Nicolas-Jay in Departures Magazine: Oregon Finally Has a White Wine to Call Its Own
"Oregon’s Willamette Valley is synonymous with pinot noir, but a signature white wine has always remained elusive for the region. However, a new grape is emerging—or re-emerging—and bringing new energy to a global favorite.
Back in the 1960s, when winemakers moved up from California to Oregon, they brought pinot and chardonnay with them. The two varieties are perfect partners in Burgundy; what’s not to love in Oregon? Jason Lett, winemaker and co-owner of Eyrie Vineyards, whose father, David Lett, planted the first chardonnay in Willamette Valley, said the reception to the grape was fairly strong. Although, a few factors quickly knocked chardonnay off its mantle.
The first—and possibly the biggest issue many point to—was clonal material. Chardonnay would be harvested weeks after pinot noir, but still wouldn’t achieve the proper ripeness levels. It wasn’t until David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyards did a winemaking stage in Burgundy that the issue of clones came to light. In France, the chardonnay was being picked at the same time, if not earlier, than pinot noir, and he suspected that the clones brought up from California weren’t the right fit for Willamette Valley’s terroir.
That aforementioned ripeness (or lack thereof)? Also an issue. People’s palates were attuned to the rich and ripe styles of California, and wines like Kendall-Jackson became a north star for winemaking. The influence of Robert Parker also put these bold, fruit-forward styles in vogue. “There was a perception of ripeness about what New World chardonnay should taste like,” says Eugenia Keegan, general manager of Jackson Family Wines for Willamette Valley, which was something Oregon winemakers wouldn’t be able to easily achieve, due to climate and terroir. Oak use became more prevalent, but it still didn’t recreate the popular California style.
As a result, a lot of winemakers ripped up their chardonnay, says Lett, giving more space to pinot noir or pinot gris, another white grape that people thought had potential.
Why Chardonnay, Why Now?
Because of these tribulations, Oregon chardonnay production is tiny. Overall, the state only accounts for about one percent of wine made in the United States, and chardonnay is just five percent of that production, according to Josh Bergström of Bergström Wines. With just a little under 2,000 acres under vine, chardonnay is still a small category—but today, one that’s garnering huge interest. Several estates, like Eyrie, Bergström, and Adelsheim, held steady with chardonnay throughout the decades; their knowledge, coupled with the resurgent interest in the grape and new plantings, is bringing Willamette Valley chardonnay into the limelight.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, building on Adelsheim’s discoveries in Burgundy, the movement to bring over better clones began, spurring one stage of the revolution. With better plant materials, winemakers began refining their vinification and winemaking techniques, which led to further discoveries about the grape’s potential.
Embracing the Land
Dedicating key vineyard sites to chardonnay not only aids in the growing quality of the wines, it shows a winemaker’s commitment to the grape. At Big Table Farm, Clare Carver and her husband Brian Marcy are putting new plantings in places with, “the best aspect, the highest elevation; it’s the most treasured part of the vineyard site, and that’s what we’re giving to chardonnay,” says Carver.
Attention to terroir is also causing winemakers to fine-tune their farming and winemaking and play to the region’s natural strengths. A prominence of marine sedimentary and volcanic soils often bring notes of salinity to the wine. “[One of] the recurring threads of chardonnay across the region is the interplay of fruit and non-fruit,” says Erik Kramer, winemaker at WillaKenzie. For Jay Boberg, co-owner of Nicolas-Jay, who points to Chablis for stylistic comparison of his wines, “acidity is super-important, and we talk about picking dates [frequently].” If picked too late and acidity is lost, it’s a harder problem to rectify.
Recommended Wine: Nicolas-Jay, Bishop Creek Chardonnay, Yamhill-Carlton, 2018
The organically farmed vines were grafted over from pinot gris to chardonnay several years ago and this is the first official vintage from the site. Hints of pear and floral notes meet a richness in the mouthfeel that’s balanced by the bright acidity.
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