Culture: The Near-Death and Resurrection of Willamette Valley Chardonnay | Wine Enthusiast
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The Near-Death and Resurrection of Willamette Valley Chardonnay

Never has so much enthusiasm been generated by so few vines as it has in Willamette Valley by Chardonnay grapes. The wines made from those grapes are earning the kind of praise, prices and points that have everyone combing the region for available fruit. With only 2,200 acres of Chardonnay planted, it is a daunting task.

“All the fruit in the valley is locked up. If you want more Chardonnay, you have to plant it,” says Josh Bergström, owner and winemaker at Bergström Wines in Dundee, Oregon.

And people are doing just that, as the Willamette Valley’s Chardonnay acreage totals have doubled since 2014. Tai-Ran Niew, an investment banker turned vocal Willamette Valley Chardonnay advocate, is part of that increase. Inspired by Chardonnay’s potential in the Willamette Valley, in 2016, Niew planted a dozen clones and field selections at an elevation of 750–850 feet in the Chehalem Mountains. His five-acre Willamette Valley vineyard might be the only one devoted exclusively to Chardonnay. A decade later, Niew remains impressed by the valley’s Chardonnay scene. “We are already making as good, nuanced, complex and interesting Chardonnays as practically anywhere else in the world,” says Niew.

Oregon’s Chardonnay plantings grew from a handful of acres in the 1960s to 1,603 acres in 1998, almost all of which was located in the Willamette Valley. As some people began doubting plant material and others were drawn to the siren song of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay plummeted as low as 842 acres a few years ago. Now, it’s roaring back to life.

“Willamette Valley Chardonnay is like a fresh start, breathing new life into domestic Chardonnay,” says John Miller, Beverage Director of Harbor House Inn in Elk, California, who has greatly expanded the Willamette Valley Chardonnay offerings at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant the past couple of years. “People have been very receptive, and that part of our list is no longer a graveyard.”

Bergstrom Wines Barrel Close UP
Chardonnay aging in-barrel at Bergström Wines / Image Courtesy of Madeline Rausch

When asked if he detects a buzz when visiting London or Singapore, places he travels often, Niew answers immediately, “Oh yes—it’s quite obvious that Willamette Valley Chardonnay is ‘a thing’ now.”

Bergström points out the whimsy in this, given that “our Chardonnay is such a small niche, yet I find it so compelling that there is this very active conversation about what amounts to 0.07% of America’s wine production.”

This “very active conversation” started with a zigzagging journey marked by happenstance.

Burgundian Fantasies

David Adelsheim, founder of Adelsheim Vineyard, admits thinking in the 1980s that Dijon clones would take them to the next level. “Many of us believed that once we had them, we’d make great wine because we’re close to Burgundy, or whatever our fantasies were,” Adelsheim says, referring to the two regions’ similar location on the 45th parallel.

When Montrachet was not replicated in Newberg, Adelsheim describes a “post-clone story” in three parts: It begins in 2007 when French winemaker Dominique Lafon arrived in Oregon to consult for Evening Land Vineyards (ELV).

Lafon convinced ELV’s owners to eschew riper fruit for earlier pick dates. Those acid-driven ELV Chardonnays caught the attention of Portland sommelier Erica Landon, now general manager and founding partner of Walter Scott Wines.

“When I first tried ELV’s Chardonnays, they blew me away. They got massive scores and attention, with people saying, ‘Oh wow’—you could blind taste them with great Burgundy and no one would know it’s Oregon,” Landon recalls.

Winemaker Gina Hennen, left and David Adelsheim taste wine at the Adelsheim Winery on Monday, November 25, 2019 in Newberg, Ore.
Winemaker Gina Hennen and David Adelsheim / Image Courtesy of Adelsheim Vineyard

But alas, finding a clonal match alone would not be enough. “For consumers today, the clone isn’t the biggest question, it’s what the winemaker considers ripe,” says Adelsheim, “and, as a result, when they are picking their grapes.”

With her husband, Ken Pahlow, Landon founded Walter Scott Wines in 2008. Their focus was on Pinot Noir. At the time, Landon says they didn’t think it was even remotely possible to be commercially successful by making mostly Chardonnay in Oregon.

