hot times for cool climate chardonnay

Sunday, May 05, 2013

I spent the weekend at Durant Vineyards, in the heart of the Red Hills of Dundee. The occasion was the second annual Oregon Chardonnay Symposium, and I was a guest panelist, along with blogger W. Blake Gray and moderator Katherine Cole, the wine columnist for The Oregonian. The event was organized by Paul Durant and Meaghan Burns (Broussard Communications), and the glorious, sunny weather had everyone in a festive mood.

What had initially piqued my interest was the opportunity to meet the “new wave of artisan producers” promised by the organizers. And there was no doubt, after an engaging two hour tasting and discussion, that the eight participating winemakers were the real stars of the show.

Of the group present, I’d met one or two, corresponded with another, and heard about – though had not tasted – roughly half the wines. It really wasn’t that surprising that they were unknown to me, as the biggest production among the eight wines presented was a whopping 150 cases.

While my attention over the past decade has been largely fixated on the astonishing growth taking place in Washington, Oregon has been in the midst of similar expansion and experimentation. And as in my home state, most of the new Oregon wineries are artisanal in scale, scope and methodology. If you want to see what’s going on around here, you have to come visit.

In that regard, the Chardonnays presented, and the lively discussion that accompanied them, was not the most impressive part of the weekend. It was more of a catalyst, inspiring further discoveries. Pinot Noirs, Pinot Blancs, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir Blancs, myriad rosés and of course plenty of Chardonnays were poured at the more informal gatherings that followed the Symposium. Most of the wines were from the cool 2011 vintage, and let me say right now that whatever scores ‘The Press’ (meaning Parker and that California magazine) may put on this vintage, to me it is a game changer, and one of the very best I have ever seen in Oregon.

Why? Because the wines that these producers and many others are releasing from 2011 are vivid, elegant, nuanced, varietally-grounded, site-specific, balanced, aromatic and in many instances cellar-worthy. The alcohol levels rarely top 13.5%, and most of the white wines are a point lower. Yet they are fully ripened and flavorful.

In my next post I’ll do a longer re-cap of the Symposium discussion, which focused on clones, yeasts (mostly wild or a mix of wild and inoculated), fermentation practices (mostly slow and cold) and cooperage (little or no new oak but plenty of extended fermentation in neutral barrels).

Jim Maresh of Arterberry Maresh presented the only older Chardonnay, a 2005 from the Maresh vineyard. It was nutty and mature, but certainly drinking nicely, with good color. It far outshone some very pricey 2005 Burgundies that appeared later, and suffered alarmingly from premature oxidation. Maresh adamantly defended his vineyard, planted to the 108 clone (a relative of the mostly-discarded Wente clone) and briskly attacked the Dijon clones that most wineries were using.

Isabelle Dutarte, who makes wine for Durant as well as her own 1789 label, drew a round of applause when she answered a particularly technical question by saying (in heavily French-accented English) “Wines are like kids, they do what they want sometimes. It’s something alive there; there is a soul. You have to listen to them; if you push too much it doesn’t work.”

I will put up more highlights and tasting notes in my next post. Below are links to the eight wineries that attended. I would be remiss if I were not to thank my hosts, Ken and Paul Durant, whose vineyards, tasting room, Red Ridge Farms nursery and olive mill provided the lovely background to the event, and whose Stoneycrest Cottage was our lodging. A more lovely getaway in the heart of Oregon wine country I cannot imagine.

A special thanks also to Erica Landon, Wine Director for the Bruce Carey Restaurants, who organized an ancillary tasting of Pinot Blancs (for an upcoming Wine Enthusiast feature); and to Scott Minge, the manager at Dundee’s Paulée restaurant. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Portland is the center of culinary innovation in the Northwest, and the benefits have certainly echoed through nearby wine country. Our meal at Paulée was replete with delicious, inventive, unfussy and healthy choices, and the extensive wine list featured a generous range of by-the-glass pours. Paulée certainly belongs right at the top of the growing ranks of fine dining experiences in the northern Willamette valley.

Red Ridge Farms

Paulée Restaurant

Arterberry Maresh

Big Table Farm


Division Wine

Durant Vineyards

EIEIO & Company


Walter Scott


stevemcn said...

Paul, check your link for Arterbery Maresh. Looks incorrect, should be this:

stevemcn said...

Another incorrect link for Division Wine:


PaulG said...

Steve, thanks for the fixes. I was copying information given me; then traveling with no internet for the past day or so. Sorry for the errors; no fixed.

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