Guest article by Neal D. Hulkower
The North, South, East and West of Oregon Chardonnay
The seminar which launched the 2017 Oregon Chardonnay Celebration at The Allison in
Newberg on 25 February took us on a tour. Ray Isle, executive wine editor of Food & Wine,
served as moderator and guide as we went “Roadtripping through Oregon Chardonnay Country.”
“People overlook how incredibly complex the wines can be,” Isle asserted. He quoted
winemaker Anna Matzinger who observed that a “high amount of intellectual capital is being
applied to Chardonnay in Oregon.” Five distinct examples from around the state substantiated
Bob Morus of Phelps Creek Vineyards near Hood River represented the East. His 2014
“Lynette” Chardonnay had a pretty floral and fruity aroma and was sleek on the palate with nice
acidity and salinity.
Luisa Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards in the northern part of the Willamette Valley advised that you
“want to catch [Chardonnay] right before it tastes great.” Her 2014 Aurora Chardonnay had a
toasty, fruity and nutty nose and a rich, balanced flavor.
Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra gets her Chardonnay from Shea Vineyard in the Western side
of the Willamette Valley. She admitted that she doesn’t “know how to pick before it tastes
good.” Instead she picks part when the acid is good then lets the clusters sit to let the flavors
develop. The 2014 Aurata Chardonnay offered complex aromas of oak and fruit in an elegant
dance. Similarly, the beautiful palate was rich and evolving, with a long, layered finish.
Heading a bit south, we heard from Ken Pahlow of Walter Scott. The 2015 X Novo Chardonnay
is from a young vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills planted to fifteen clones. The nose was
dominated by toast and nuts but with air, spice and fruit emerged. The balance and acidity were
nice but there was little fruit on the palate. It was clear that more time is needed.
The tour ended in Southern Oregon. Bryan Wilson of DANCIN Vineyards discussed his 2015
“Melange” Chardonnay from grapes grown at an average of 1800 feet elevation. Initially muted,
the wine sat zaftig on the palate with some juicy fruit and richness but little acidity. Again, this
will benefit from additional aging.
Isle summarized the tour by highlighting the focus, tension and acidity common among the
Chardonnays featured. While elegant is a term that can be fraught since it might mean thin and
lacking power to some, these wines offered both elegance and power.
The Grand Tasting
We adjourned to the Grand Tasting. For two and a half hours, 46 wineries, including the five
featured at the seminar, poured their Chardonnays from either the 2014 or 2015 vintage.
Appetizers including mushroom popovers, deviled eggs, and smoked steelhead trout prepared by
Jory lent savor to balance the acidity and complement the richness of the wines.
In addition to the five served at the seminar, I sampled 28 bottlings. In general and not
surprisingly, the 2014s were less acidic and more fruity. In contrast, the 2015s were better
balanced, immature but showed great promise for age-ability. From the older vintage, the
standouts were the mouth filling offering from Brittan Vineyards; the lemony but lingering
Crowley Wines “Four Winds;” Chehalem’s complex Ian’s Reserve; the sleek Grochau Cellars’
Bunker Hill Vineyard; and the Matzinger Davies and the Evenstad Reserve from Domaine
Serene were two that were particularly food friendly,. Promising Chardonnays from the younger
vintage included the attractive Knudsen, the yummy Fairsing, the bright Big Table Farm, and the
juicy Willamette Valley Vineyards Bernau Block.
It seems that Chardonnay never actually fell completely out of favor despite the now faded
“Anything But…” movement. It remains among the most planted grape varieties in the world,
second among whites to the Spain’s Airén. Naturally, as with Pinot Noir, Oregon winegrowers
have looked East to Burgundy rather than South to California in search of models of Chardonnay
greatness. What we now are seeing is beginnings of the payoff of the “intellectual capital” that is
being expended up and down the state. While there will never be a single style of Chardonnay in
Oregon, just as there isn’t in the Côte-d’Or, it is more distinguished and distinguishable from
what comes from California. No buttered popcorn or oak splinters here. Instead, balance and
acidity are king. This structure suggests greater age-ability, most recently for the vintage 2015
bottlings. The good news is that more producers around the state are embracing the grape, even
grafting over the less profitable Pinot Gris to it. If things keep up as they have been, Oregon
Chardonnay will be ready for a Cole Porter style tribute:
I love the smell of you, the lure of you
The fruit of you, the pure of you
The nose, the legs, the mouth of you
The east, west, north and the south of you
I’d love to gain complete control of you
And handle even the heart and soul of you
So love, at least, a small percent of me, do
For I love all of you
Neal Hulkower is a mathematician and an oenophile living in McMinnville, Oregon. His wine
writing has appeared in a wide range of academic and popular publications including the Journal
of Wine Research, the Journal of Wine Economics, Oregon Wine Press, Practical Winery &
Vineyard, Wine Press Northwest, and The World of Fine Wine. Occasionally, he can be found
pouring quintessential Pinot noir at the top of the Dundee Hills.