Food & Drink

Oregon chardonnay is coming into its own

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

Pinot noir is the undeniable star of Oregon wine. Given that pinot often grows alongside chardonnay — the classic example is Burgundy — you’d think that Oregon would also be known for chardonnay.

Not so. For years, chardonnay struggled. Pinot gris and riesling grabbed the limelight.

Now Oregon chardonnay is coming into its own. Vintners found clones that are better suited to the cool Willamette Valley, and they’ve refined their winemaking. The resulting wines can be stunning and vibrant, with a common thread: refreshing natural acidity. Fruit flavors tend toward citrus, apple and white stone fruit, rather than the tropical fruit that you find in many California chardonnays.

“I think we’re making some amazing chardonnay,” says Jesse Lange, winemaker for his family’s Lange Estate. “I’m really bullish on the variety.”

Chardonnay got off to a slow start when Oregon’s first vineyards were planted in the late 1960s and early ’70s, because the concept of clones wasn’t well understood. Since a lot of Oregon’s wine pioneers came from California, they planted vines from the Golden State. But the growing conditions in the Willamette Valley are quite different, with fall weather that’s cooler and wetter. Chardonnay often didn’t get ripe.

In the 1980s, vintners heard about new clones that had been developed in Burgundy for more marginal growing conditions and set about trying to get some vines. Oregon State University agreed to get the necessary permits to import cuttings; the French agreed to provide the vines. Vintners in Oregon (as well as in California) started planting the “Dijon clones” in 1990.

Now that vintners had chardonnay that would ripen reliably, they took another look at their winemaking. “I feel that a lot of the problems with Oregon chardonnay were our own fault” because the wines were too oaky, says Jason Lett, whose father, the late David Lett, founded Eyrie Vineyards in 1966.

Although most Oregon vintners are using the newer chardonnay clones, Eyrie Vineyards has stuck to the old ways. As Jason tells the story, David Lett found “some particular chardonnay he was fond of from Spring Mountain” above the Napa Valley and brought the vines to Oregon.

Whether made from old clones or new, today’s Oregon chardonnays can be outstanding. The 2011 Eyrie “Original Vines” Reserve Chardonnay ($45), made from the old clones, is lemony and persistent, with some toasty notes. The 2012 Lange Three Hills Cuvee Chardonnay ($38) is fleshy, with lemon, apple, mineral, some creaminess and a firm core of acidity. The unoaked 2012 Chehalem INOX Chardonnay ($19), is fresh and crisp, with apple, white peach and a persistent finish. The latter three are made from Dijon clones.

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