Growers should be selective about the soil they plant grapes in
Not long ago, a friend gave me a bottle of chardonnay from a big-name Oregon producer as a “thank you” gift. Recently, my husband and I opened it with a nice dinner. He asked me what I thought of it, and gave me a surprised look when I answered: “Still expensive, but now it’s pretty good.”
He was puzzled, as perhaps you are, too.
You see, while Oregon has built up a great reputation over the last 40 years making world-class pinot noir, its chardonnay has generally been second-rate. Oh sure, there are exceptions, but in general, Oregon chardonnays were relatively high-priced and not very good.
This was a big surprise to me when I moved here nearly 14 years ago because chardonnay and pinot noir often thrive side by side. In fact, it was one region – Burgundy in France – that made both wines famous. Thus, I wondered, how could Oregon make such fantastic pinot noir and such mediocre chardonnay?
It turns out that I wasn’t the only one surprised by this fact. The people who were growing the chardonnay in Oregon were baffled, as were the scientists who advised them. They seemed to be doing everything right, but the wines didn’t improve. Why?
In recent years, they’ve discovered the secrets. First, if you’re going to plant chardonnay, you need to be selective about the specific place. Not all soil and not all locations are the same. If you’re a gardener, you know what I’m talking about! (My tomatoes do beautifully in my current garden; they hated the prior location)
The second secret to growing good chardonnay grapes was choosing the right clone. Now before we go further, a word or two about “clones” is probably in order. In the wine context, a “clone” is a group of grapevines that share a genetically identical “mother vine.” New vines are created by taking a cutting from a “mother vine.” The result is that the “new” vine is genetically identical to the “mother vine.”
Grapevines mutate over time, just like all other living things. Over time, multiple mutations result in the creation of a new clone. Because grapevines are ancient plants, which have been cultivated for thousands of years, there have been enough mutations to create dozens (or in the case of pinot noir, even hundreds) of “clones” that are all different but still the same type of grape. Each of these different clones produces grapes with slightly different characteristics – some related to flavor and some related to tolerance of or sensitivity to weather or climate conditions.
In the case of chardonnay, early Oregon producers didn’t really understand the significance of chardonnay clones. They simply obtained chardonnay cuttings from their closest neighbors – California. They figured that since these vines were yielding great wine in California, they’d probably yield great wine in Oregon. The problem was that the California clone was successful in California in large part because it was adapted to a warm climate – the precise weather it found in Napa and Sonoma. It needed more warmth and a longer growing season than Oregon could provide. Thus, it yielded grapes – and therefore wines – that never ripened to their full potential. The wines tasted thin, flat and uninteresting.
Given the quality of the wines and the relatively high prices, I have avoided Oregon chardonnay over the years.
I had heard several times in the couple of years that Oregon winegrowers were making great strides in chardonnay and that the quality of the wines had improved dramatically. But until my friend gave me that fancy bottle, I hadn’t been willing to gamble on a bottle. Fortunately for me, my friend was willing to gamble.
The wine was beautiful. It was elegant and complex with mineral notes, stone fruit, hazelnut and orange blossom flavors. In short, it was excellent – though at $32, I still think it’s expensive.
But it got me wondering about and trying some other Oregon chardonnays. I was delighted with what I found. And while generally, Oregon chardonnay is still more expensive than many of its California cousins, good ones can be found for less than $20. Here are a few easy-to-find ones that I recommend (in alphabetical order).
A to Z Wineworks Oregon Chardonnay ($15): Crisp green apples and mineral flavors, together with some floral notes make this a lovely wine. Great for sipping on a warm afternoon.
Eola Hills Oregon Chardonnay ($12 and available locally): Crisp pear and tropical fruit flavors blend nicely with some toasty hazelnut notes.
King Estate Oregon Chardonnay ($15): Nice citrus and green apple flavors.
Rex Hill Oregon Chardonnay ($18 and available locally): One of the most complex I’ve tasted. Nectarines and vanilla, with nice acidity and a hint of minerality.
Chardonnay is a good “gap” wine as we transition from summer to fall. As a white wine, it’s still light enough for summer. But as a wine with some structure and heft to it, it’s full enough for cooler weather. So, as you contemplate the shortening days, grab one of these bottles and discover for yourself how far Oregon chardonnay has come.