Chardonnay from Oregon is experiencing a resurgence as the new star wine in the region. For publication in the week starting 27 March 2017.
Chardonnay will soon overtake Pinot Gris as the main white grape in Oregon, the state regarded as the home of premium wines on America’s west coast.
Oregon’s output is small by American standards — it makes about 1 per cent of the country’s total — but one in five of wines that received scores of 90 / 100 points or higher from Wine Spectator magazine in the past two years came from that state.
Chardonnay is now the “sexy new thing”. Oregon sits at 45 degrees north, about the same latitude as Burgundy in France. For many years Burgundy was considered the benchmark for Chardonnay, but lately Oregon’s winemakers have focused on creating a style unique to the region.
David Millman, winemaker at Bergstrom Wines, believes Chardonnay needs to be picked early. It was vital to “pick for acid,” he said, because acidity created the structure needed for longevity and quality. “The story goes locally that if you pick your grapes when they taste delicious you’ve waited too long.” Winemakers in Oregon needed to have the courage to “harvest for acidity,” he said.
David Adelsheim, winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyard, said acidity was the winemaker’s “magic ingredient”. “We need to pick soon after the phenolics arrive.” This is winemaker speak for choosing grapes that are ripe chemically without being overly ripe to the point of tasting too tropical.
Adelsheim said Chardonnay initially declined in Oregon because people planted the wrong clones – mainly from California – and these produced the wrong kinds of wines. “Some years Chardonnay never ripened.” A change to clones from Dijon in France had helped remedy the situation, though the key still was to “pick for acid”. He believes a combination of Burgundy clones and a change of approach – making “cool-climate New World wines and not trying to copy Burgundy by over oaking and picking over ripe” – were the reasons Oregon whites were becoming so accepted.
Wines that are high in alcohol, the result of picking late, tend to extract more flavours from oak barrels than wines with lower alcohol (say 12-13 per cent). So by picking early winemakers get the twin benefits of lower alcohol while reducing the need for large amounts of new oak, letting the fruit express itself better.
Eugenia Keegan, general manager and winemaker at Jackson Family Wines in Oregon, said she moved to the state from California two vintages ago because she wanted to make a different kind of Chardonnay. Californian winemakers used too much new oak, she said, which nullified the grape’s natural freshness. She uses about 10 per cent new wood, and keeps wine in old 500-litre foudres rather than 227-litre barriques so oak does not overwhelm the fruit. “My aim is to make the style of wine that will make Chardonnay sexy again.” She was referring to the ABC movement – “anything but Chardonnay” – that still plagues the American market and has become something of a cliche since its arrival about two decades ago.
David Millman said “ABC thinking” still existed in the United States but winemakers in Oregon were in the process of “rehabilitating the market”.
Keegan said Oregon producers were making a wide range of styles from wines with no oak fermented in stainless steel through to barrel-fermented wines with full malolactic fermentation. This last process converts harsh lactic acid to softer malic acid, which makes wines taste more buttery or creamy.
About 28,000 hectares of vines are planted in Oregon. In 1980 the state had almost no vines. Pinot Noir is by far the most planted, with about 62 per cent of the total, with Pinot Gris contributing another 13 per cent. Chardonnay is only 6 per cent of the total but Eugenia Keegan said plantings of Pinot Gris in Oregon were “flatlining” while those of Chardonnay were “growing exponentially”.
Why is Oregon Chardonnay so expensive? Production costs are high. To get the best fruit yields need to be kept deliberately low, which affects the number of bottles that can be sold. Noted Eugenia Keegan: “People need to know that Chardonnay is just as difficult to grow as Pinot Noir in Oregon.”
A tasting of Chardonnays in London in March showed wines that were bright and fresh, with good acidity and judicious use of oak. Most Oregon wine is sold on the domestic market. Why organise a tasting in London? “We are only in the UK to show the quality [of Oregon wine],” David Adelsheim said. “London remains an elite market in the wine world.”
The 2014 Bergstrom Sigrid Chardonnay made by David Millman is an excellent example of the new style, all intense fruit flavours and brightness in the mouth. He uses about 10 per cent new oak and the resulting wine is elegant and delicious.
Millman relates a compelling story about the price of Chardonnay. A few years ago he sold his wine for USD 28 and people tended to ignore it when they came to the cellar door to taste. He realised he was barely covering costs so he trebled the price. “People used to ignore my Chardonnay and taste my three Pinots. Now they say ‘A 70 dollar Chardonnay, I gotta try that’ and then they discover how good our Chardonnay is,” he said with a broad smile.
The 2008 Chehalem Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay showed that this type of wine has the capacity to age. The wine, which was under screw-cap, was still fresh with zingy acid, and tasted like a fresh breeze on a hot and sweaty day. ABC needs to be changed to BBC: Buy beautiful Chardonnay.