Oregon’s relative lack of Chardonnay is downright weird. And in Portland, rare and weird is good. So you know where this is going.

Some of the most exciting wines being made in Oregon today are Chardonnays. These are not your grandma’s butter bombs; they’re taut, lean wines with terrific mouthfeel.

“You have to love making Chardonnay to make good Chardonnay,” says Marcus Goodfellow of Matello Wines. “There’s a lot more work than with red wine.”

Oregonians are not shy about hand work, as long as the end product is cool. And Chardonnay is ripe — or should I say slightly underripe? — for the same sort of hip revival as fixed-gear bikes.

Chardonnay may be common in California, but in Oregon, where the climate is more like Burgundy, only 4.7% of the vines are Chardonnay, compared to 61.6% Pinot Noir. Hipness has something to do with that. When most of that planting was done, Pinot Noir outside Burgundy was an obscure wine geek’s obsession, while Chardonnay had established itself as the innocuous white wine of political fund-raisers.

Yet anywhere that can grow great Pinot should be able to make great Chard.

image005

Who makes the good Chard?

It’s a typical Oregon thing to do something whimsical, stubborn and artisanal, regardless of whether or not it makes business sense. In Oregon, the cash cow for wine is Pinot Gris, which produces big crops and can easily be machine-harvested. People who make Chardonnay in Oregon are often full-on wine geeks, obsessing over clones, oxidation regimes, etc.

In fact, I sat on a panel earlier this month at the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium and I told the eight winemakers, and the audience, that my eyes were glazing over listening to them talk (that’s why I’m so popular at parties). Who cares what your crop level was on each vineyard? Who cares how often you stirred and topped?

But the wines we tasted — now those were eye-opening.

The winemakers spoke at exhaustive length about how different they all were. And that was true to a point. But they were more similar than not: Seven of the eight wines had alcohol percentages between 11.9% and 12.9%; the hugely ripe outlier was at 13.6%. All had great freshness, with citrus fruit character rather than the tropical fruits you taste when Chardonnay gets super-ripe.

All spent some time in oak, but not one wine could be called “oaky;” the wood was there to allow some oxygen, not to make the wine taste like vanilla. Similarly, all but one wine had undergone malolactic fermentation, but none were buttery.

The key to making great, long-lasting Chardonnay isn’t an easily marketed shortcut like no-oak, no malo: you won’t find many people in Burgundy doing that. It’s finding the right cool site, not waiting too long to pick, and sweating the details so your drinkers don’t have to.

Goodfellow said, “There are three things we all have the same. Unencumbered decisions. Limited selection. And detailed care. We don’t have a company executive looking over our shoulder asking us when the wine is going to be ready.”

The economics of small lots

Alas consumers, all eight wines were made in lots of 150 cases or less. But they’re worth the search: seven were priced between $22 and $45. And it’s not like the owners are making a huge profit at that. Jay McDonald of EiEiO, who made the most Chablis-like of all the wines, light and taut yet with depth, says of his $45 wine, “I thought I could make some money. I was wrong.” Which also makes it very Portland.

In fact, my best group description was “like Chablis without the chalkiness.” But that doesn’t mean these are all fruit-driven wines.

Thomas Monroe of Division Winemaking Company makes a Chardonnay with so much saline character that it could pass for a seaside-grown grape like Assyrtiko or Albariño. And he does it in a very Portland way: in a collective winery he created on the city’s once-industrial east side, now the home to tiny food businesses everywhere you look.

“I love the (San Francisco) Bay Area, but the economics of starting a wine business wasn’t right,” says Monroe, who had Domaine Drouhin ship Oregon Pinot Noir to his wedding — in a Sonoma County, California vineyard.

Monroe’s space now holds four commercial wineries with a combined capacity of 5000 cases, plus a tasting room. Including winemaking equipment, building and licensing costs, “We did the whole thing for $325,000,” he says. You can’t buy a studio apartment in San Francisco for that.

image001

Finding the vines

The downside for Oregon’s passionate young winemakers like Monroe, 34, is that they can’t afford vineyards. That makes the search for interesting vines much more important.

Monroe credits his Chardonnay’s minerally flavor to the relatively old vines — more than 40 years old — he discovered in Eola Springs Vineyard. “That’s my reason for working with older vines,” he says. “They’re in different strata of the earth. They figure out where to get water.”

Jim Maresh was lucky enough to grow up on a farm where his grandparents planted grapes. But he says that comes with limitations: his family planted the only Chardonnay clone available at the time. Now, 30 years later, Maresh says there are still only three Chardonnay clones in Oregon.

“Somebody has to go to Burgundy with a suitcase,” Maresh says, though Monroe warns that bringing in a virus could devastate the little bit of Chardonnay the state has. “Winemaking is risk versus reward,” Maresh replied, which seemed to sum up the operating philosophy on Oregon Chardonnay winemaking in general.

