Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Oregon Chardonnay

Who wants more chardonnay?

OK, OK, calm down.

One of every five bottles of wine sold in the United States is chardonnay. With nearly 100,000 acres planted to the variety, California is meeting much of that demand. France, Italy, Chile and several other wine regions also are helping out.

Very little chardonnay from Oregon, however, is reaching the nation’s dining tables. Only about 1,200 acres of chardonnay are in Oregon, the same total as in 2001.

This is peculiar because Oregon is widely respected in wine circles for three other varietal wines that thrive in the same kind of cool climate most hospitable to chardonnay – pinot noir, pinot gris and riesling.

Yet, just 5 percent of Oregon’s vineyard land is planted to chardonnay, says Josh Bergstrom, winemaker for his family’s eponymous winery in the Willamette Valley southwest of Portland. A few decades ago, chardonnay accounted for about 25 percent of the state’s vineyard land.

Chardonnay, in short, has had a difficult time gaining recognition in Oregon. Several reasons account for that, say Bergstrom and several other Oregon vintners. Early on, the best strain of chardonnay for Oregon’s cool climate wasn’t planted. Then, several winemakers tried to emulate the blustery California style of chardonnay, going for ripeness and richness over finesse and then complicating the fruit with so much oak and other cellar maneuvers that the grape’s inherent delicate fruit got lost in the resulting mix.

As a consequence, in the 1990s vineyard land in Oregon dedicated to chardonnay and the price-per-ton that the grape fetched dropped, even though consumers across the country were rabid for the stuff.

Oregon’s winemakers haven’t given up on chardonnay, however. Indeed, many of them, including Josh Bergstrom, now expect chardonnay over the next decade or so to challenge pinot gris as the white wine most closely identified with Oregon. Bergstrom is so confident in chardonnay’s prospects that he’s stopped making riesling and pinot gris altogether, varietals for which he was gaining recognition throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“I now only focus on chardonnay,” Bergstrom says. “People wanted me to make a pinot gris and a riesling that were inexpensive and quaffable, which is not conducive for efforts at making world-class wine.” It takes chardonnay to achieve that stature, and toward that goal he makes a Willamette Valley chardonnay that fetches $85 a bottle.

Oregon’s turnaround with chardonnay is due in large part to a new appreciation among farmers and winemakers for strains of the grape better suited for the state’s cool climate. They also are planting chardonnay in choice spots previously reserved for pinot noir. And in styling the fruit into wine they are retreating from the California model, principally by toning down their exploitation of new French oak barrels while capitalizing on the direct fruit flavors and the zingy acidity with which the state’s cool growing season fills the grapes.

Though chardonnay from Oregon can be found in a wide range of styles, many vintners today look more to Burgundy than California for both grape-growing and winemaking cues. While the term “burgundian” itself represents a diversity of styles, Oregon winemakers customarily take it to mean a type of chardonnay that is leaner, fresher and snappier than what typically unfolds from the vineyards and cellars of California.

A Burgundy take on chardonnay is dry rather than even a little sweet. Its flavor is more likely to run to suggestions of apricot, peach and citrus instead of tropical fruit. Descriptors like “flinty” and “minerally” pop up often in talk of the white wines of Burgundy, and now also of the chardonnays of Oregon.

Josh Bergstrom says his winemaking increasingly has been influenced by what he’s learned and experienced in Burgundy, where he’s both studied viticulture and enology and worked the harvest. “I have begun picking at lower sugars, when the peak of aromatic intensity and the ratio between malic and tartaric acids is perfect,” Bergstrom says. “I am not going for an austere style, because I think Oregon does ‘balanced opulence’ very well.”

Not long ago, a group of Oregon winemakers sent me a mixed case of recent chardonnays that they feel show the progress they are making. As I tasted through the selection I was struck by how often I jotted down “burgundian” in my notes. My use of “burgundian” is shorthand for a chardonnay unusually dry, lanky, agile and sharp, at least by California standards. Most were notably aromatic, direct and lingering, and zesty with citric fruit.

From that case, here are six that I especially will be looking for:

• The Eyrie Vineyards 2011 Dundee Hills Reserve Chardonnay ($45): This is where Oregon’s way with chardonnay began, the vineyard that David Lett planted in 1966. Since 2005, his son, Jason Lett, has been the winemaker. He says his goal with chardonnay is to make an interpretation transparent as to place and vintage. Thus, he applies little oak to the wine. The result is a lean, dry chardonnay with sweet and tangy citric fruit from first sniff through its lasting and refreshing finish.

• Chehalem 2012 Willamette Valley Chardonnay ($19): Chehalem winemaker Wynne Peterson-Nedry does Lett one better by not applying any oak at all to her chardonnay. The resulting wine, however, is no less sturdy, while its peachy scent, suggestion of apricot on the palate and notes of petrol and lime in the finish are frank and vivid. Don’t let the bottle’s screwcap fool you into thinking this is a chardonnay meant only for early consumption. Peterson-Nedry predicts it will continue to live and develop for another 15 to 20 years. “With the Dijon clones (of chardonnay), the flavors are so lush that the wine tastes like barrels have been used when they haven’t at all,” says Harry Peterson-Nedry, the winery’s founder and original winemaker.

• Boedecker Cellars 2012 Willamette Valley Chardonnay ($25): The least “burgundian” and the most “Californian” sample in the case, owing to the fermenting of the juice in oak barrels and then the stirring of the wine on its lees, giving it more earthiness and nuttiness, with banana being the most prominent note in its overall tropical-fruit flavor. The wine’s richness is balanced by the nimble acidity for which Oregon wines are celebrated.

• Lange Estate Winery 2012 Willamette Valley Three Hills Cuvee Chardonnay ($38): While slim in build, it nonetheless is muscular and animated in its swagger, the result, perhaps, of the precise juggling that winemaker Jesse Lange practiced in assembling this wine. He drew from three mixed-clone blocks of the vineyard, inoculated with several types of yeast, and used two methods of fermentation, one in French oak barrels, the other tanks of stainless steel. The result is a dry, willowy chardonnay whose brisk acidity underscores the wine’s citric flavor, which runs mostly to lemon and meringue.

• Adelsheim Vineyard 2012 Willamette Valley Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay ($45): This sleek take on chardonnay narrows the concept of Burgundy to Chablis for its flintiness, cold fruit and tingling acidity. Its fruit is fully developed, delivering all sorts of sunshine and antioxidants, but its trellis is fine, supporting all those juicy berries.

 Bergstrom Wines 2012 Willamette Valley Sigrid Chardonnay ($85): My favorite chardonnay in the pack, and I’d no idea of the price before this I reported this article. This is one hefty chardonnay, with mature fruit aromas and flavors suggesting apricots, hazelnuts and peaches. Dense, creamy and complex, it isn’t likely to be mistaken for a California chardonnay largely because of its cinnamon spice, tangy acidity and persistent finish. Josh Bergstrom drew fruit for the wine from five biodynamically farmed vineyards. In its electricity and complexity the wine validates Bergstrom’s confidence that chardonnay ultimately will be the white wine most closely identified with Oregon.