleagues to consider working with new Chardonnay clones. This would mean accepting that clone 108 simply wasn’t the only one. And so, in the mid-1990s, Burgundy’s Dijon clone made its way to the Willamette Valley. “Chardonnay is utterly transformed by Dijon clones, making wines that are rich without oak, complex with or without malolactic fermentation, and a travesty to leave sweet,” says Peterson-Nedry. Put down that Pinot Gris, indeed.
The Dijon clone has an affinity for Oregon soil and climate. It needn’t be coddled by a large percentage of new oak. The grapes stand up on their own. The Dijon clone is easy on acidity, too. All by itself, clone 108 was capable of battering dental enamel. Dijon produces the soft acidity that creates structure and balance – something for we all strive, inside and outside of the glass. 
The good news for us wine drinkers is that Chardonnay plantings in the Willamette Valley are on the rise. Consumers are tasting the difference and demanding more Oregon Chardonnay, as the same-old same-old selections have grown stale. These are fruit and mineral-driven Chardonnays that showcase the high level of style and panache to be found in Willamette. Producers such as Winderlea Vineyards are beginning to replace some of their Pinot Noir plantings with Chardonnay in order to meet demand. Suffice it to say, the Willamette Valley Chardonnay movement is gaining momentum. And why wouldn’t it be? After all, the Willamette Valley is the New World’s very own Burgundy. But if you suggest that notion to most folks in the Willamette Valley wine world, you’ll get nothing more than the equivalent of a wink and a smile. Cheers to staying humble.
Check out these personally vetted and vouched for bottles:
If you’re going to sign up for one wine club this year, make it Walter Scott. This cult hit sells like hotcakes, so make sure you’re on the guest list. And be sure to follow co-proprietor and winemaker Ken Pahlow’s career; he is an inherently gifted winemaker (you can’t just teach this stuff!) who will continue to floor wine lovers for decades to come. The 2013 Chardonnay brings a touch of almond and peach to the nose with floral undercurrents of honeysuckle. Like velvet and silk across the palate, the soft roundness is carried by crisp lemon crème brulee, grapefruit, and a touch of allspice. A clean, melon-tinged acidity runs throughout.
JK Carriere’s property is unfathomably beautiful. The grapes are very happy there, and it shows in the glass. Saline and citrus on the nose with a good fresh minerality. Very focused on the palate with touches of herb, pine, lemon, and white pepper. Fresh, warm heat on the palate mellows into green apple and pear. Aged in neutral oak and sat on the lees for 18 months, adding a bit of spice and just a touch of cream.
Yet another unfathomably beautiful property, Winderlea's Bill Sweat and Donna Morris have taken the time to fashion clone blends that bring out the best in every grape. Their Chardonnay is a combination of both the Dijon and 108 clones grown on different sites in the Willamette Valley, demonstrating that there is a place for 108 in the glass. Just a dash of the 108 clone brings unparalleled structure and crisp acidity to the wine. Pineapple and tropical fruits greet the nose with a bit of cream. In the mouth it's steely with a gentle minerality and green apple freshness. A fresh squeeze of lemon and grapefruit are capped with a touch of butter on the finish.
Cristom has been making elegant Chardonnay for decades. Steve Doerner has been the winemaker since the very first Cristom vintage in 1992, pioneering a bevy of clones and predominantly native yeasts to pilot the Willamette Valley into preeminence. The 2013 Chardonnay opens with a bit of green apple slices and sun-baked peaches. This is an inordinately pretty wine. White pepper, vanilla and whipped butter cover the palate as the fruits continue to sing. Fresh melon flavors carry through to a deep, long finish.
Harry Peterson-Nedry has paved the way for both grapes and wineries to grow in the Willamette Valley since 1982. His keen attention to detail and training in chemistry and statistics are invaluable assets to the region, especially when it comes to questions of climate variation. And these technical chops have helped create an ineffably gorgeous Chardonnay. Crisp and fleshy Granny Smith apples on the nose and palate. Lemon drops dapple the tongue along with some kiwi and lime. A mineral-drenched, steely acidity creeps in as white peaches parade to the finish. 

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