Example: Goodfellow has a 2011 Chardonnay in a barrel that, as of this writing, hasn’t gone through malolactic fermentation yet. He’s waiting for it to finish at a time when top California Chardonnays are already in your local wine store.

“At a big producer, they have to rush through fermentation and manipulate the flavor later,” Goodfellow says. “The process of fermentation is our magical process.”

Tyson Crowley of Crowley wines let his Four Winds Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($40, 12.5% alcohol) sit on the lees for 14 months and — here’s something you don’t hear often — he took it out of oak barrels and let it finish fermentation in stainless steel. The wine has terrific mouthfeel, a chewiness that’s almost like tannin. When was the last time you had a Chardonnay you wanted to sink your teeth into?

My favorite of these exciting wines was made by Ken Pahlow of Walter Scott Wines. Unlike most Chardonnay makers around the world these days, Pahlow didn’t cool the grapes at fermentation: he let them ferment warm, with wild yeast, much like they might have decades ago. The result, the 2011 Cuvée Anne ($38), has great complexity, with wheat toast and lemon notes, some stone fruit, and a very long finish. It’s just 12.8% alcohol. “Freshness and purity define what Chardonnay is,” Pahlow says. Maybe in Oregon they do. That’s why the wines are so exciting there.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://palatepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/blake2.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.[/author_info] [/author]

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

  • Bob Shapiro

    Nice article and true. If you get a chance to taste any Cameron Vineyards chards, do it. Winemaker John Paul trained Tyson Crowely (and several other star Oregon wine makers) and makes a knock-out Chablis-like chardonay. Wild yeasts, deep-rooted vines, they’re exceptional!

  • http://bigtablefarm.com clare carver

    Blake – Thank you for taking the time to come to the the event sit on the panel and add your insights! it was nice to have met you briefly… if you are ever back in Oregon please come to the farm. We’d be happy to host you. Best – Clare

  • Pat

    There are some very nice Chardonnays being produced in the Applegate valley area of southern Oregon. Wooldrige Creek makes particularly well crafted, balanced and affordable bottling from their estate in the Applegate. I have some experience making Chardonnay grown right on rivers edge in the Applegate;The wines were vibrant & ripe at relatively low Brix (22.5-23%) The 2006 vintage even won a Gold medal at the Rays boat house wine competition up in Seattle!

  • http://beausbarrelroom.blogspot.com Beau

    Nice writeup on some of the great examples of chardonnays we have in this state. I would agree that the Cameron bottlings are worth seeking out, as is Domaine Drouhin’s Arthur. I think part of why we’re seeing more attention for the chardonnays in this state is due to the back to back cool years we had in 2010 and 2011. Those years really allowed the acidity to shine through. I’ve tasted some barrel samples of 2012 chardonnay and they’re definitely trending towards a bit richer and riper styles, with the corresponding higher alcohols.

  • http://www.divisionwinemakingcompany.com Thomas Monroe

    Great meeting you Blake and thanks for coming to check out the OR Chardonnay scene. I agree with Beau that 2010 and 2011 were outstanding vintages for crisp, balanced and lengthy Chardonnays. However, I think 2012 will have much more variation based on vine age, clonal type, picking time, fermentation style, etc. Our wines, while still evolving, finished up between 12.4% and 13.1%.

  • Pingback: Oregon Chardonnay: Rare, Weird and Exciting – Palate Pres | Daily Wine Buzz

  • Bill Haydon

    [[“like Chablis without the chalkiness.”]]

    Ugggh! The chalkiness is the very heart and soul of Chablis; without it you don’t have Chablis!

    To call one’s wine “chablis without the chalkiness” is just pure arrogance and hucksterism….and not too far removed from simply slapping the name itself on a jug of French Colombard.

  • daniel

    Oregon Chardonnay is certainly on the rise both in production and profile… I think the NY Times also had a positive review recently. FYI, there are many more than three Chardonnay clones available in Oregon, cutting edge grapevines lists six Dijon clones and eight FPS (Davis) selections. The grower who mentions suitcase clones should look at whats available… as you mentioned bringing in foreign material could devastate a lot of the state’s own-rooted, older plantings.

  • Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Honoring Bloggers

  • Pingback: Latest Used Commercial Sinks Stainless Steel NewsArticle Directory

  • Erika Szymanski

    Blake, you gave me a few good chuckles over the picture you painted of what we might call “the Oregon Way” (after some hundred-ish year old agricultural extension bulletins I’ve been reading of late). Maybe a Portlandia skit about Chardonnay? Of course, writing and submitting one to the show wouldn’t be very Portland but, then again, you’re in San Francisco. Maybe you could get away with it.

    Thanks for the laughs and the reminder to put some more OR chard in my cellar.

  • Pingback: Oregoin Chard: Not a New Story | Cole Danehower's Essential Northwest Wines

  • Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Little Postcard