In 2010, Pahlow took a position with ELV that proved eye-opening. “Working with Dominique Lafon, Isabelle Meunier and their team showed Ken what was possible with Chardonnay in the vineyard and the cellar. That’s when we started looking for Chardonnay fruit,” Landon says.

Just don’t slap the label “early pickers” on Walter Scott.

Landon says it’s not about picking early and chaptalizing up—adding sugar during fermentation to increase alcohol. Farming decisions involving shoot thinning and lower yields are critical. “When you’re not pushing vines to ripen fruit you don’t intend to pick, you get fruit with a low pH and really high natural acids. But the sugar levels are all at 13% potential alcohol, which is normal for a white wine.”

Lafon’s Oregon arrival was equally appreciated by Bergström, who had just released his first Sigrid Chardonnay for $75. When ELV released their 2007 Summum Chardonnay for over $100 a bottle, Bergström saw it as a green light to do the same with Sigrid. These were powerful statements that Chardonnay deserved the respect bestowed upon Pinot Noir.

Take Your Pick

Part two of this story involves a late 2011 Oregon vintage that allowed Bergström to head to Burgundy to work harvest. With plenty of days of sunshine left, Bergström heard Etienne Sauzet’s winemaker Benoît Riffault call for a pick. “I thought he was squandering hang time. I was used to picking Chardonnay when the fruit flavors were yellow delicious apples, ripe pears, honey, etc. These tasted like Lemonhead candies and lime and made my mouth pucker.”

Back home, Bergström sought natural acidity and the point at which the fruit’s physiological ripeness coincided with flavors and, as Bergström describes it, “a certain chemistry which leaned more toward lending importance to acids than sugars.”

Old vines Chardonnay at The Eyrie Vineyards Location: The Eyrie, Dundee Hills, Yamhill County, Oregon, USA Photographer credit: David Krug Year: 2012
Old vine Chard clusters at Eyrie Vineyards / Image Courtesy of David Krug

Adelsheim says people respond positively to this freshness and balance between succulence, natural acidities and texture. Bergström calls it a prerequisite to this “Chardonnay renaissance” everyone is talking about. “It doesn’t happen unless we show people we’re not California or Burgundy. We’re showing the world that Willamette Valley Chardonnay is unique and worthy of people’s attention and investment,” Bergström says.

More than a few Willamette Valley producers reached similar conclusions about pick dates, farming and chemistry thanks to a series of technical tastings organized by Adelsheim Vineyard between 2015 and 2019.

At the time, Adelsheim Vineyard was dropping Pinot Gris to expand its Chardonnay program. With little estate Chardonnay of its own, it would take a lot of cellar visits for David Adelsheim to map out a plan of action. An employee suggested inviting winemakers to bring barrel samples and technical sheets to one big tasting to save time.

The sheets listed in minute detail how the wines were made, including pick dates, without revealing the winemaker’s identity. What evolved from the tasting series, according to Adelsheim, was a spontaneous movement toward “racy, minerally wines on a high wire at lower Brix and pH levels than we had done previously.”

Josh opening Old Stones Chardonnay
Josh Bergström focuses on acidity / Image Courtesy of Kelsey Chance

A Long Way From ABC

Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards says the Willamette Valley is beginning to occupy the niche of people looking for more deftness, balance and what he calls “less unctuous representations.” According to Lett, it’s like being back in the ABC days when you’d pour Chablis for someone who said they hated Chardonnay and they’d say, “Oh, this is delicious, what is it?”

It’s a niche the Lett family’s wines have occupied for decades. His father, David Lett, started Oregon’s Chardonnay conversation by planting four acres of Draper clones in the ground nearly 60 years ago.

Lett also offers the following observation: “I feel like a region’s maturity with a variety is reflected in the diversity of expression rather than the similarity.”

Lett says the success of this current renaissance is also determined by people he considers winemaking outliers, like Jim Arterberry of Arterberry Maresh and John Paul of Cameron Winery. Or Seth Morgen Long of Morgen Long, likely the only winemaker in the Willamette Valley who makes only Chardonnay. “I cringe when he uses all of that new oak, but damn are his wines tasty,” Lett says.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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